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A SEVERE LIFE NECESSARY FOR CHRIST’S FOLLOWERS.
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, arid follow me.”
WE read in the Gospels both of St. Matthew and of St. Mark, that this startling precept was given at the time when Peter had been sternly rebuked for his misguided affection for his Lord. It was at the same time, when in the foresight of His coming agony, the Lord Jesus began to teach them what things the Son of man should suffer; and Peter, in the forwardness and blindness of his heart, “took Him, and began to rebuke Him, saying, Be it far from Thee, Lord: this shall not be unto Thee. But He turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” And then, to shew the breadth of this great law of suffering, and how that the law which reached even unto Him bound also every living soul that followed Him, He said unto them all, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” And thus, by words between a proverb and a prophecy, He foreshewed them both His own lot and theirs: He taught them the mysterious order of His unseen kingdom; how that He and His must all alike suffer, all deny self, all bear the cross. Again and again, through His whole ministry, He threw out this strange lure to win them more closely to Himself. It was so He strengthened His followers against the rending asunder of households and of kindred: it was so He tempered the over-ready eagerness of some that would follow Him before they had reckoned up the cost; it was so He sought to bind the rich young man for ever to His service, by one more, and that the last and strongest link. And the same deep truth we trace throughout the whole texture of His words and deeds: His own visible self-denial, and the cross which He daily bore, alike bespoke the lot of all that would be His. And what His life ever testified, He here expressly declared. And His words are both a bidding and a warning: they bid us that we come after Him; they warn us that we must deny ourselves; and they teach us that self-denial is the absolute condition of His service: or, in other words, that without self-denial no man can be a faithful Christian.
And how universally this great condition has been fulfilled in all His true servants, is shewn by the whole history of the Church. The apostles, martyrs, confessors, bear witness with one voice to the same mystery of suffering. They testify that the badges of Christ’s people are sufferings for Christ’s sake; and even they to whom it was given to believe in Christ, but not to suffer for Him, the fellowship of all saints, conspire in the same awful testimony. They have each one borne the cross—each in his own unnoticed way; even though the nighest to them, it may be, knew it not: in some hidden grief, in some despised affliction, in some thing they burned to utter, but never dared to speak. Though the form of their affliction was invisible, yet they visibly bore the cross; and in bearing it, they shewed whose steps they followed. The character which was upon them was a legible countersign of their claim to be His servants. They had about them an integrity and completeness of the moral life, a fulness and distinctness of character; standing out from the world around, and yet dwelling in it; separate, and yet mingled in it; in contact with it, but unsullied by its touch; external to it, but guiding and checking its course; moving it, but not borne along with it; though in most things like other men, and to most eyes undistinguishable among the throng which gathers in kings palaces, or learned schools, or busy marts, yet to eyes whose sight is purged bearing most visible tokens of their Master’s calling. We see in them the mind of Christ; the high dignity of an austere calmness; a greatness of soul which the world’s busy fretfulness could seldom ruffle; a voluntary disentanglement from all the world counts dearest; a habitual self-mastery in foregoing honours, gains, and happiness, in choosing hardness, contempt, and isolation. By these the saints of all ages bear their witness to this great law of Christ’s regenerate kingdom, that without self-denial no man can serve Him.
But we must go further. Our Lord does not only tell us that this shall be so, but that it must be so. “Whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” It is not so much a general fact in the history of Christendom, as an universal law working out its own fulfilment. It is no accidental dispensation or arbitrary condition imposed upon the Church by the will of Him we serve, but the inevitable law of a deep moral necessity; for it is not more certain that without holiness no man can serve Him, than that without self-denial no man can be holy. And so it must be from the nature of mankind, and the nature of Christ’s service. For what is man’s nature but sinful flesh? and what His service but a sharp corrective? What is man’s sin but the domination of self-will? and what is the corrective but its abasement and abolition? What is each several characteristic form of sin, but self-will lusting on every side, and predominantly in some one direction? and what is our enfranchisement from sin, but the quelling of sinful lusts by Christ’s Spirit working in us through self-denial? No two powers can be more antagonist than man’s nature and Christ’s service; and the struggle issues, as either power prevails, in apostacy or in self-denial.
We will take one or two particular proofs of this moral necessity.
1. In the first place: without crossing and denying ourselves, there can be no purifying of the moral habits. Without a true compunction and a tender conscience, purity of heart, and the energy of a devout mind set free from the thraldom of evil, no man can have fellowship with Christ; and no man can have these without self-denial. There hangs between Him and the soul which is sullied by permitted lusts, a dark and impenetrable veil. No holy lights stream through upon it; no softening influence pierces the inner gloom; no invitations from above draw up the sullen mind towards heaven; no yearnings of heart stretch forth their hands unto God; the whole inmost soul is bent into a challenging array, or chilled by cold estrangement from God’s holy presence. And so it must be in every man while his moral habits are not purified; and, though there may be many shades, some of a more and some a less pronounced and settled character, yet there are, after all, only two main classes. A man must either deny or indulge himself. There is no middle or indifferent state—for the not denying is indulgence; it is throwing the reins on the neck of his lusts, though he may lack boldness to set the spur; it is rather the want of self-denial, than any conscious and deliberate purpose of sinning, that solves the case of most habitual sinners. Positive sins gather and fester in the untended moral habit before men are aware that they have so much as gained an entrance. It may be, they never sought the sin; they were not forward in the temptation; they did not invite it; they were minded not to indulge it; it may be, they were somewhat troubled at it—only they did not deny it; and so the plague fastened upon them. Out of these beginnings issue oftentimes the most settled and deliberate forms of vice, which either so blind men’s hearts that they cannot trace Christ’s footsteps, or utterly turn them back from following Him—sometimes for ever.
2. And so, again, even with those who have for a while followed His call, how often do we see the fairest promise of a high and elevated life marred for want of constancy! They had no endurance, because they had no self-denial. What is more common than to see men whose earlier years have been shielded from the grosser contact of evil, or whose manhood has been, for a season, overcast by some heavy chastening—such men outwardly consistent, it may be, for years, and yet at last shrinking from hardness, and weary of His correction. They endure for a while; but in time of temptation, by change of lot, or by some new condition of life, such as wealth or elevation, or by some sifting trial, fall away. And what is it but the lack of self-denial which brings out such moral anomalies as we daily see? As, for instance, men of excited sensibility, with hearts impenetrably hard; or with benevolent impulses, but merciless through self-indulgence; or with devout minds, but soft, and without fibre enough to wrestle for the truth; or full of good intentions, but so flexible as to accomplish nothing, so languid as to hold fast by nothing. A self-sparing temper will make a man not only an utter contradiction to his Lord, but even to himself. Only let difficulties gather and hedge him in, and, though honest in the feeble longings of his heart, he will compromise himself with petty equivocations, or crooked dealing, just within the verge of self-evident duplicity; or he will explain away his meaning, and wear down the severe truth of his principles, and come out of the trial no better than a worse man would issue from a like temptation.
3. And still further; without self-denial there can be no real cleaving of the moral nature to the will of God. I say real, to distinguish between the passive and seeming attachment of most baptised men, and the conscious, energetic grasp of will by which Christ’s true disciples cleave to their Master’s service. The faith of many is no more than a torpid, immature assent to things they cannot deny. There is no act of the will in it. They pay a cheap tribute in the understanding, to buy off the obedience of their hearts. They know the Gospel to be logically true; but their moral nature has at the most a dull, flitting sympathy with the world unseen. They rather gaze after Christ than follow Him. And so they linger on through life, dreaming of self-denial: and are all the harder to be roused, because they are so invincibly persuaded that their dream is a reality. And yet, after all, they have never once stirred themselves to so great an effort as to make a choice between Christ’s service with its cross, and a smooth easy path with no crown in heaven. They have but listened without gainsaying; or lived without great swervings from the first principles of right. It may be, they have looked on while the Church celebrates her mysteries: they have been assessors at her worship, and spectators at her fasts and festivals: at the most, they have gazed upon the visible form of her rites and sacraments. But all this is external to the will. They have chosen nothing, and grasped nothing. They have been encompassed by a system, but not incorporated with it.
For these, and for many more like reasons, it is plain that, if any man will be a true follower of his Lord, and live after the Exemplar to which in his regeneration he was pledged, he must needs put this yoke upon himself. “The disciple is not above his Master.” The whole earthly life of Him we follow; the whole history of His Church, thick set with the shining lights of His true servants; the holiness of our calling; and the sin that dwells within us,—all alike declare that we must make choice between self-indulgence and His service. It is self-evident, and inevitable; and by this law our probation is brought to a simple but a fearful issue. Either we are now, at this time, denying ourselves, or we are not Christ’s disciples in that deep inward sense which all but shuts out the many who by baptism are made His. And that we may as certain whether it be so with us, we have need to ask:
First, in what do we deny ourselves? It would be very hard for most men to find out what one thing, in all the manifold actings of their daily life, they either do or leave undone simply for Christ’s sake. The greater number of men live lives of mere self-pleasing. They take the full range of all things not absolutely forbidden. They live ever on the very verge of license, and within a hair’s-breadth of excess. Such, for instance, as live at ease with large revenues, and a full fare, and costly furniture, and a retinue of friends—filling a large field in the world’s eye. To such men the burden and the sharpness of the cross are strange, uneasy thoughts. They feel the antipathy of their whole inner being to the severe happiness of a Christian life. They would fain break through the heavy bonds which weigh upon the sated soul; but the weariness of the work, and the perpetual recurrence of the toil, is too much for them; and they sink back with the sluggard’s portion of baffled wishes and a declining hope.
Again; there are many who fare more hardly—who have fewer offers of this world’s favour, and accept them sparingly; and they would seem to be of a self-denying cast: but after all, it is no more than the self-imposed bondage of an earthly soul, wearying itself for some mere earthly purpose. Carefulness about money, love of praise, rivalry, ambition, a reckless and turbulent spirit, a desire to be thought self-denying and severely religious, will often throw out a character which may be mistaken for self-denial: and self-denial in one sense it is. Such men pursue their deliberate aim with a concentration of powers, and a putting forth of energies, which might win for them a high place in God’s kingdom. They will renounce every thing which can relax the intension of the mind; they lay out time, toil, substance; they forego ease, pleasure, the gifts of life and home, to reach some aim on which the gaze of their heart is fastened. And yet, after all, it may be no more than a miserly greediness to amass a fortune, or the lust of power, or an earthly vanity to make a family, or the love of some poor proximate end, which shall perish on this side of the resurrection. And so, perhaps, with each one of us, it would be hard, after separating off all things which a craving for men’s favourable judgment, respect for our own interest, the promptings of a more refined regard for self, produces, to trace out any one thing which we do or forego simply and altogether for the sake of Christ. This is all the harder to discern in lives that are disciplined by the happy order of a system such as ours. We live in an age which does homage to propriety of conduct. All things around check and restrain us; all the lesser moralities of life chasten and throw us in upon ourselves, and bring us so near to the likeness of self-denial, that we may well seem, even to our own eyes, to be self-denying. And yet, after all, if we can find nothing less ambiguous by which to verify our claim to be Christ’s true followers, no seal, or countersign, of that service which has left its visible impression on all the fellowship of saints—ours must be a fearful self-deceiving. Surely, if we have no mark upon us which He will own, when “the sign of the Son of Man” shall be revealed—no imprinted tokens of His sharp crown, or of His sharper cross—how then shall they know us for His, who shall be sent to gather His elect from the four winds of heaven?
2. And if we cannot find any thing in which we deny ourselves already, we must needs resolve on something in which we may deny ourselves hence forward. And in resolving, we should remember that it is a poor self-denial which foregoes only in expedient or unnecessary things. These are not the subject-matter of self-denial. It is in things lawful and innocent, and, it may be, gainful and honourable, and in keeping with our lot in life, and such things as the world, by its own measure, esteems to be necessary things, that we may really try ourselves: as, for instance, in living more simply than our station in life may prescribe, or our fortune require; in withdrawing from contests of precedence; in contenting ourselves with a lower place, and a less portion, than is our acknowledged due; in living toilsome lives of well-doing, when we might do well and yet live without toiling;—in these, or in points of the like kind, we may find matter for self-denial, and that in many ways. A man may either deny himself greatly, and once, so that his whole after-life shall bear the marks of it,—as in giving up some high and luring offer, and choosing a lowlier and a simpler one; in foregoing some dearly cherished purpose, that he may be more absolutely His; in crossing some deep yearning of the heart, that he may have more to lay out in His service: or he may so order his self-denial as to make it a daily and continual sacrifice; he may so mete out his acts as to spread them over a wider surface, and along a more protracted time; which is, indeed, like retaining what we have, and administering it by a continual stewardship, compared with the selling at one cast all that we possess.
And we must remember that, besides these universal obligations, which bind Christians in all ages of the Church, there are also particular and special reasons binding us more strongly now. We have need to lay some such yoke upon ourselves, because we have to pass through no persecution for our Lord. We have no rending choice to make, no forfeiture of all things to endure. We should suffer rather, were we to forsake His service. All the prescriptions of nearly two thou sand years, and all the unwritten customs of life, constrain us to follow Him. We were made His servants by no will of our own: we may seem to abide with Him, and yet have no clinging of our moral nature to His holy fellowship. Our Christianity is indistinguishably blended with the unconscious habits of our passive life. We have never been tested, never in peril for our hope’s sake, never forced to choose between suffering and apostacy. And therefore, under the fairest seeming, there may lurk a fearful, variable temper, which, in the day of trial, would betray the Lord, and forfeit the crown of life. We have little opportunity of knowing whether we could endure hardness, save by putting ourselves upon some trying rule. Perhaps many live and die unknown to themselves, fully persuaded that they are what indeed they are not: many think themselves to be His, who will not be found among “Christ’s at His coming.” And there is still a further reason, and that is, because the Church imposes on her members no private and particular discipline. Their self-denial, therefore, is the individual act of each. The framing of our own private order of religion is, for the most part, left to the individual conscience. And for minds of a devoted cast, it may be, this is well. It may elicit higher forms of a more conscious self-oblation. But we have need to look to it, that what the Church does not peremptorily require, we do not forget to practise. For the health of the moral character, it is absolutely necessary that we have some definite rule; and we have no need to strain after great occasions—for our every-day life abounds in manifold opportunities of self-discipline: we shall find them in the hours of prayer, in the practice of charity, in alms-deeds, in fasting, in abstinence, in straitening our ease, in abstaining from lawful, and to ourselves expedient, things for others sakes, in curbing our pleasures, in bearing slander, in forgiving injuries, in obeying our superiors, in yielding to our equals, in giving up our liberty for the good of others, in crossing the daily intentions of our will. In these inward and hidden motions of the mind we may keep clear both from excitement and from eccentricity, and yet live a life mortified and separate from the world we see, and in sympathy with the world unseen. And the man thus purged of self is drawn ever more and more within the veil; the realities of faith stand out ever more and more before his eyes in awful majesty; and he lives no more unto himself, but unto Christ his Lord. He is ever drawing nearer to His throne; and his shall be a calm lot on earth, and a high destiny in heaven, even as his that said, “Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus;”2424 Gal. vi. 17. and, in the clear foresight of his departure, when the toil and the cross were almost ended, “Hence forth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge shall give me at that day.”2525 2 Tim. iv. 8.
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