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SINS OF INFIRMITY.
“Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
THESE words of our Lord in the garden, when He came from His agony and found the apostles asleep, are very sorrowful and touching. They shew an ineffable depth of tenderness and compassion. He uttered neither reproach nor complaint at their unseasonable slumber; but only, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” and He turned away all thought from Himself to them; and, for their own sakes, bade them “watch and pray,” for that their trial was at hand. Now in this we have a wonderful example of the love of Christ. How far otherwise we should act in such a case, we all well know. When any seem to us to be less keenly awake to the trial we may happen to be undergoing, we are above measure excited, as if some great wrong were done to us. There is nothing we resent so much as the collected manner of those who are about us in our afflictions. If they still seem the same when we are so changed—even if they can still be natural, feel common interests, and take their wonted rest, we feel exceedingly aggrieved, and almost forget our other trial, in the kindling of a sort of resentment. We have here, then, a wonderful pattern of gentleness and forgetfulness of self; for if ever there was a season of sorrow to any born of woman, it was the hour of agony in the garden. It seems strange to us how His disciples could have slept at such a time. They had but then left the upper chamber, where they had seen and heard all the sad words and acts of that last passover; they had heard Him saying, “With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer;” and little as they understood the full meaning of that mystery of sorrow, yet from His way of speaking they must have felt overcast by the belief that some trial, greater than any before, was near at hand. Moreover, they had seen Him “troubled in spirit,” and heard Him say, “one of you shall betray me.”4444 St. John xiii. 21. And, besides this, His parting words to them when He went away from them a stone’s cast in the garden, were enough, we should have thought, to keep us waking: “Then saith He unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.”4545 St. Matt. xxvi. 38. And with all these things full upon them, it would have seemed that they, least of all, could have fallen asleep—they, the favoured three—Peter who loved his Master with so earnest and warm a love, and James who was counted worthy to be the companion of Peter, and the disciple who an hour before had lain on His breast at sup per. In St. Luke’s Gospel we read that they were “sleeping for sorrow.”4646 St. Luke xxii. 45. And this secret cause of their heaviness, it may be, the evangelist learned of some one who well knew what passed on that awful night. Who can doubt but that they sadly told all their infirmities? St. Matthew (and St. Mark also) say that “their eyes were heavy.”4747 St. Matt. xxvi. 43. And they that have entered into the depths of sorrow know well how nearly akin to slumber is the languor and amazement of unutterable grief; how the “sight faileth for looking upward,” and the eyes, which gaze fixedly and see nothing, close for very emptiness. But none knew this better than He, the Man of Sorrows, when He spoke these few words of mild upbraiding. It was at that hour they had most need to watch, as being by sorrow least able to stand against temptation. Theirs, then, is an example of an almost blameless infirmity; and yet, though hardly to be blamed, it was not the less beset with danger. And here we have a great warning, and a no less consolation: a great warning, indeed; for if they slumbered at such an hour, how may we not fear that our temptations will often fall upon us unawares? And yet, for our consolation, we see how gently He bare with them; and He will surely be no more severe with us. In truth, He made their defence for them; His very warning taught them how to plead with Him; and by teaching it, He acknowledged the truth of the plea: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Let us consider these words.
And, first, we must observe, that by “the spirit” is to be understood what we call the heart or will, illuminated by the grace of God; as where St. Paul says, “the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh;”4848 Gal. v. 17. and where he prays for the Thessalonians, that their “whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless;”4949 1 Thess. v. 23. and again, “the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”5050 Rom. viii. 16. And next, by “the flesh” is to be understood our fallen manhood, with its affections and lusts, so far as they still remain even in the regenerate. Now before our regeneration we are under the power of the flesh; then there is no willingness to serve God aright: after our regeneration, the flesh is put under the dominion of the Spirit. St. Paul speaks not as an Apostle endowed above other men, but as one born again of the Spirit, when he says, “I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me.”5151 Phil. iv. 13. Such, I say, is the state of the regenerate. They “can do all things;” but, alas, they do not. The flesh has no more dominion, except we willingly re-invest it with its sovereignty. We may still betray ourselves to it again, and become twofold more enslaved to it than before; and short of this, even though we no more yield to it a dominion over us, yet it is to us “a sore let and hinderance in running the race that is set before us.” When it cannot overcome, yet it still can sap and weaken; or, in other words, it is a weakness in itself; for, under the governing power of the Spirit, our regenerate manhood be comes a servant of God; it is once more consecrated to God’s service; but having been stripped and wounded by the powers of sin, and left as it were dead, even after its rising again through holy baptism, it is weak and failing: and therefore we find such paradoxes in the lives of true Christians. They are ever willing, and purposing, and desiring, and yearning, and beginning well; and even more than this, we see them growing in grace and spiritual strength; and yet we find them also failing and falling short, ever trying to reach some far mark, but not attaining it—purposing great things, and hardly accomplishing little things. Such, in deed, for at least a large part of their earthly life, is the state of most baptised people: and that not because they are under any subduing dominion of indwelling sin, as some would have us believe, who expound St. Paul’s description of his state before his regeneration as if he were speaking of himself after he had been born again through the grace of Christ; but because “the flesh is weak,”—that is, their whole nature, though made new of the Spirit, is still feeble, and soon exhausted, and ready to slumber, and easily cast down. And this is what St. Paul means when he says, “the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”5252 Gal. v. 17. He is speaking, not of two natures, but of one—of one fallen but regenerate manhood, in which linger still the susceptibilities of evil, besetting and weakening the renewed heart and will by many sore and stubborn hinderances. Such, then, is the state of good men, of whom it may be truly said, that the “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Now we may take one or two particular examples of this truth.
1. For instance, we may trace the weakness of our nature in the great fluctuations of our inner state. I do not mean in such as end in a falling away from baptismal grace, or under the mastery of any grievous sin. These are examples rather of the strength of the flesh in its own hereditary rebellion against God, than of the weakness of our regenerate nature. I am speaking now of such variations as fall within the limits of a life in the main obedient to the faith. No one can have care fully watched over himself, without perceiving how different he is at different times. Let him compare the trembling exactness of his obedience, his prolonged and earnest prayers, his subdued and yielding temper, in a time of sorrow or great fear; or, again, the depth of his self-accusation and repentance, and the watchful abhorrence with which he repelled the approaches of evil thoughts in a time of severe sickness, or in a season of great spiritual blessings; let him compare such state with his condition, it may be, some few years after, when change of position in life, or mere toil, or elevation, or accession of wealth, has come upon him. Though he is still in the fear of God, he is a changed man. It is difficult, perhaps, to see exactly what is the change. It may be, though he feels it himself, he could not tell what it is; only that he is more self-possessed, less vivid in faith, less susceptible of impressions—that he retains them less steadily, and has lost, as it were, the quickness and flexibility of his mind. Now there can be no doubt that all the while he has been sincere in his desires to serve God; but, either by the withdrawal of the out ward discipline under which he was once brought nearer to the unseen world, or by weariness in well-doing, and the fretting of little daily counteractions, he has given way, and declined from his former and more devoted state. Of course such persons are in great danger of being overthrown by the direct assault of sins coming upon them suddenly, as St. Peter was, a few hours after our Lord warned him in the garden. It is more likely than not that such falls do mingle in from time to time; and though really sorrowed over, yet leave behind a deadening effect, which is not enough noted at the time, and shews itself afterwards only indistinctly in effects, or as one among many causes of declension.
2. We may take as another example of this weakness, the speedy fading away of good impressions even in those that live lives of real devotion. In the first place, it seems true that the mind can not without a strain be ever at one pitch. Like the power of sight, it must have its intervals of intension and remission. It seems by some law of its inscrutable nature, to need to be unbent; and therefore, after fixed contemplation of the unseen world, or prayer of greater length, or after a day of fasting, it may be that the conditions of our nature require that it should be relaxed. And this may be called, in one sense, the weakness of the flesh. For of the ministering angels who excel in strength, and of the spirits of the just made perfect, we are told, that they rest not day or night from their heavenly adoration. In them there is nothing of earth, and therefore nothing of infirmity. They mount up as eagles, with ever-renewing strength. In one sense, then, it may be said that, owing to the weakness of the flesh, our adoration is but a faint and broken reflection of theirs. But this is not the sense with which we have now to do. This is the inevitable, blameless infirmity of fallen man. We are speaking of something further; something which, if we will, is within the limits of our strength; and therefore, if we will not, is worthy of blame. For instance, it is a sad thought when we reflect for how short a time we retain the posture of mind which was wrought in us by our last day of fasting, or our last act of self-examination. For a time, we were bowed under the Eternal Will, and awed by a sense of God’s nearness, and a sight of our own sullied hearts: for a time, all the faults of our inferior nature were so held in check, that we seemed to be set free from their oppression; our better self rose to the surface, and maintained its ascendency; we were drawn into harmony with the secret order of His spiritual kingdom; all things, even the most adverse and chastening, seemed to us to be good; we were willing to be disposed of by Him, though it should cost us all we had been longing for in life. Again, in times of great affliction, when by acts of self-humiliation, and pondering over the tokens of His purpose, we have brought ourselves to a calm submissive state, so as to feel, as well as know, that if we had chosen for ourselves, we should have chosen amiss, and that our piercing sorrows are the last hope of breaking us into obedience, the necessary means of winning for us a crown in heaven;—it is sad to see how quickly these pure and blessed thoughts, with their fresh and vivid feelings, are blown away like the morning dew. So great is the change, that we seem to be other men. Our lighter thoughts fritter away our humiliation; lofty and self-trusting impulses belie our acts of lowliness, and seem to turn our very prayers into an unreal and intrusive profession; we grow restless, self-guiding, wilful; we take up again a self-confident tone, and lose our seat among those that are poor in spirit; or we grow fretful, and retract our acquiescence in God’s chastisement, and in anguish of heart forfeit the blessing which should have abased and sanctified us. In like manner, when, by a great struggle against ourselves, we have overcome any evil temper of the mind, by which, for a season, we have been mysteriously buffeted, though for a time it seem to lie dead within us, it comes back upon us unawares, and takes possession of the whole mind before it betrays its return. All at once we find ourselves within its grasp; and all the strife is to be fought over again. And we feel wearied out, and to have no more spirit in us; as if, in St. Paul’s words, “sin revived, and” we “died.”
They that have watched themselves narrowly, know by what subtle and imperceptible movements of the mind we thus sink away from our better dispositions; and how all the while that we are desiring to hold our state unchanged, our highly wrought impressions are passing off. Not only do things without slacken and draw us down,—such as superficial talking, many companions, differences of opinion, eager discussion, unconsidered assertions, words not weighed, and the like,—but it seems as if the mind were ever shedding its own better energies by a sort of radiation; as if they were ever escaping, and leaving us chilled and downcast. We find ourselves indevout, unhumbled, unhappy. Here, then, is another example of a willing spirit burdened by the weakness of our fallen nature. We have hardly come out of our keenest vigil before we are overcome with slumber.
3. I will take only one more example, and then bring this subject to an end with one or two remarks. This same weakness which besets our imperfect nature, is the reason why we fall so far short, in effect, of our aims and resolutions, and, in a word, of the whole law and measure of obedience. By the gift of regeneration, and by the powers of the sanctified and illuminated reason, we are able to perceive in some sort the idea of holiness as it exists in the Eternal Mind. In will and desire we choose it for our law of life. But the powers and energies of our fallen nature, even though regenerate, are too small for our aspirations. In desire we can reach to a sinless perfection of being, but in deed our purest and most elevated obedience is mingled and imperfect. This at the best; for the most part there is a sad intermingling of a baser alloy. How much of self, and sloth, and of our characteristic faults, and of secondary aims lying just below the horizon of our visible acts, is there to be found in our works of charity, our alms-deeds, our fasts, our prayers, our confessions, even at the steps of the altar! We are always resolving on more than we keep, purposing more than we do, feeling less than we say; projecting before our eyes a more perfect pattern than we ever attain; and that not only when we propose to ourselves the example of our Lord, whom none can follow in this world “whither soever He goeth,” but even of men beset like ourselves, as His saints asleep, or His servants yet living on earth. After all, ours is a poor, flagging, swerving, laggard obedience at the best. Yet we are not only willing, but earnestly desiring, striving, and praying Him to raise us to a higher measure of obedience; and, nevertheless, ever finding our will baffled, and our acts most imperfect. I will give one instance, and then pass on. Let us take the whole branch of our personal religion which is expressed in the words “discipline” and “devotion.” With our whole soul we purpose to fast, pray, watch, meditate, deny ourselves; and yet, when we look back on our habits hitherto, we shall find that we have been consciously failing, leaving things undone, coming short of our rules, changing them, seemingly for fair excuses, but really to relieve the weakness of our imperfect nature. Com pare the end of Lent with its beginning, or the evening of a fast-day with the morning; set side by side your resolutions and your fulfilments, your rules and your acts; and who shall go uncondemned?
In all this, then, we see the tokens of the fall, which are still upon the regenerate. Only One was ever “tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Though He bore our manhood with its sin less infirmities, yet He hallowed and endowed it with transcendent strength. We by our regeneration are made partakers of that same hallowed nature, not in perfection, but in imperfection; not in its fulness, but in a measure. It is in us, but made subject to the laws which control our humanity and our probation. Such is the King of saints in the midst of His brethren: He shining with full orb through heaven and earth; they in partial reflections, sometimes obscured, sometimes breaking forth, waxing and waning, yet, on the whole, ever shining “more and more unto the perfect day.” We have received this great gift of God, that our “spirit is willing.” There is no surer sign that we are members of His mystical body, through which the Will that moves heaven and earth, and gives laws to angels, and leads the morning stars, and out of darkness brings light, out of discord harmony, pours itself abroad, fills all the regenerate, and unites them to Himself.
In the first place, therefore, do not be out of heart at the ever-present consciousness of the weakness of your mortal nature. It is well known, and better understood, and more closely scanned by Him to whose perfection you are mystically united. If we were not fallen men, what need were there that the Word should be made flesh, and God become man, taking up the weakness of our manhood into the power of His Godhead? It is the very condition of the regenerate, and the law which governs the knitting together of His mystical body, and the educing of a new creation out of the old, that it should be gradual; imperfection passing into perfection; death being slowly swallowed up of life, sin through long striving cast forth by holiness. Moreover, we know not what mysterious purpose in the spiritual world may be fulfilled even in our weakness; nor how the glory of the Son of God, and the abasement of sin, may be perfected in our infirmity. It was not all fulfilled when in His sinless and perfect manhood He bruised Satan under His feet: He will do more, and bruise him day by day under the feet of our weak and imperfect nature. What St. Paul said of the apostolic grace is true also of our regeneration: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”5353 2 Cor. iv. 7. And the abasement of the powers of evil is the more absolute in this, that the weakest in God’s kingdom is stronger than they. This, it may be, besides his own humiliation, was the hid den meaning of St. Paul’s long buffeting with the messenger of Satan: “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”5454 2 Cor. xii. 8, 9.
And, once more; as there seems to be some great purpose in the permission of our weakness, so does there also appear to be as deep a design in permitting the infirmities of the saints to cleave so long and closely about them. They are ever crying to be delivered “from the body of this death,” to be set free from the harassing of indwelling evils, and to be healed of the very susceptibility of temptation. The prayer of the saints has ever been, to be “endued with much strength,” to be made like to the One who was without sin. They have been going about seeking rest, crying, “‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ Cast out of me the unclean spirit, for I am grievously vexed with the tyranny of this self, which of a child hath tormented me. Lord, how long wilt Thou not speak the word, and heal me?”
At first sight we might be tempted to think that, as “the will of God” is “our sanctification,” we could not be too speedily delivered from the infirmities of the flesh. But in this we should overlook one great reality in our present state. We must be made partakers of the humiliation of Christ; and therefore we are left girded about with the burden of our fallen nature. It is by learning the depth of our fall, and of the evil that dwells in us, that we are to be fully abased. We must “drink of the brook in the way” or ever He will “lift up” our “head.” Therefore God suffers weaknesses and infirmities to cling about His holiest servants, even as He suffers them to bear a dissolving body to the last. Great is the mystery of our humiliation; even sin, for which we are abased, is over ruled to perfect our abasement; and, besides this, our faults and weaknesses are left about us for our purification. The cleansing of spiritual evil is a deep and searching work. It is not as the bleaching of a soiled garment, which is dead and passive in the fuller’s hand. It is wrought by the energy and repulsion of a holy will, conscious and invincible in its warfare against itself. The pains of in dwelling evil are, it may be, an absolute condition to the perfection of holiness in a fallen being. Of those blessed and holy spirits, which have ever kept their first estate, and are the nearest types of the unchangeable and Holy One, we know no thing. But for the restoration of us, fallen, and alienated, and redeemed, and born again, not a re-moulding as of dead and passive matter, but the living and intense action of a moral nature, seems ordained by the eternal laws of will and being. Our weakness and faults, therefore, are left to abide in us, that we may learn the perfection of hating what God abhors. They are as a purifying fire, which eats through us with a sleep less pain and an anguish which cleanses the soul. When God shews to us the inner depths of our spiritual being, leading us, as He led His prophet of old, through chambers hallowed to Himself, but defiled by secret abominations, He reveals to us a mystery of fear and sorrow which has nothing like it on this side of the grave. Nevertheless, let us pray of Him to shew us all. If we would be safe, we must know the worst. And this will teach us to lay our hand upon our mouth, when we are tempted to cry, “How long, O Lord?” and turn us from the rising wish “to be unclothed,” and to be delivered from ourselves; because it may be that we blindly desire the shortening of our purification, with we know not what loss of glory in His kingdom. Better is it to bear about the cross of our own fallen hearts until it has wrought in us His cleansing work. Shrink from no sorrow, so it be purifying. Our soils and our sins lie so deep, they must needs be long in the refiner’s fire. Pray rather that, if need be, you may be tried seven times, so that all may be clean purged out.
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