Sudden Temptation.––Though in placid moments they are what we are most aware of, our sins of omission are by no means the greatest trouble of our lives. Like St Christopher, we have to fight our way against the floods, however quiet our lives may seem. Some little peevishness or petulance about a trifle, some slight resentment against a friend, some entanglement in our circumstances,––and it is as though, like the cuttlefish, we had darkened all the waters about us. Suddenly, without an instant's warning, we are in a flood of rage, resentment, crooked contrivings, perhaps unclean imaginings. We are swept off our feet and cannot recover ourselves. We flounder and beat the waves, long and wearily, before we win our way back to righteousness and peace. We do not intend, will, or foresee these sudden falls; we become as persons possessed, and have no power in ourselves to struggle out of the flood of malice, pride, uncleanness, greed, envy, or whatever else of evil has overwhelmed us.
The fact that we have not foreseen these falls, points to a cause outside ourselves––to those powers and principalities in high places, whose struggle for dominion over us the Bible reveals; and the revelation is confirmed by our own sad and familiar experience.
Temptation comes from without and from within.––This is Temptation, reaching us sometimes plainly from without, but more often, it would seem, through the movement of some spirit of evil which has access to our own spirit. If we say there is no Holy Spirit, and no evil spirit, and no spirit of a man,––if, like the Sadducees of old and their kind to-day, we do not believe in any such thing––there is nothing more to be said. But if we are aware of the movements of our own spiritual life, and observant of that life in those about us, if we have taken cognisance of how good and evil come as a flood upon the world or upon an individual soul, we shall recognise that there is a source of temptation outside of ourselves, even as there is a source of strength and blessedness. We shall know that 'we wrestle not with flesh and blood,' but with spiritual wickedness in high places; and we shall lay ourselves out to understand the laws and conditions of temptation, and shall look eagerly for ways of escape.
Literature is full of tales of temptation, yielded to, struggled against, conquered. Sometimes temptation finds us ready and there is no struggle, as in the case of Tito Melema; [Romola.] sometimes there is a struggle, as in that of Maggie Tulliver; [The Mill on the Floss.] sometimes, a victory like that of Joseph.
It is in the Bible we find the most intimate records of temptations. We wonder to this day how Peter could, upon a sudden temptation, deny his Lord; how Judas should, after slow gathering of fretful and impatient thoughts, betray Him; how the disciples should, in a sudden panic of fear, forsake Him and flee. And, when we think of falls like these, we ask ourselves the awful question, 'Lord, is it I?' 'Should I have done the like in his place?' The very records of crimes and offences in the newspapers bring us the same awful fear; with like temptation, and in like conditions, perhaps we should have done the like. A sense of the inevitableness of temptation, the nearness of sin, comes upon us, now and then, like a terror; and it is well we should realise that temptation is a fact of life––a fact to be faced; and, also, that we are besieged in our weak places, tempted always to those sins we have a mind to. It is good and comforting to be assured, "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to men." It is good to know that, "He will with the temptation make a way of escape that ye may be able to bear it"; that, "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation"; that, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."
Enter not into Temptation.––But it is to our Master, "who was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin," that we go for the key of the whole matter. Because he knows what is in man, he has said to us, "See that ye enter not into temptation." This is the secret of heroic lives whose conflict is with circumstances and not with temptations: they do not enter into temptation. All our Lord's sayings come out of profound knowledge of the ways of the minds of men. He knew that an idea, an imagination, of envy or resentment, for example, once entertained, dallied with, takes possession of the mind; we cannot get rid of it, and we are hurried into action or speech upon that notion before ever we are aware. Here we have the line between temptation, and sin. That an offensive idea should be presented, is not of ourselves and is not sin. But, once we open the gates of our thought to let in the notion, why, we may conquer in the end, through the grace of Christ our Saviour, and after conflict, tears, and sore distress. But such a fight against temptation is a terror to the Christian soul. Upon this battlefield, he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.
The Training of a Trusty Spirit.––Blessed are the souls that endure temptation from without; who endure grinding poverty without hardness or greed, uncongenial tempers without bitterness, contrary circumstances without petulance; who possess their souls in patience when all things are against them: these are temptations from which we cannot escape, and which are part of the education of a trusty spirit. But this education is accomplished by resisting the temptations that reach us from within––the offences in thought suggested by trying circumstances. For, let us not make a mistake, all sin, even all crime, is accomplished in thought. Word and act are but the fruit of which the received and permitted thought is the seed. The battle of life for each of us lies in the continual repetition of what seems a most trifling act––the rejection of certain thoughts which present themselves at the very moment when they come. This is how we shall keep our soul as a fortress; and therefore our Master, who is aware of us, who knows how the evil thought, once admitted, floods the soul and darkens the eye, bids us pray, day by day: "Our Father, which art in Heaven, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen."
We have a Father who cares and knows. We have a Saviour who saves his people from their sins. We are not left to ourselves; we have a King who governs us, whose power upholds us, and whom we glorify by every little effort of ours not to enter into temptation.
The way in the beginning is quite easy, before we enter, that is; we turn away our thoughts from beholding evil, the evil in another or the evil suggestion to ourselves; and we do so, not by reasoning the matter out, but just by thinking of something else, some other pleasant or interesting thing belonging for the moment to our lives. For we are so made that there is always with the temptation an easy and natural way of escape. It is well we should realise this, because, in things of the spirit, it is quite true that God helps those who help themselves; and, if we pray, "Lead us not into temptation," and do not take the simple provided way of escape by thinking of some other thing, we are asking to be treated as the men on a chessboard, and not as beings free to do as they will; who honour God by willing, to flee from temptation; who stretch out a hand for help to Him who saves us.
Penitence, Repentance, Restitution.––Many a life is spoiled by what the Church at one time set forth as a chief Christian grace. The penitent is a distressful figure in early Church history. Days, months, a life, of self-mortification, were appointed to the repentant sinner. Where there is no Church discipline of the sort, men and women of a sorrowful spirit go about, living in penitence for offences of the past or the present. We all know the people who will not forgive themselves, who weep and afflict themselves because they are guilty of some discovered wrong in word or deed, and they believe that this sorrowful gloom of theirs is due to God and man because of their offence.
The Forgiveness of Sins.––And yet these very people recite regularly, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." They do not understand that forgiveness means instant, immediate, complete restoration to the joy of God's favour; that the forgiveness of Christian hearts is equally prompt, or it is not forgiveness; and that there are no tears to be shed, no dark remembrances to be cherished, after the one sore and sorrowful confession, made with many tears, "Father, I have sinned." Then, we hold up our heads as free men, and no longer drag the prisoner's chain. We repent––yes; that is, we turn away from the sin, we enter not into the temptation, we keep fast hold of the grace of our God; and we restore: "If I have taken anything from any man, I restore him fourfold:" fourfold love and gentleness and service the repentant soul brings to God and his brother; but this is because he is glad––out of the joy of his heart there is nothing he cannot do; and, above all, he will away with the proud and sullen tears and regrets of so-called penitence. Let that story of the Father who ran to meet his returning prodigal, who received him with honour and feasting, who fell upon his neck,––image too tender for a man to have dared to conceive it, but which is given us with the authority of Christ, let this amazing picture of the dealings of our God be with us always to light up the dark places in our own lives.