"There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man".
1 Cor. x. 13.
THESE, like most of St. Paul's words, real and burning words as they always are, acquire a yet intenser significance from the sequence of thought with which they are connected. He has been speaking of his position as an Apostle, and claiming his right to be supported by his evangelising work. But he reminds his Corinthian converts that he had deliberately waived that right. He had followed that rarer and nobler course which is so hard to learn, and which he urges so often on all Christians, of calmly and habitually being content, if need be, with less than is our due. And therefore, instead of accepting the maintenance to which he was so clearly entitled from the hands of his converts, he had laboured with his own hands to meet the modest wants of a disciplined and simple life. Yet he did not boast of this great self-denial; he had not done it for glory, or for gratitude, but for God. What he had done he could not help doing. The sacred hunger for souls had absorbed his energies; the burning impulse of love had swayed his soul; his labour had been its own reward, because it had been done for the Gospel's sake, that he and they might alike be partakers of its benefits.
And there for a moment he pauses. The thought arrests his attention. You may have sometimes watched a great tide advancing irresistibly towards the destined shore, yet broken and rippled over every wave of its sunlit fretwork, and liable at any moment to mighty refluences as it foams and swells about opposing sand-bank or rocky cape. Such is the style of St. Paul. The word ' Gospel,' he thought of sharing with them its awful privileges,— arrests him; he is suddenly startled at the grandeur of his own mission, and stops to warn them that even he, their teacher,—even he called to be an Apostle,—even he with all his perils and labours and sacrifices, needed, no less than they did, unsparing, constant, anxious self-discipline, lest he should become a castaway. He reminds them that the mortification, the conflict, the self-mastery which were necessary for him who would wear heaven's wreath of amaranth, were far more intense and continuous than the severe training which the young athletes of their city must undergo before they could win those coveted and fading garlands of Isthmian pine. He reminds them too of the awful lesson involved in the history of their fathers. They, by glorious privilege, had been guided by the fiery pillar, had been baptised in the parted sea, had quenched their thirst from the cloven rock,—yet all had been in vain. In spite of all, their hearts had lusted after evil things. Some had committed fornication and fallen in one day three and twenty thousand; some had tempted Christ and been destroyed of serpents; some had murmured and been destroyed of the destroyer. Oh let them beware, for all this dark and splendid history was written for their example. It was no dim revelation of God's will, no uncertain utterance of His voice. And its lesson was, " Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." But then, at once, after those stern and solemn messages, the heart of the great Apostle breaks with tears. He yearns to comfort his children. " Why should they—why need they fall ? " The thought flashes across his mind too rapidly for utterance, and leaving it unexpressed, he continues, "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it".
At those blessed words, my brethren, we too will pause. They are words of mercy, of strength, of confidence, of comfort.
St. Paul assumes the certainty of our encountering temptation. No life, not even the life of our Lord and Master, was ever yet without it. That journey of the Israelites in the desert to which St. Paul alludes, furnishes a close emblem of our own. Before each one of us—a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night—glides visibly the protecting providence of God. Wonderful deliverances are vouchsafed to us. Enemies pursue us, and we must fly from them. Enemies confront us, and we must fight with them. Vividly and distinctly, loudly and intelligibly,—as among the burning summits and thunderbeaten crags of Sinai,—blaze for us the revealing splendours, reverberate for us the majestic utterances of the moral law. Simple and sweet as virgin honey,—if we will only live thereon,—lies round us the angels' food; clear and crystalline,—if we will but drink thereof, —murmurs and shines about us the river of God's love.
Yet, alas 1 we fall as Israel fell. Idolaters like them, we inflame ourselves with idols. Sensualists like them, we sigh for the fleshpots of Egypt among the manna-dews of heaven. Thankless as they, we have been discontented and rebellious in the midst of mercies. The language is allegorical, the fact is bitterly real. All of us have been tempted; many of us have fallen; some have been overthrown in the wilderness.
And these temptations—these impulses from without, these tendencies from within, to love our bodies more than our souls, our pleasures more than our duties, ourselves more than our God,—begin, alas, almost with our earliest years. The very youngest boy who hears me knows what it is to be tempted to do wrong,—tempted to neglect known duties, to utter wicked language,— tempted to be idle, or self-indulgent, or unholy, or unkind.
But I add eagerly and joyfully that you need not fall,— not one of you need fall,—every one of you may become pure, and sweet, and noble; every one of you may die a holy man. My subject is not warning, but comfort; and St. Paul's comfort to those whom he loved was this, "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man".
Ay, this is St. Paul's comfort—not that our temptations are common to man, but that they are human; that there is nothing strange, abnormal, insuperable about them ; that they are well within the scope of our power to struggle with. St. Paul would point us to the glorious company of the high and noble, of the pure and holy; to the white-robed, palm-bearing procession of happy human souls; to those who have fought and conquered, to those who have wrestled and overcome!
But these, perhaps you will say to me, are the strong great souls, the Scaevolas of Christian daring, the Manlii of Christian faith. Temptations insignificant to them might well be insuperable to us. Nay, my brethren, God is faithful, and will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able. In an age of cold faith and dead enthusiasm no splendid heroisms, no agonising martyrdoms are required of you. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. Not yet, like the boy Origen, have you seen a father torn from you by violence; or, like the girl Blandina, been called upon to face the cruel gaze of the bloody amphitheatre. He who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, tempers also the temptation to the weak soul. He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are but dust. Oh in that hero-multitude who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, think not that there are only the dauntless and the powerful, the great in heart and the strong in faith: no, there are many of the weak and the timid, many of the obscure and the ignorant, many of the shrinking and the suffering there.
We saw not, till they were unfolded for the flight of death, their angel wings. Yes! Jacob, once a mean trickster, and Aaron, once a weak apostate, is there; and Rahab the harlot, and David the adulterer; and Mary the weeping Magdalene, and Matthew the converted publican, and Dysmas the repentant thief; many as frail, many as fallen, many as sinful as the weakest and the worst of you ; but there are no stains on their white robes now; there is no weakness or meanness in their regenerated spirits now, and the solemn agony has faded from their brows. You think that you could never have been a martyr, yet women more timid, and children more delicate, have won and worn that crown; nearer to the flame they were nearer to Christ, and as the balmy winds of Paradise beat upon their foreheads while the fire roared about their feet, so believe me will it be with you. I have known martyrs here—boys ungifted and unattractive, boys neglected and despised,—yet so firm in their innocence, so steadfast in their faith, that no evil thing had power to hurt them. Every day their struggle was easier; every day their path more happy. Weak, unloved, and single-handed, they overcame the world. And why ? because God is faithful.
Yes, God is faithful; and most of all, because He will lay no heavier burden on any one of us than we can carry well. Whether in the way of trial, or in the way of temptation, remember, my brethren, in the words of the poet, "Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall".
We shall all be tempted, but the effects of the temptation depend upon ourselves. Fling into the same flame a lump of clay and a piece of gold,—the clay will be hardened, the gold will melt; the heart of Pharaoh hardened into perfidious insolence, the soul of David melted into pathetic song. Bear temptation faithfully, and it will leave you not only unscathed, but nobler. With each temptation God will also provide not—as the English version has it—a way, but the way of escape; the one separate escape for each separate temptation. Because God loves us, because Christ died, because having risen again He shed forth the Spirit in our hearts, therefore under the fiercest assaults of Satan the soul may be always safe. It may be like a beleaguered city, the powers of evil may marshal all their devilish enginery, and make the air hiss with their fiery darts, but every sortie of the besieged shall be inevitably successful; never shall there be capitulation; and by true resistance the assaults of the tempter shall at last be driven back in irretrievable disgraceful rout.
It would take me too long, my brethren, were I to dwell on the way of escape from each temptation. But without dwelling on them, I would gladly mention—and merely mention—four, with the power and efficacy of which I have been often struck. The first is watchfulness over the thoughts. As is the fountain, so will be the stream. Quench the spark, and you are safe from the conflagration. Crush the serpent's egg, and you need not dread the cockatrice. Conquer evil thoughts, and you will have little danger of evil words and evil ways. The victory over every temptation is easiest, is safest, is most blessed there. The second way is avoidance of danger. The best courage, believe me, is sometimes shown by flight. Consider which is your weakest point, who are your most dangerous companions, which is your guiltiest hour. Avoid those companions, defend that weak point, put the strongest guard upon those hours. Then, thirdly, overcome evil with good. Kill wicked passion by religious passion. Expel evil affections by noble yearnings. Banish mean cravings by holy enthusiasms. " Give me a great thought" said the German poet, " that I may live on it." Read great books; enrich your minds with noble sentiments; above all, read your Bibles; fill your own souls with the thought of Christ; make of Him not only a Redeemer, but a brother,—not only a Saviour, but a friend. And fourthly, I will mention prayer. That, my brethren, is the truest amulet against the siren songs, the holiest enchantment against each Circaean spell.
The Silence and the Voices of God, p. 101.