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LIBERTY AND DISCIPLINE.
“As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they can not fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.”—Mark ii, 19.
It is one of the honorable distinctions of Christ’s doctrine that he is never one-sided; never taken, as men are, with a half-view of a subject, or a half-truth concerning it. If there is, for example, a free side, or free element, in Christian life and experience, and also a restrictive side; conditions and times of not fasting, and conditions and times of fasting; he does not fall to setting one against the other, but he comprehends both, and holds them in a true adjustment of their offices and relations. John’s disciples come to him in the question, why he does not put his disciples to fasting, as their own great prophet and the Pharisees do theirs? But instead of making light of fasting, and calling it an old, ascetic practice, now gone by, as many human teachers would have done, seeing only half the truth, and rallying a party for the part they see, he simply replies—“every thing in its time; the attendants of the bridegroom 202 will, of course be wholly in the festive mood, while the wedding is on foot, but when it is over, they will fall into such other key as their personal condition requires. My disciples can not fast while I am with them. But when I am taken up they will turn themselves to such ways of fasting as their deprivation, or bereaved feeling requires.”
His answer, taken more spiritually, amounts to this: that when the love is full, and the soul is consciously gladdened by the present witness and felt impulse of God, any kind of restrictive, or severely self-compelling discipline is inappropriate or uncalled for, and is really out of place; but that when there is a failure of such divine impulse, when the soul is losing ground, brought under by temptation, groping in dryness and obscurity of light, then some sharp revision of the life, some new girding up of the will in sacrifice and self-discipline, is urgently demanded, and must not be declined. In other words, let there be liberty in God while there may, girding up in ourselves, by forced exercise and discipline, when there must; let the soul go by inspiration when the gale of the Spirit is in it, and when it has any way stifled or lost the Spirit, let it put itself down upon duty by the will; when the divine movement is upon it, let it have its festal day with the bridegroom, and when the better presence fades or vanishes, let it set itself to ways of self-compulsion, moving from its own human center.
Much the same general truth though differently conceived, is taught by Paul when he represents the Christian 203 soul as a coin having two seals or mottoes, on the two sides; on the obverse, or face—“The Lord knoweth them that are his;” on the reverse, or back—“Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” It is as if divine calling, endowment, and help were on one side; self-discipline, watching, mortified lusting, and steady resolve on the other.
Liberty and discipline, movement from God’s center and movement from our own, sanctified inclination and self-compelling will, are the two great factors thus of Christian life and experience. We may figure, in a certain coarse analogy, that we live in a city having two supplies of water for its aqueduct; one upon high ground back of it, whence the water runs down freely along the inclinations of the surfaces; and the other in some lake or river on its front; whence, in case that fails, or the ducts give way, a supply is to be received by forcing, or the dead lift of the pump. The water, however, is not created in this latter case, you will observe, by the enforcement, but is taken, as in the former, from the general supply of nature’s store. So there are ways of Christian living, where every thing goes by impulse, and a gracious inspiration, flowing in, as it were, by its own free motion; and other ways and times, where a self-compelling discipline of sacrifice and painstaking are wanted to regain the irrigating grace that was practically lost or shut away, by moods of inconstancy and mixtures of subjection to evil.
It is very obvious that both these conceptions may be abused, or pushed to excess, as in fact they always 204 are when they are taken apart from each other, and made a religion of. Thus we shall have, on one side, just what has many times appeared in this or that variety, a school of enthusiasts, living only in frames and for them, flighty, rhapsodical, ecstatic, moving in the upper air on wings, till such time as they get weary of their thin element, and consent, for comforts’ sake, to light upon the ground; when, of course, they do as the prophet’s living creatures did—“when they stood they let down their wings.” Perhaps they will spread them again, and perhaps not. They are all for inspiration, or the state of divine impulse, and nothing else is to be much accounted of. To be in this elysian state is piety, and if they chance to fall out of it, or sink away, flagging and spent, as regards their good excitabilities, they have no way of going on foot to think of, that will prove their fidelity, and put them in a sober way of blessing. They have no conception of a walking with God that is not flying with him, and their high movement commonly ends, where dissipation must, in a state of loose keeping, disability, and general collapse.
On the other side, where every thing takes the shape of will-work and discipline, the result will commonly be quite as bad. Sometimes the word will be activity, and a general campaign of doing will set every thing in a way of tumult, and aggressive motion. Responsible only for action, action will come to be just the thing most irresponsibly done. Hard, graceless, censorious, denunciatory, sometimes wild, and always unchastened 205 by the love it magnifies, it keeps the conflagration up till the combustible matter is burned away, and then the fire goes out of course. Sometimes the word is sacrifice, and then comes on the dreary train of penances, vigils, vows of celibacy, mendicancy, and the pallid funeral hosts marching out alive to be entombed in cells. All these, making up a religion by their will, and the drill of their passionless obedience, agree, in fact, to make as hard a time of it as possible, and they will most fatally succeed; for it can not be long, ere the discipline they covet as a religion, breaks down both will and principle together, and shows them, alas! too perfect in the training of uncharity, mendacity, sensuality, and lust.
I ought also, perhaps, to name two counterfeits that cover the ground of both these particular excesses. Thus, on one side,: the argument will be, “why should I do, or attempt to do in religion, what I can not do in liberty, or from inclination? When I am not inclined to prayer why should I pray? Why cross myself in duties which I only dislike? Why put myself under service by rules that only annoy me, and do not bless me? How can I imagine that God is pleased with me, when: he finds me doing by compulsion, what he knows I distaste, and have really no heart to?”
The assumption is, in this way of. speaking, that when there is real inclination to the thing done, there is even something a little remarkable in it; a kind of superlative, or superfine, merit, such as discharges all thought of obligation respecting duties where such inclination 206 fails. And yet the supposed. inclination, having so great value as to excuse all responsibility for inclination where there is none, is even understood to be nothing but an occasional glow of sentiment or desire, in the plane of nature; not any really divine or supernaturally inbreathed impulse. It is not of the bridegroom, raises no thought of any festal flow, in which Christ bathes their feeling. It is even the end of the law, without Christ, in a much more summary and complete sense that Christ himself could be; for it not only discharges all obligation, but forbids any farther command—how can God command what one is not inclined to already? and what he is inclined to needs, of course, no command.
The counterfeit upon the other side, is that self-reliant morality, which counts it a sufficient, or even a rather. superlative religion, to live in correct practice under rules, and makes nothing of receiving from God, or being in any consciously restored relationship with him. Christ is engaged as a Saviour, I conceive, to connect human nature with God, according to its normal idea, and have it regenerated, as by God’s restored movement in it—born of God. He wants to raise again the very plane of our existence, lifting us up out of mere self-hood into a state of divine consciousness and beatitude. This to him and this only is religion. The beaver is not more certainly below humanity, than the footing it along by mere rules, is a kind of life below the grade of religion, or concourse with God. That high world of blessing too, for which Christ has undertaken 207 to prepare us, is not a world of good morals, but of godly affinities and free inspirations, moved, and lifted, and wafted, and glorified, and always to reign in God.
We have then two conceptions of Christian life and experience, which Christ holds comprehensively together, but which his disciples are often trying to hold separately, making a whole religion of either one or the other; and then we have a counterfeit of each, contriving how to make a religion of each, without the reality of either one or the other. Let us see now if we can bring ourselves back into the conception of Christ, and find how to hold with him both the two sides at once; setting both in that genuine mutual relationship that belongs to them. There is then
I. A ruling conception of the Christian life, which is called having the bridegroom present; a state of right inclination established, in which the soul has an immediate knowledge, or consciousness of God, and is swayed in liberty, by His all-moving, supernatural, inspirations. This kind of state, if it were complete, as it never is in this world, would, of itself, be the all of perfection and of blessedness. The whole aim of Christianity is fulfilled in this alone. No other kind of service, taken by itself, at all meets the Christian idea. Self-compelling ways of discipline, resolve, self-regulation, body-government, soul-government, carried on by the will may be wanted—I shall presently show in what manner—but no possible amount of such doings can make up a Christian virtue, and, if such virtue 208 were perfect, they would not even be included in it. Every thing in genuine Christianity goes for the free inclination. Here begins the true nobility or princely rank of God’s sons and daughters, and they will be complete, when their inclination is wholly to good and to God. They strike the point of magnanimity, when they do the right, as God does, because they simply love the right—bearing burdens, because it is the nature of love to bear them, making sacrifices, never from fear, interest, self-consideration, always for God’s great ends of mercy and blessing. The bridegroom joy is now upon them, because their duty is become their festivity with Christ. Perfected in this duty and joy, they are complete in God’s everlasting beatitude; for there is no wear of friction in such duty, but eternal liberty and play rather. What then
II. Is the place, or office, or value of that whole side of will and self-discipline; which Christ himself assumes the need of, when the bridegroom is to be taken away? Here is the main stress of our subject, and upon the right solution of this point, its uses will principally depend.
There is then, I undertake to say, one general purpose, or office, in all doings of will, on the human side of Christian experience, viz., the ordering of the soul in fit position for God, that he may occupy it, have it in his power, sway it by his inspirations. No matter what the kind of doing to which we are called, or commanded; whether it be self-government, or self-renunciation, or holy resolve, or fasting, or steadfast waiting, the end is one and the 209 same, the getting in position for God’s occupancy. As the navigator of a ship does nothing for the voyage, save what he does by setting the ship to her course, and her sails to the wind, so our human doings in religion, those I mean, which make up our self-compelling, self-adjusting, self-constraining discipline, are all to be concerned in setting us before God, in the way to receive the actuating impulse of his will and character. We are not called, of course, to work a religion thus, ourselves, Or by our own will. Setting sails to the wind does not propel the ship, or give it the least onward movement, as regards the voyage; and yet, without such holding of it in position, the voyage could never be made. So also a seed must have position, else it can not grow; if it is laid on a rock, or buried in sand, or sunk in water, or frozen up in ice, it will be inert as a stone; but in good warm soil, and sun, and rain; and dew, it will quicken easily enough, because it is in position. A tree will die out of position, a clock will stop out of position, a plough wants holding, a saw wants guiding, a compass wants setting; nothing in the world works rightly that has not position given it. And the reason is that every thing to be operated upon must be fitly presented to that which operates; telescopes to their objects, mills to water-falls, and souls to God.
And here is our particular human part in religion—all that we can do is summed up in self-presentation to God, or the putting of ourselves in position for his operation. Hence the call to salvation is “come,” and the 210 complaint is, “ye will not come to me that ye might have life.” So also, when the casting down of pride and self-will is required, the forsaking of all things, the yielding up of life and whatever is most dear, these ways of self-renunciation are only the taking down of bars that fence away God’s entrance and free movement from the soul. Faith again is made the condition of salvation, in just this view, and no other; because, when a sinning soul trusts itself up to Christ, to be cared for, regenerated in good, and saved by his mercy, it is put in exactly the position toward God that is most open, and admits him most freely; even as the brazen serpent, lifted up before Israel, was to be effective in their healing, when looked upon. Out of position, with their backs toward it, there was no virtue to be received from it, because there was none expected or admitted.
So it is in the matter always of conversion, or the beginning of a new life—it is always begun, just as soon as the subject comes into position far enough to let it be. And then the same holds true of all proper Christian doings afterward—they are all summed up, either in keeping position toward God, or in regaining it after it is lost. Thus, if by reason of a still partially remaining subjection to evil, the soul should be stolen away from its fidelity and the nuptial day of its liberty should somehow be succeeded by a void, dry state, without any proper light or evidence left, then the disciple has it given him to recover himself, by getting himself in position again before God. He will take 211 time by forcible resolve, and gird himself to a careful revision. He will set himself upon his idols to clear them away, take up his cross invoking sacrifice itself to be his helper, rectify his misjudgments, make good his injuries, slay his resentments and grudges, mortify his appetites, crucify his bosom sins, tear open all the subtleties of distemper and treason—watching all the while his new beginnings, saving carefully his little advances, doing first works humbly and tenderly, and by this drawing into position, will, if possible, make ready for the festal coming of his Lord, and the restored liberty of a son.
In this kind of struggle the disciple will get on most effectively, when for the time, he is much by himself, and much apart from the world, and even its pleasurable scenes and gifts. In one view, there will be a certain violence, or desperation sometimes in the fight of his repentances. “For behold what carefulness it wrought in you; yea what clearing of yourselves; yea what indignation; yea what fear; yea what vehement desire; yea what zeal; yea what revenge.” By these stern rigors of will, these mighty throes of battle, the disciple out of liberty will in fact be only putting himself in position to recover it. He takes himself in hand in fiery self-chastening, and rigidly enforced subjection, that he may prepare himself to God’s help. He gets confidence in this manner, by his thoroughness, to believe that God accepts him, and has the testimony given him that he pleases God. Restored in this manner to his liberty, the enemy that came in at the 212 postern goes out at the front, and God again will have his full dominion.
Neither let any one object that all such stresses and strains of endeavor must be without merit) because they are forced and are, in one sense, without inclination. Such kind of endeavor God honors because it is practical, and not for the merit of it. What should he more certainly honor than the true endeavor of souls to present themselves to him, and get position for the complete admission of his will. If these struggles of enforcement do not belong to the perfect state of good, it must be enough that they are struggles after that state. God is practical; and without prudishness; if nothing is really good: to him that is not from the heart’s inclination, he will yet be drawn to such struggles against inclination, as he is to the cries of the ravens, and will put his benediction upon them, under that same fatherly impulse, if no other.
Holy scripture has no such dainty way of reasoning in this matter, as they give us, who, by affected reverence, excuse themselves from all rough discipline, because they have no inclination for it. It even commands us to serve, when we are not in a key to reign. “Mortify therefore, your members which are upon the earth”—do men mortify themselves by inclination? “Ye have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts”—do we this self-crucifying by inclination? “Deny thyself, take up thy cross”—do we deny ourselves by inclination, or take up the cross for inclination’s sake? When Christ again, to get a certain rich 213 moralist or formalist into position for God, bids him sell all that he has and give to the poor and come and follow—whereupon he “goes away sorrowful”—does the sad questioner sorrow because he is required to have his inclination? The Saviour too has even a more cutting requirement than this—“And if thy right eye offend thee pluck it out; if thy right hand offend thee cut it off.” Is there any thing in which we are farther off from inclination, than in plucking out right eyes and cutting off right hands? What in fact is the very point of the Saviour’s meaning here but to say, put your will down upon whatever is hardest and most against your inclinations—any thing for position.
How feeble, superficial, sophistical, and withal, how very like to a practical mockery of all deep movement in religion is that word so often ventured, and of which I have already spoken—“Why should I pray when I do not feel inclined to it? Why should I go to church, why should I read the scriptures, why should I give alms, why should I hold myself to observances, all which I am weary of, and in fact really dislike? If I can not offer God from the heart, what better is my offering given than withheld? Just contrary to all such feeble platitudes Christ, we have seen, appoints a grandly rugged, thoroughly real, massive, discipline, by which souls, at best only half inserted into good are to hold on their way: and press themselves down upon the constancy their fickle hearts would fly. Filling them to the full, if he possibly may with holy inspirations and loving impulses, he counts even this a gospel 214 on one foot, if he may not also put them every man to a hard fight of discipline, and watch, and drill and resisting even unto blood. When the inspiration is upon them, he will let the festive movement flow in its liberty. And when the grace-power lulls or is gone, he will have them take their turn of discipline, to gather up by their will, and bring into position for God’s occupancy, all their vagrant and unsteady functions; so to strengthen the things that remain and are ready to die. These two things, in fact, he will hold, if possible at all times, to a close and practically guarded comprehension, the festive and the restrictive, the movement of love and the self-girding watch.
But I should not produce any just impression of the immense reach of this very practical matter—the so ordering of our life, on the side of self-discipline, as to be always squaring ourselves to God, and holding true position before Him—if I did not specify some of the humbler and more common matters in which it is to be, or may be, done.
Order, for example—how great a thing is it for a Christian, or indeed, for any one, to keep his life and practice and business in the terms of order? Holding himself steady, and squaring his habit thus carefully by system in God’s will, his very order is itself position—the orbit he traverses having God to traverse it with him; and the worlds of the sky will not be more surely and steadily moved in their rounds, than he by God’s impelling liberty. Fallen out of this order into all disorder and confusion, how can he ever 215 be in position for God, till he comes back into the exactness and true discipline of the same?
A responsible way has the same kind of value. An irresponsible man has no place for God or God’s liberty. But a soul that stays fast in concern for all good things—responsible for the church, for the brethren, for the welfare and salvation of perishing men, for the vices and woes of society, for the good of the country—is just so far in position with God, and ready for his best inspirations. God loves responsible men, and delights to keep them in the full endowment of strength and liberty.
Openness and boldness for God, the readiness to be found on God’s side in the full acknowledgment of his name and people, is an absolute requisite, as regards the effective revelation of God in the soul. Whoever will not thus acknowledge God, in a bold commitment of himself before the world to his cause, wants the firm courage and manly truth of feeling which puts him in position. Real and bold devotement is magnanimity, and where there is nothing of one, there is nothing of the other—as little receptivity therefore for God. God loves to be trusted, and loves the men that can boldly take their part with him. When they stand openly for his name, he stands by them, and puts his. might upon them.
Descending to what is in a still humbler key, let me speak of honesty—how a large and faithfully complete honesty puts every soul in true position before God. A single eye—that is honesty; and “if thine eye be single, 216 thy whole body shall be full of light.” But the honesty of which I thus speak, is more and higher, you will observe, than mere commercial honesty. That will do justice to customers and laws of trade, but not to enemies, and least of all, to God. There is no reality in it therefore, more than there would be in doing justice to customers of one country, or color, and not to those of another. Called honesty in the market, it still may, and, many times, certainly is, hypocrisy and a lie. Real honesty takes in principle, engaging to do justice every where, every way, every day, and specially to God’s high truth and God. O, what a presentation that to invite the incoming of God! Who is in position for God but he that will clear himself, thus impartially, of every wrong and injury; and how certainly will God’s spirit flow into such a bosom, in how full a. tide of liberty! How completely open here is the gate of possibility for all greatest and divinest things!
I could speak of things yet humbler and more common; such, for example, as dress and society. These are matters which we commonly put even outside of the pale of religious concern, or responsibility. And yet there is how much in them to fix the soul’s position toward God. How perfectly evident is it that one may dress for the Holy Spirit and the modest opening of the soul to God’s manifestation; or so as to quite shut away any possible visitation from the divine. In the same way, society may be observed in such a way of sobriety and grandly true hospitality, that angels, much more Christ and God, will gather to it unawares; or in such 217 a way of ambition, flashiness, and worldly assumption, that the Holy Spirit can not get room in it for any smallest dispensation of his gracious impulse. I speak not here for any sumptuary, or morbidly scrupulous, restriction. I only say that there may be enough, in the modes of dress and society, to quite settle the matter of the soul’s position toward God.
Not pursuing these illustrations further, it must be enough that we have found, and practically verified two elements in Christian life and experience, liberty and discipline, God’s free movement and our own self-constraining will. That is the heavenly state of blessing and perfection; this our human concern to get, as in conversion, recover, as in dryness and decay; or keep, as in all most ordinary goings on of life, the position toward God that commands his bestowment of the other.
But what, of fasting? the very thing about which my text is itself concerned, and about which I have said as nearly nothing as possible. In one view it is even so; in another I have been speaking of nothing else; for the whole course of argument pursued has been tracing its fit place and relationship, as an integral part, or factor, of the true Christian discipline.
Are we then to allow, some will ask, that fasting belongs to Christianity? I certainly think so. Did not Christ himself declare that his disciples should fast after he was gone? Did he not also begin his great ministry, by a protracted fast, which duly considered, and rightly conceived, constitutes one of the grandest 218 and most impressive chapters of his story? It is easy, doubtless, to assume, in self-compliment, that we have now come to an age of maturity that permits us to conceive the Christian grace more worthily, but no such assumption will be very impressive as against the example of Christ himself! Some will also maintain, more argumentatively, that fasting is a bodily penance, excluded by the genius of Christianity; but when Christ is heard, in his great, first, sermon, discoursing of it just as he does of prayer and of alms, and giving it exactly the same promise of reward, the conclusion appears to be not far off that, either they do not, or Christ did not, understand Christianity!
It is a great mistake of many, in our time, that they are so easily carried by a certain half-illuminated declamation against asceticism. Let us have nerve enough to withstand the odium of a word, and be less superficial, and just as much stronger in our practical life. For there is—I put the issue boldly that it may not be missed—a good asceticism that belongs to Christianity, as a worthy and even rationally integral function; the same which an apostle describes when he says, “I exercise myself (ασκω) to have a conscience void of offense.” By which he means that he puts himself to it by the direct training of his will, even as a rider trains a horse by the rein.
In this good asceticism, we take ourselves away purposely, when it seems to be needed, from society, from gain, and from animal indulgence, that we may assert, with more emphasis, the principle of 219 self-subjection to God, or gird ourselves anew to the divine keeping. Thrusting down a whole side of our nature that habitually assumes to be uppermost, we get in this manner a powerful shove of reaction; for the great law of action and reaction holds universally, both in the worlds of matter and mind. In this manner painstaking itself is a great element of success; not because it is the taking of so much pain, as if there were some merit in that, but because the mind gets a confidence of honest meaning in it, such as nerves the soul to sacrifice, and gives it assurance with God. Christianity, as I have Shown, takes in this element. Filling us with great inspirations, it puts us to a stout self-discipline also, that we may get position for still greater, and a still more victorious liberty.
Over against this good asceticism, there is also a false and a bad, as already intimated. It makes a virtue of self-torment, contrives artificial distresses to move on God’s pity, or pacify his resentments, or purchase his favor. It macerates the body to make the soul weak and tender. It dispenses, in fact, with faith itself, and even thinks to square its account with God, by a due contribution of bodily pains and privations.
This bad asceticism we exclude, the good we accept. And in this, we shall train ourselves, sometimes even naturally, by a fast. If we are mortified by the discovery that the body is getting uppermost, if our Sundays are choked, our great sentiments stifled, by indulgences of the body we meant not to allow, we 220 shall turn upon it in this good asceticism, and say to it, with a meaning—“I keep under the body.” In the same way, if we can not find how to bear an enemy, if we recoil from sacrifices that are plainly laid upon us, if we have no great courage to meet a great call, we shall emulate the example of Cromwell’s soldiers, who conquered first the impassive state, by their fastings and prayers, and then sailing into battle as men ironclad, conquered also their enemies; or better still, we shall emulate those martyrs, who could sing in the crisp of their bodies, because they had trained their bodies to serve. So again if we are losing ground, getting under the world, heated by prosperity, soured by disappointment, bittered by resentments and grudges, we shall do well to seek the wilderness, taking our temptation with us to be mastered. So again if we have some great crisis upon us, even as our Master had, some turn of life to settle that will settle every thing; or if we have great endowments coming upon us, or coming out in us, that we must be responsible for—property, place, eloquence, fame, beauty, genius—what a girding do we need to meet our occasions, or even to effectually stifle the nonsense of pride and foolish suggestion. O, if we could set ourselves in position thus for God’s call and his Christly inspirations, how cheap the discipline would be.
Observed on occasions like these, a fast will sometimes wonderfully clear the atmosphere of the mind. The sentiments will be quickened in their play. The imagination, which is a great organ for religion, will 221 get a more reverberative ring. The conscience will become at once more rigid and more tender. All the powers will be girded up, and God will have the soul in position, waiting to be filled with his eternal life and vigor.
No such good results of fasting will follow, or will be expected, where it is improperly observed. No one should ever go into a fast, when he has the bridegroom consciously with him. Such fasting is untimely. Turning sunshine into night, and making misery gratis, when we are not miserable, is any thing but Christian, though alas! some very good people do sometimes make a merit of it.
Some persons, who are not practiced in the art, so to speak, of fasting, complain that they are only troubled and mentally confused by their hunger, and get no advantage from it. But when they have learned the way to set their mind facing Godward, instead of facing the body, and moving in the low range of the gastric energy, it will not be so—they will even forget to be hungry. It might be well for such to begin with a prolonged half-fast, or Lenten reduction, instead of abstinence. Feeding the body circumspectly thus, as between cage bars, they may still the growling of nature, and learn, at last how to get a spring of reaction for the mind. A prolonged bridle check upon the body is good both for it and for the rider; for what both most especially need is to get accustomed to the rein!
At the same time, fasting should always be a reality, never a semblance. To pretend a fast, when all the 222 routine of table, office, and shop, is still going on as usual, is to make a cheat of it; such as takes away the mind’s honor, and leaves a most sorry conviction of hypocrisy in place of any benefit. But let no one make the fast excessive under pretense of making it real. It should never amount to a maceration of the body; though sometimes the benefit gained by a disciple will even tempt him to make a luxury of it. Let it be a rule that the fasting should never be more frequent or more stringent, than is necessary to maintain, for the long run of time, the very clearest, strongest, healthiest, condition both of mind and body. For the digestive function wants its Sabbaths, just as truly as any other, and will keep the soundest health when it has them.
Instead of recoiling now, my brethren from this more rugged kind of discipline, there ought even to be a fascination in the severities of it. As it is profoundly real and earnest, it will also make us strong. How often are we oppressed with the feeling that our modern piety wants depth and spiritual richness. It is as if it were in the skin and not in the heart—thin, flashy, flavorless, destitute of the heroic and sturdy qualities. It never can be otherwise, till we consent to endure some hardness, or at least to find some way of painstaking. The gymnastic we are in must be strong enough to make muscle, else we shall not have it. Hence the profound necessity, as I conceive, that there should be an ascetic side or element in this free salvation, where the disciple “exercises himself,” as the apostle has it, putting himself 223 in training and self-chastening for success. For as the competitors in games of wrestling, and rowing, and racing, do not despise the toughest severities of training for the victory, no more should the Christian repel that nobler discipline that is to be the girding of his character. It would not do, for a way of grace, to only fondle or codle us, in tenderings of favor and soft mercy and overflowing bounty; we could not be floated into the heights of character by any such gentle tide-swing as many look for, and conceive to be the grace offered to their faith. Such a kind of treatment qualified by nothing more sturdy and severe, might even soften the brain of our piety. No, there must be an ascetic self-girding for us, as well as a gracious impulsion, something which is more than fasting, but of which that is a type. There needs to be a side of tough endeavor, in which we undertake a mighty becoming,. even punishing ourselves, so to speak, into right position for God. We must come into the vise of a rugged and fiery self-discipline, where, if we wince for the severities suffered, we still forbid our cowardly, soft, nature to yield. If there is to be any fibre in our character, there must be a Spartan discipline to make it. There was never a strong Christian, or a Christian hero, that did not put himself to being a Christian with cost. To be merely wooed by grace, and tenderly dewed by sentiment, makes a Christian mushroom, not a Christian man. It is even difficult to conceive, how those angels that excel in strength, and are called the chariots of God, ever got their vigor without some fit 224 training; nay, it is most certain that they never did. So much meaning has our master, when charging it upon us, again and again, without our once conceiving possibly what depth of meaning he would have us find in his words—Deny thyself, take up thy cross and follow me.225
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