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THE SYMPATHY OF CHRIST.
“We have not an high-priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
ONE great and blessed truth contained in the mystery of the Incarnation is the sympathy of Christ: that as He is truly Man, so He truly and really partakes of our infirmities, and has a fellow-feeling of them with us. St. Paul had said a little before, in speaking of the Incarnation, “in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted.”9696 Heb. ii. 18. The word tempted here includes, of course, all trials of soul and body, such as sorrow, pain, anguish, as well as what we commonly call temptation: but it is to this last that we will now confine ourselves. 180In the text, St. Paul adds, “yet without sin.” And this raises a question which it concerns us much to consider. We can readily understand how our Lord’s perfect humanity should sympathise with ours, because both are of one nature; but how He who is sinless should sympathise with us sinners,—this is the difficulty. He had no taste of the bitterness of conscious sin; that one greatest of all afflictions was positively unknown to Him. He made trial of all things of which our humanity in a sinless state is susceptible; but of that which comes upon us as sinners, it were blasphemy to suppose Him to have tasted—I mean, the fears, shame, remorse, self-abhorrence, which come with sin. It would seem that here His sympathy cannot reach: that it must be confined within the limits of our purer sorrows; such as affliction and pain. How, it may be asked, can He sympathise in repentance, deserved shame, and guilt of conscience? This is no easy question to answer: but so much of the consolation of true penitents must depend on it, that we shall do well to find, if we can, some reply.
It may be said, then, that this difficulty carries its own answer; for His sympathy with penitents is perfect, because He is sinless: its perfection is the consequence of His perfect holiness. And for these reasons:181
First, because we find, even among men, that sympathy is more or less perfect, as the holiness of the person is more or less so. There is no real sympathy in men of a sensual, worldly, unspiritual life; unless we are to call that inferior fellow-feeling which ranks with our natural instincts, and is to be found also in the lower animals, by the name of sympathy. There is a natural pity, benevolence, and compassion, which, even among heathen, expresses itself in congratulations and condolences, and we may in one sense call it sympathy; but it is its lowest and most irrational form, little differing from the perceptions of cold and heat, sweet and bitter, which are common to all mankind. There is little distinct consciousness about it. And even these sympathies of nature are crossed and crushed by personal faults. Ambition, covetousness, selfishness, will extinguish them; much more actual familiarity with sin. Just as a man becomes infected by the power of evil, he ceases to sympathise with others. All his feelings centre in himself. Sin is essentially a selfish thing. It sacrifices every thing to its own lust and will. It is also peculiarly merciless. Reckless as it is of the evil of sin, and therefore lenient to the worst offenders, it is, nevertheless, peculiarly uncharitable, hard, and unfair. Sinners put the worst construction on each others words and acts. They have no 182consideration or forbearance. Their apparent sympathy is but a fellowship in the same disobedience. And so also the sympathy of the world; how hollow, formal, and constrained it is! How little soothing or consoling in our sorrows and trials are worldly friends, even the kindest hearted of them! And why, but because it is peculiarly the property of true sanctity to be charitable? and in the grace of charity is contained gentleness, compassion, tenderness of hand in touching the wounds of other men, fair interpretations, large allowances, ready forgiveness. These things ripen as personal holiness grows more mature. We may almost measure our advance in the life of God by the tenderness of our feeling towards sinners. The living compassion, active emotion of pity, the tears and tenderness with which the holiest men have ever dealt with the sinful, is a proof, that in proportion as sin loses its power over them, their sympathy with those that are afflicted by its oppressive yoke becomes more perfect. It may be said, indeed, that they know by present experience what is the distress and shame of sin; that they really have in them the original taint; and that it is by virtue of this that they are able so intimately to sympathise with the trials of others who are repenting. Nevertheless, it is most certain that this sympathy becomes more perfect in proportion as 183their repentance is perfect, and their warfare turned into the peace of established sanctity; that is, in proportion as they cease to be like those they sympathise with in the very point of sinfulness.
And if we may venture a while to dwell on thoughts beyond our probation, in which some have presumed too far, may we not believe that this law prevails to perfect the mutual sympathy of those who are in the higher state of separation from this evil world? Of the invisible Church we can only speak by conjecture and hope, grounded upon such internal suggestions as are contained in truths undoubtedly revealed. We know that they are without sin. “He that is dead is free from sin.”9797 Rom. vi. 7. We know that they are “made perfect.”9898 Heb. xii. 23. We cannot doubt that they are replenished with charity—perfect in the sympathies of love and compassion—that they are knit one with another in a perfect bond of fellowship. And moreover, with their personal identity, doubtless, they retain a recollection of this world of sin, and of the trials, infirmities, and falls, from which they have been redeemed.9999 Rev. v. 9. And their sympathy is more vivid, intense, and pure, because they are set free from sin and self. For what but these, our in born evils, are the hindrances of our sympathy now in this world? In the midst of our truest 184compassion there is something which rises up to tinge it, and to infuse thoughts of self into it. They have the truest sympathy who are most perfectly dead to themselves. Therefore, of all the members of Christ’s mystical body, they must mutually sympathise most perfectly who are most free from the taints of evil.
2. And from this our thoughts ascend to Him who is all-perfect; who being from everlasting Very God, was, for our sakes, made very Man, that He might unite us wholly to Himself. Above and beyond all sympathy is that of our High Priest. It stands alone in its incommunicable perfection. “Such an High Priest became us,” that is, was required by our spiritual necessities, “who is holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.”100100 Heb. vii. 26. Because we are sinners, we need One who is without sin to sympathise with us. How can it be reverently or safely thought that any sympathy can be perfect but His? Does not such a thought imply that we do not clearly distinguish what we are speaking of? He can not, indeed, partake of the awful knowledge, derived from experience, which they possess who have ever consented to sin, who have ever been defiled by it. But that knowledge does not perfect sympathy: it only mars the perfection of the 185person. Even the holiest must be delivered from this knowledge of sin before their sympathy is raised towards His unapproachable tenderness. In one sense it is true, that to have been darkened and defiled is the way to learn a bitter knowledge of sin. But it is only so because it inflicts on us the miseries which follow after sin, and scourges us through repentance to purity of heart, whereby we learn its hatefulness. None hate sin but those who are holy, and that in the measure of their holiness; and therefore in the Person of our blessed Lord there must exist the two great conditions of perfect sympathy: first, He has suffered all the sorrows and mi series which are consequent upon sin and distinct from it; next, He has, because of His perfect holiness, a perfect hatred of evil. And these properties of His human nature unite themselves to the pity, omniscience, and love, which are the perfections of His divine. To have sinned ourselves is not necessary to perfect our sympathy with sinners. God forbid the evil thought! Rather, it is the property of spotless sanctity to flow forth with the fullest stream of compassion. Who would mourn over a sister’s fall so intensely as she who is all pure and full of sensitive fear of so much as a sullying thought? To have fallen and to have repented could add nothing to her 186intense love and sorrow, to her absolute humiliation for another’s transgression. Community in sin is not the source of sympathy, but participation in holiness. The knowledge of the misery of sin which our Lord learned by suffering temptation is no doubt far beyond any thing we can learn by consenting to it; for it is consent that so far destroys our true perception of it. Temptations are far more afflicting to holy minds than falls are to the less pure. And all through the life of the truest saint, even while the love of God is shed abroad in his heart, and the stillness of eternal peace reigns in it, there is, in proportion to the growth of sanctity, a growth also in his sorrow for sins long ago repented. His past falls come to be more intensely seen and abhorred. It is as he recedes from his former self, and passes out of the sphere of his past temptations, that he feels all their horror and deadliness. And this explains what we see in the lives of the holiest men—that as they have visibly advanced in holiness, they have multiplied their acts of humiliation and their discipline of repentance; and that instead of being thereby drawn from compassion to those who are still in their sins, they are of all men the most tender, pitiful, forbearing, and compassionate. None live for the conversion of souls so devotedly; none have so ready a sorrow for the 187sins of others; none deal with them so lovingly, bind up their wounds so softly, console them, even against their own will, so persuasively. And why? Not because of their past sin, but because of their present holiness; not for what they have been, but for what they are; not because they have been sinners, but because they are saints. What they have learned of sin by past consent and defilement is a hindrance, not a help, to their true sympathy. They attain to this high grace of the mystical body of Christ just as they pass out of themselves into Him.
Now from all this we may see in what it is that our Lord, by the experience of humiliation in our flesh, has learned—wonderful word!—to sympathise with us.
Not in any motion of evil in the affections or thoughts of the heart; not in any inclination of the will; not, if we dare so much as utter it, in any taint or soil upon the soul. Upon all such as are destroying themselves in wilful commerce with evil, He looks down with a divine pity; but they have withdrawn themselves from the range of His sympathy. This can only be with those who are in sorrow under sin; that is, with penitents. It is in the suffering of those that would be cleansed and made holy that He partakes. Let us now see how we may draw comfort from this thought.188
They who have sinned may go to Him in a perfect confidence that He is able to “be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” We have something in Him to which we may appeal.
1. We may plead with Him on His own experience of the weakness of our humanity. None knows it better than He, not only as our Maker, who “knoweth our frame, and remembereth that we are but dust,” but as Man, who made full trial of our nature “in the days of His flesh.” He knows its fearful susceptibility of temptation—how in its most perfect state, as in His own person, it may be approached and solicited by the suggestions and allurements of the evil one. And if in Him it could be tempted to sin, how much more in us! May we not believe that it was out of the depth of His mysterious obedience that He spoke, when He said: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak?” He did not mean sinful flesh only, but humanity itself, the weakness of which was seen in Eden, and was proved by Himself in the wilderness, when “He suffered being tempted.” When we confess our sins before Him, we may lay open all. Things we hardly dare to speak to any man, to any imperfect being, we do not shrink from confessing before Him—things which men would not believe, inward struggles, distinctions in intention, extenuating causes, errors of 189belief,—all the manifold working of the inward life which goes before a fall. Imperfect friends treat all these things with a hard incredulity, or assign them but a light weight in the favourable scale; they fasten only on the prominent features of the case; they cannot throw themselves into our position; their knowledge of human nature is drawn from their view of their own state and character, often flattered and self-deceiving; and that makes them so censorious, upbraiding, unmerciful to lapsed sinners, and so suspicious, distant, and cold, even to penitents. No doubt the want of vivid faith to realise the awfulness of our Lord’s presence is partly the reason why we are so much readier to make our confessions to Him than to a fellow-creature. We feel greatly, in the one case, the reality and the penitential character of the act, and little or not at all in the other. Again, confession to any man brings a peculiar shame, which our secret confessions do not involve. And yet, true as this may be, there can be no doubt that there is a more persuasive reason still. It is, that with men we are never safe from false judgments, and severe because imperfect censures; but with Him is perfect equity, fairness, tenderness. With all His awful holiness, there is some thing that draws us to Him. Though His eyes be “as a flame of fire,” and the act of laying ourselves 190open to Him is terrible, yet He is “meek and lowly of heart,” knowing all our case, “touched with the feeling of our infirmities. *
So also we must feel towards the elect angels, and all the world unseen, whose eyes, St. Paul seems to say, are on us—a cloud of gazers, ever looking down upon our course. They, too, in the measure of their perfection, are perfect; full of pity and of tender compassion; knowing of what spirit their King and Lord is; and like Him in charity to us. And yet it is to Him alone that we are drawn to address ourselves. Our ultimate account is not with them, but with Him. If He be pitiful to us, what more do we need? If He be gracious, they all, as comprehended in His perfection, are with us too. If we be sure of His sympathy, we are sure of theirs. They cannot satisfy the depth of our case, but He can and will.
We must go to Him, and place ourselves before Him; uncover our shame; fall to the earth; pray, if we can speak; if words fail, abase ourselves in silence; and let the silence of our confounded souls appeal to His sympathy who in the garden “fell on His face” under the burden of our infirmities. He will interpret our silence for us, and, by His perfect knowledge of our sins, put into our hearts pleas of deprecation and solace, which we ourselves neither know nor would dare to utter. Wonderful 191is the Divine justice, and still more the Divine equity. He “weigheth the spirits;” He knows the shades and touches of our case. What to our dull sight would seem refinements, to His are realities in our spiritual probation; and with wonderful tenderness and most indulgent forbearance He notes and measures them all. In His judgment of penitents He is more gentle than they are to themselves. Pleas which they reject, He allows for them. While they are writing bitter things against themselves, He is recording the circumstances of palliation and excuse. They hardly dare believe that His face is lifted up in pity and forgiveness upon them; for His mercy is as great a mystery of faith as His Incarnation. “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion, then were we like unto them that dream.” When His peace comes down again into our afflicted hearts, then, like the apostles, “we believe not for joy and wonder.”
2. Again: we may appeal to His experience of the sorrow and shame which come by sin upon mankind. He suffered both as keenly and as fully as it was possible for one that was without sin. Wheresoever in the Psalms deeper notes of sorrow, lamentations greater than repentance, are heard, it is the voice of the Messiah speaking in prophecy. “My God, my God, look upon me; why hast Thou 192forsaken me? why art Thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my complaint? O my God, I cry in the day-time, but Thou hearest not; and in the night-season also I take no rest. . . . As for me, I am a worm, and no man; a very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying, He trusted in God, that He would deliver him; let Him deliver him; if He will have him. . . . . I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaveth to my gums, and Thou shalt bring me into the dust of death.”101101 Ps. xxii. 1, 2, 6-8, 14, 15. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”102102 Isaiah liii. 3, 4. “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in, even unto my soul. I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is; I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me. I am weary of my crying: my throat is dry: my sight faileth me for waiting so long upon my God. 193. . . . For Thy sake have I suffered reproof; shame hath covered my face. . . . I wept, and chastened myself with fasting; and that was turned to my reproof. I put on sackcloth also; and they jested upon me. They that sit in the gate speak against me; and the drunkards make songs upon. . . . . me Thou hast known my reproof, my shame, and my dishonour: mine adversaries are all in Thy sight. Thy rebuke hath broken my heart; I am full of heaviness: I looked for some to have pity on me, but there was no man, neither found I any to comfort me.”103103 Ps. lxix. 1-3, 7, 10-12, 20, 21. “O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before Thee: oh, let my prayer enter into Thy presence, incline Thine ear unto my calling. For my soul is full of trouble; and my life draweth nigh unto hell. . . . Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in a place of darkness, and in the deep. Thine indignation lieth hard upon me; and Thou hast vexed me with all Thy storms. Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; and made me to be abhorred of them. I am so fast in prison that I cannot get forth. My sight faileth for very trouble: Lord, I have called daily upon Thee, I have stretched forth my hands unto Thee. . . . . Lord, why abhorrest Thou my soul, and hidest Thou Thy face from me? I am in misery, and 194like unto him that is at the point to die: even from my youth up Thy terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind. Thy wrathful displeasure goeth over me, and the fear of Thee hath undone me.”104104 Ps. lxxxviii. 1, 2, 5-9, 14-16. What can we say of this inscrutable mystery of sorrow? Who would have dared to apply these words to the Son of God, if the Spirit of Christ in prophecy had not already done so by His servants? We can only say what the Spirit of Christ Himself hath said. Sorrow, fearfulness, shame, scorn, confusion of face, humiliation, abasement, exhaustion of body, fainting, trembling, blindness for very tears, what ever went beyond all these? “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of His fierce anger. From above hath He sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: He hath spread a net for my feet, He hath turned me back: He hath made me desolate and faint all the day.”105105 Lament. i. 12, 13. What more can we say? All this came on Him because God “made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin.”106106 2 Cor. v. 21. All that sin could inflict on the guiltless He endured; and to that experience of shame and sorrow we guilty may appeal. Though we suffer indeed justly, yet can He feel with us 195though He did nothing amiss. Though in the bitterness of soul which flows from consciousness of guilt He has no part, yet when we take revenge upon ourselves in humiliation, and offer ourselves to suffer all He wills for our abasement, He pities us while He permits the chastisement to break us down at His feet. He looks in compassion on our heavy hours and mournful days, our secret indignation, our shame which burns inwardly, our bruised and trembling hearts. When vain remorse and resolution come too late, make us smite upon our thigh, and accuse ourselves in secret, He—let us hope, believe, and pray—will pity us with a loving and tender sympathy. “When our heart is smitten down within us, and withered like grass, so that we forget to eat our bread,” it is a thought full of consolation, “that we have not an high-priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.”
Therefore let us ask for consolation from no other. Let us not go, I will not say to the world, and its fair words, smooth persuasions, shallow comforts;—for to these no man whose repentance has any depth or reality in it can bear to go; they are miserable, falsifying stimulants, which heat and bewilder the heart, and leave it open to terrible recoils of sorrow but let us not go to books or to employment; no, nor even to the 196consolation and tender love of friend, brother, wife, husband, spiritual guide; no, nor to the most perfect saint and nearest to Himself; but to Him for whose sake all these must be forsaken, in whom are all the fresh springs of solace which distil in scanty drops through the tenderest and fondest hearts. Let us go at once to Him. We are one with Him, by the mystery of His holy Incarnation, by the gift of our new birth. There is nothing can separate us from His sympathy but our own wilful sins. Let us fear and hate these, as for all other reasons, so above all for this, that they cut off the streams of His pure and pitiful consolation, and leave our souls to wither up in their own drought and darkness. So long as we are fully in His sympathy, let our sorrows, shame, trials, temptations, be what they may, we are safe. He is purifying us by them; teaching us to die to the world and to ourselves, that He only may live in us, and that our life may be “hid with Christ in God.”
And again: that we may so shelter ourselves in Him, let us make to Him a confession, detailed, particular, and unsparing, of all our sins. Our safest self-examination is made upon our knees; our truest confessions are our self-examinations uttered aloud. Let us confess before Him morning and night our daily disobedience of thought, 197word, and deed, the forbidden motions of our hearts, the faulty inclinations of our will; striving truly and thoroughly to know ourselves, and to lay ourselves bare with entire and self-abasing sincerity to Him. In this is true peace, deep consolation, calm unspeakable. This will keep our hearts waking, recall us when we wander, uphold us when we are weak. Whatsoever be our outward lot,—whether we be high or low, esteemed or outcast, held in honour or in scorn, trusted or distrusted,—this one thing is enough. What more can they desire who have the sympathy of Christ? What fellowship do they need who have His hourly presence? When men rebuke us, let us thank them, as helping our abasement; when they convince us of new faults, let us carry them in confession to our Lord. Reproofs are healing balms; censures are “spikenard very precious.” The more they humble us, the more fully will He admit us to His perfect sympathy. O blind and short sighted! when the world looks dark upon us, we are afraid. If the great or the many set down our lives as a folly or a dream, we begin to doubt, and half to believe what they say. We are tempted even to give way before their confident censures and their lofty commiseration. We are too proud to be pitied, and would sometimes almost conceal and cast off our sympathy with the Cross, that we 198may take our share in the smooth and fair things of the world. But if we be His servants, the Cross must be our portion. “The disciple is not above his Master, nor the servant above his Lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his Master, and the servant as his Lord.”107107 St. Matt. x. 24, 25. So that we be His, let us be with this content.
And lastly, let us so live as not to forfeit His sympathy. It is ours only so long as we strive and pray to be made like Him. If we turn again to evil, or to the world, we sever ourselves from Him. The dominion of any sinful habit will fear fully estrange us from His presence. A single consenting act of inward disobedience in thought or will is enough to let fall a cloud between Him and us, and to leave our hearts cheerless and dark. This all know, who after any sins of the temper or spirit, begin their accustomed prayers. They feel themselves in a new condition, and at a strange distance from Him; as if in broad day the sun had suddenly gone in. And besides positive sins, love of the world will shut us out from His sympathy altogether. Love of the world casts out the love of Christ. If, in spite of His word and warning, His life and cross, we will live on in this fallen world without fear or self-denial, as if it were not fallen; if we will love it, live in it and for it, 199accept its flatteries and favours, then we must die with it. Follies, laughter, excitement, false happiness, bring bitter retrospect, burning consciousness of inconsistency and declension; and all these hide His presence from our souls. With these He has no sympathy: but only with the humble, bruised, and contrite; with them that forsake all that they may find Him, and follow Him whither soever He goeth, in darkness and in light, in life and in death, counting all things loss, that they may “win Christ and be found in Him” in the morning of the resurrection.200
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