Various discouragements may present themselves at the commencement of a religious course. The word of God teaches us to expect these. What means “the strait gate,” but an entrance attended with difficulty? What means “counting the cost,” but contemplating obstacles, and preparing to meet them? Bunyan knew the course to heaven, when he placed the slough of despond in the first stage of the journey. You are mistaken if you expect by one easy stride to reach the firm and solid ground beyond this dismal swamp. Sincerity will diminish difficulties, and finally overcome them, but it will not prevent them. Prepare then for discouragement, for you will be sure to meet with it; and it is both wise and merciful to forewarn you of it, lest you should conclude that some strange thing has happened to you.
But observe, no part of this discouragement comes from God. He interposes no obstacle, raises no difficulties, presents no objection. A doubt of his willingness to save, a suspicion of his mercy, would be fatal to your hopes. But all is clear ground, so far as he is concerned. Dwell on this thought, it is a blissful one; ponder here, before you go another step; arm yourselves to meet every discouragement, come from what quarter it may, with this conviction, that God waits to be gracious; yes, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, he is out, looking for you; his infinite mercy is in motion towards you; he runs towards you faster than you go to him. What then is your discouragement?
1. The cold indifference, the repulsive shyness, of professing Christians.
You thought that the very look of anxiety, the very countenance that seemed to say to their eyes, not to their ears, “What shall I do to be saved?” would draw the sympathies of many upon you; instead of which, you are left without a friend to commiserate, to guide, to soothe you, and are compelled, in the agony of your soul, to say, even to the multitude that go up to Zion, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by; come, see, if there be any sorrow like unto mine. Will no man care for my soul?”
Ah, my friend, let me tell you in the beginning of your career, that you cannot expect too little from man, nor too much from God. It is the scandal of the church of Christ, and in some measure also of its ministers, that serious inquirers after salvation are shamefully neglected. But shall this discourage you? What, when all heaven is interested on your behalf? When Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are concerned for you? When the blessed angels are rejoicing over you, and flying on wings of love to minister to you, as an heir of salvation? Cast away your gloom, look to God; and if the neglect of Christians should lead you to a more simple dependence upon Christ, you will be a gainer in the end. Too many friends, and too much attention, might do you injury, by leading you to depend too much upon an arm of flesh.
2. Many are discouraged by witnessing the low state of religion among professors.
They see no counterpart to their own anxiety among those who have long borne the Christian name. While they themselves are crying, “What shall we do to be saved?” they hear little from the lips of many Christian professors, but, “What shall we eat or drink; wherewithal shall we be clothed; what is the news of the day; or what is the state of trade?” They see so much worldly-mindedness, so much imperfection of temper, so many things unworthy of the Christian character, that they can scarcely believe there is a reality in religion, and are sometimes ready to give up all as a mere name. Nay, from some of these very professors, they receive plain hints that they are too anxious, too precise, too earnest and urgent.
O, ye wicked professors! ye child murderers! for by what softer name can I call you, in thus attempting to strangle the children of God in the birth? I beseech you to consider the mischief you are doing, and abandon this effort to extinguish the solicitude of souls beginning to feel the energies of spiritual life.
And, ye inquirers after salvation, do not be discouraged. If these men are living below their profession, this is their business, not yours. Salvation is necessary for you, whether they are sincere and earnest in seeking it or not. It will be no compensation for the loss of your soul, to think that they lost theirs. If there were not yet one real Christian in all the world, this would be no excuse for your neglecting to become one. Look into the Bible, rather than to professors. Instead of giving up the matter, you should gather this inference from what you see, that it is no easy thing to be a Christian. Should the bad tempers, the unworthy conduct of professors induce you to relinquish the pursuit of salvation, it will be poor consolation in the bottomless pit, to look back upon the cause of your ruin.
3. You are, perhaps, discouraged by the prospect of opposition from your nearest friends.
You see them all worldly, and plainly perceive that your real conversion to God will place you in direct opposition to them; that your becoming a Christian, and acting as such, will bring into your house the scene described by our Lord in Matthew 10:34-38. “Oh,” say you, “how fearful is the prospect before me! My piety will sound a note of discord in a family where all has been peace till now, although a peace founded on a common disregard of religion; and will introduce confusion and strife where all has been union and harmony.” “I must brave the anger of my husband,” says the wife, “and perhaps alienate that heart, on which my spirit has hitherto reposed with such delight.” Or, says the child, “I must seem to be disobedient to a parent, whom I have hitherto found it to be my duty and bliss to obey. Oh, can I do it? Is there no other way to heaven? are there no milder terms of submission to the authority of Christ?” None, none whatever.
I do not conceal that it is an awful alternative. I should be destitute of all sympathy, my friend, if I did not feel for you. But I dare not withdraw the cross. My soul would perish with yours, if I successfully attempted to persuade you that, in your circumstances, repentance, faith, the love of God, and all the other graces and virtues included in decided spiritual religion, could be dispensed with. God will not, cannot, relax his demands, and I dare not. Husband and wife, parent and child, houses and lands, worldly reputation, and the applause of men, must all give place to him.
He demands the heart; and he has infinite compensation to make for all you sacrifice for him. He will make the crown infinitely more valuable than the cross is terrible. You may be, you ought to be discreet in your profession; you must avoid all unnecessary opposition to the wishes of unconverted relatives; you should, if possible, be ten times more obliging, more devoted, more sweetly kind, in all other matters; you should return good for evil; you should exhibit the most undisturbed meekness; you should try to conquer violence by patience, but you must not, you dare not give up your convictions; you must be willing to die of a broken heart, and by the wrongs of persecution, rather than give up your pursuit of salvation. Trust in God, he will support you. If he call you to be a martyr in this way, he will first give you a martyr’s faith, and then a martyr’s crown.
Let the following impressive fact be read by you with solemn awe.
An accomplished and amiable young woman, in a certain town, had been deeply affected by a sense of her spiritual danger. She was the only child of a fond and affectionate parent. The deep impressions which accompanied her discovery of guilt and depravity, awakened all the jealousies of the father. He dreaded the loss of that sprightliness and vivacity which constituted the life of his domestic circle. He was startled by the answers which his questions elicited; while he foresaw, or thought he foresaw, an encroachment on the hitherto unbroken tranquillity of a deceived heart. Efforts were made to remove the cause of her disquietude; but they were such efforts as unsanctified wisdom directed. The Bible at last – oh how little may a parent know the far reaching of the deed, when he snatches the word of life from the hand of a child! – the Bible, and other books of religion, were removed from her possession, and their place was supplied by works of fiction. An excursion of pleasure was proposed, and declined; an offer of brighter amusement shared the same fate; promises, remonstrances, and threatenings followed. But the father’s infatuated perseverance at last brought compliance.
Alas, how little may a parent be aware that he is adorning his offspring with the fillets of death, and leading them to the sacrifice, like a follower of Moloch! The end was accomplished; all thoughts of piety, and all concern for the immortal future, vanished together.
But oh, how in less than a year was the gaudy deception exploded! The fascinating and bright daughter was prostrated by a fever, that bade defiance to medical skill. The approach of death was unequivocal, and the countenance of every attendant fell, as if they had heard the flight of his arrow. I see, even now, that look directed to the father, by the dying martyr of folly. The glazing eye was dim in hopelessness; and yet there seemed a something in its expiring rays, that told reproof, and tenderness, and terror in the same glance. And that voice – its tone was decided, but sepulchral still “My father! Last year I would have sought the Redeemer. Father – your child is . . .” Eternity heard the remainder of the sentence; for it was not uttered in time. (Letters to a Friend)
In connection with this striking fact read the following portions of Scripture: Matthew 5:10-12; 10:21-39; 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 2 Timothy 2:10-13; Hebrews 10:23-39; 11; 1 Peter 1:6-9; 4:12-19; 2 Peter 2:20-22; Rev. 7:9-17.
4. The discouragements of others lie nearer home still, they find them all in their own hearts.
The feeling with many is, that they make no progress; their views gain nothing in clearness, their convictions in depth, nor their hearts in peace. They are neither more convinced, nor more comforted; neither more spiritual, nor more decided than they were; and they are sometimes seized with fits of hopeless despondency, and are ready to give up the whole matter. Such a state of mind is very common, and a very perilous one, and affords ground for real alarm.
Your duty and safety lie in considering that the fault is in yourself, and not in God; you, you are to blame; you are perhaps halting between two opinions; you are still probably endeavouring to compromise between religion and the world; you are not giving that fixed, devoted attention to the subject which it demands. You must, therefore, go afresh to the work. You must feel just like a man who has been swimming in a tide that is bearing him further from the shore, and who feels that it is necessary to make more vigorous efforts, or he is inevitably lost. Give up! No, anything but that. To perish now, would be to perish terribly. While you are carrying on these heartless efforts, you may die, and in what a state!
But, perhaps, your complaints are the result of that deep anxiety, which makes you think there is no advance till you are really established in the full knowledge, faith, and hope of the gospel. To this established state you ought to come, and to come without delay; and nothing hinders you from coming to it, but an evil heart of unbelief; and to this point I press you to come. But should your knowledge not grow as rapidly, nor your peace increase as solidly, as you expected or desired; should you feel yourself slow of growth in all that appertains to Christian and happy experience, do not sink into a heartless and wretched frame, a kind of desponding pursuit of salvation, as of an object that you were never likely to obtain.
What you should do is immediately to repent, and believe the gospel; you cannot come to enlarged views and to settled peace without this. Going back, or giving up, is just the last thing you should think of. To turn back now, would be to turn back when near the cross. Look up, sinner! The stupendous object is before you, close by you. Look up at the Crucified One. It is further back to your former state of indifference, than to the place of refuge. Just as you are, with no more knowledge, no more religious feeling, no more comfort, yet believe. Look up, I say, again, at the cross; it is distinctly visible to the eye of faith, from every point of the road along which you are journeying, and may be viewed any moment by him who will look that way. It is the sight of that dear Object that will present every other in a right light, and invigorate every grace that belongs to true religion.
But may it not be, that your obstructions to a more rapid growth, arise from some specific cause? Is not some sin indulged, some corruption cherished? Is there not some sacrifice which you are unwilling to make, something which you are unwilling to surrender, although your judgment tells you the surrender ought to be made, and your conscience demands it? You must give up the forbidden thing, or your growth in grace is impossible: that one sin will, like a concealed worm at the root of a flower, eat out the very life of your religion, and cause it to droop, wither, and die. Is it a companion, from whom you are unwilling to separate, but whose society is hindering your progress? And will you sacrifice your soul’s salvation, heaven, and eternal glory, all that is dear to you as an immortal creature, and deliberately choose everlasting perdition, for that sin, or that friend? Take your choice between heaven and sacrifice, hell and present gratification.
Immortal man! Pause, and ponder: can you hesitate? There is both awful guilt and imminent peril in every moment’s delay. What if God should, as he justly may, send forth the command, “He is joined to idols; let him alone” (Hos. 4:17). Decide, then; decide at once. The moment in which you read this page may decide it: for if you are unwilling to give up your sinful practice, or sinful companion, God may, from this moment, give up you.
But, perhaps, the slowness of your growth in knowledge and in grace may arise from another cause, I mean your neglect of the promised influence and help of the Holy Spirit. You have been too self-confident, and are now feeling the consequence of it. At one time, perhaps, your impressions were deep, your convictions strong, your frame lively, and your feelings much excited; but you have suffered yourself to be seduced by Satan, who took advantage of these things, into a spirit of self-confidence and self-dependence. You have forgotten that in you there is no good thing; and have forsaken the fountain of living waters. You have never doubted the necessity of the Spirit’s influence, but you have neglected it. You have grieved the Holy Ghost, and he has suspended that gracious aid which you so little valued. You have striven, but it has been in your own strength: and now you find that strength to be weakness itself.
Now, then, profit by your error; and commit your soul, not only into the hands of Christ for pardon, but into the hands of the Spirit for sanctification. Now, lean upon that Divine power which worketh in us both to will and to do. Live in the Spirit; walk in the Spirit; pray in the Spirit; strive in the Spirit. Open your heart to his gracious influence, and let it be a feeling, as well as a conviction, that your spiritual life has no existence separate from his indwelling and in working within you.
It may be, however, that this discouragement and complaint of a slow growth in religion, are altogether unfounded, and are the result of disappointment, operating upon a humble or a sanguine mind. You may have expected at once to emerge from the thick darkness of an unconverted state, into the very noontide brightness of a full establishment in faith, hope, and love. You expected, probably, by one stride, or rather bound, to reach the position of experienced Christians.
But, remember, that both in nature and in grace, the works of God come gradually to maturity. There is first the babe; then the young man; then the adult. What a feeble, glimmering spark of life is there sometimes in a new-born child; it is difficult to determine whether it is alive or dead; and even when unequivocal signs of life appear, what vigilant care is necessary to preserve the spark from being extinguished. Such has been the unpromising condition in which many a strong and long-lived man has commenced his existence. How analogous to this is the work of God in the soul.
So, again, with the growth of corn, there is first the blade; then the stalk; then the ear: and as it is in the field of nature, so is the growth of religion in the heart of man. We must not despise the “day of small things,” either in ourselves or others, for God does not.
It is said of our Divine Redeemer, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd;” and in his flock there are lambs which can neither travel fast nor far; and what will he do with them? “He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom;” not on his shoulder, the emblem of strength, but in his bosom, the image of tender love; “and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:11); those that are burdened with many fears, and painful apprehensions.
How kindly did he forbear with the dulness, and infirmities, and mistakes of his disciples; how gently did he correct the errors, and sustain the minds of the two friends on their sad and gloomy walk to Emmaus, and kept alive the last glimmering spark of hope, just when it was ready to expire in their bosoms! How graciously in his addresses to the seven churches in Asia, did he mention all the good he could find among them, not overlooking even the “little strength,” that was left in that of Philadelphia! (Rev. 3:8).
Think of this, disheartened inquirer. Thy dawn of knowledge shall shine brighter and brighter unto the perfect day; thy infantile strength will grow to manly power; thy tender blade of piety shall become the full corn in the ear. Thou art looking to a Saviour who “will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax.” Weak grace is real grace, and is in connection with an infinite source in his fulness, who is the God of all grace, and who giveth more grace. It is well to be humble, and to think meanly of your attainments; but remember, trees are not dead because they are not at once laden with fruit. I say not these things to paralyse your exertions after greater attainments, for he who is satisfied with the grace he has, has in reality none; but to check despondency, and prevent that disheartening sense of deficiency, which benumbs every exertion, by extinguishing hope.
5. Great discouragement has been experienced by others on account of relapses and backslidings into actual sins.
It is, I admit, a grievous aggravation of sin, to fall into it after men have been awakened and convinced: and as there is much danger of this, the word of God contains many awful warnings against it, which have been already referred to. We ought, therefore, to use the greatest watchfulness, and to present the most fervent prayer to be kept from these sins; and our vigilance should be doubled, in regard to those temptations to which we are most exposed from the peculiarity of our constitution, situation, or any other circumstances.
Yet sometimes even they who have sincerely and earnestly engaged in the pursuit of salvation, have been, through a want of watchfulness, betrayed again into those sins from which they had been delivered. In such cases, the backslider, under the united influence of remorse and despondency, is apt to give up all for lost, and, under the idea that he shall never obtain salvation, renounce the further pursuit of it.
Now I would say to you, that while you cannot be too deeply humbled for such relapses, you ought not to think that your case is desperate. If such sins could not be pardoned, and such sinners could not be restored, who then could be saved? But it is not so much a doubt of pardon for the past, you say, that discourages you, as a fear of preservation for the future. You find your heart so treacherous, your purposes so frail, your corruptions so strong, and your temptations so great; you have been so often victorious, and then again so often conquered, that you quite despair of success.
What mean those desponding expressions? They seem to say, either that there is no help for you but in yourselves, or that God is not able to deliver you. Both are false. There is no help at all in you, but there is all-sufficient help in God. Courage, sinner, take courage; God is almighty. Humble yourself under his mighty hand for the past, and then rise up and lean upon his mighty arm for the future. The blood of Christ can cleanse the conscience from the guilt of past sin, and the grace of the Holy Spirit can preserve you from the commission of future sin: the backsliding can be forgiven, and the backslider himself restored, strengthened, confirmed, and made more than conqueror, as thousands already have been.