From Sermons by
Hugh Ross Mackintosh (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1938).
THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD
"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 of escape, that ye may be able to bear it."-1 Cor. 10:13.
FOR any man who knows something about himself and about the world he lives in, temptation is an absorbing theme. It is a subject that is always alive. No passage is more familiar in the Old Testament than the story of Balaam's fall, and St. Peter's fall in the New is even better known. When we read those narratives, it is as if the thing had happened yesterday to ourselves. We see the successive items—as if on a cinema film—the hesitation, the half-hearted struggle, the collapse; and they tally, part for part, with our own experience. It is clear that the temptations assailing you and me are all such as are common to man; they have been a standing dish at the board of human life from the beginning. We are up against the same foe as our fathers. So far, the position seems black enough. But what faith interjects is this—changing the scene-that the living God, Who is faithfully and unchangeably Redeemer, is the same for us now, as in their day for them.
In thinking about temptation, by much the most important thing is to secure that all the vital factors are kept in sight. Why is it we often get little good from reading the story of some great temptation and its issue? Why is it that the spectacle of a man's soul on trial leaves us excited but not solemnised, profoundly moved but not purified by emotion? Because we regard it only as a drama. We look on as we might at a tragedy played upon the stage. We are captivated by the struggle of good and evil. We watch the man fight a losing battle. Imagination fills with sympathetic suspense as the crisis comes on, and with pity and grief when it is over. Now the dramatic faculty is an ineradicable part of human nature, but it cannot do the work of faith in addition to its own. And the difference, for our present purpose, may be put thus: that the dramatic instinct is occupied with temptation merely as a process within the human mind, or between man and man; but religion looks deeper, and sees God. Once He is present upon the scene, He overshadows all the rest. Then the one question worth asking about temptation becomes: Where is God's place in it, what is His attitude toward it? That is the point on which the Bible fixes, and on which the teat has something to say which it is worth while to consider.
1. First, there is a limit beyond which temptation is unbearable. "God," says the apostle, "will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able." There is a point, then, beyond which we are not able. The weight of pressure we can sustain may be considerable, but the boundary line can be reached and it can be passed. Add a few more miles to the velocity of the hurricane tearing through the forest, and on every side the giant trunks come crashing down. So too there may come a limit of endurance, an insupportable tension, in a man's conflict with evil. Somewhere there is an end to our resources, imaginable combinations of forces for which we are not a match. If such moral calculations were ever possible, it could be reckoned that, what with the adversary's power on one side and on the other a nature frail or treacherous, defeat is only a matter of time.
All that is true regarding men in so far as they are unsustained by the higher reinforcement of God, willingly sought and used; and here, I need scarcely say, a Christian stands under precisely the same conditions as any one else. In the old mythology, Antaeus was weak as water when his foot left mother earth; and we too are feeble, the sport of tossing circumstance, when we lose touch with God. The man who recklessly imperils the honesty of his principles or the purity of his mind or the warmth of his devotion has to take the consequences, whoever he may be; for preservation under these conditions would be a perpetual and unintelligible miracle, and such miracles are never wrought as a reward for our presumption. "If you play with temptation," said Mary Slessor, " don't ask God to help you." If you head straight into evil, with eyes fast shut and fingers stopping your ears, any one can tell what will happen. There is a limit to your resisting power, and that limit you are choosing to disregard.
What is the practical inference, now that the fact of a limit has been ascertained? Just the homely thought, that no one can tell where the limit is, therefore experiments are foolish. If you set out to try and discover the exact line, you may succeed, but remember it will be because already you have crossed it and got on the wrong side. The line is visible only as we look back. To try how long we can bear an evil influence without yielding is to play with fire.
And yet is not this what men do so frequently, with that strange unteachableness in higher things which they would be ashamed to exhibit in business or sport? I can bear so much, they say, and not break down. I can come quite near the flame without being scorched. I can touch pitch safely enough, if I do it very gradually and very judiciously. I have lived with my own heart long enough to understand its ways, and up to a certain point I know that I can trust myself. So we get nearer and nearer to the evil thing, and very circumspectly put out our hand; and then, before we can collect ourselves, suddenly the moral flashpoint is reached, and the heart blazes up with sinful fire. That is the revenge of a nature tried too far.
Brethren, if the limits of safety are concealed, let that fact counsel us not rashly to tamper with these inflammable natures we carry about the world. Beware how you manufacture temptations for yourself. What would be thought of the navigator who knows there is a line of reefs jutting out near the harbour mouth, and yet tries how close he can hug the shore without running his vessel on the rocks? Give the moral dangers you can see a wide berth. There are people, for example, who fancy they can safely indulge in strong drink, because they only take a little; but most of their friends know they are taking a good deal more today than they took five years ago. Better a little wholesome asceticism, in which none of us is likely to exceed, than the method, exploded a thousand times over, of gambling on our powers of self-recovery.
2. Look next at the truth that temptation is under God's control. That obviously is implied in the promise of the text, that He will adjust our trial to our strength. It will not be permitted to come to us at the wrong moment, or without preparation.
Sometimes after a fall we speak in our despondency as if temptation had been sent upon us precisely when we were weakest, and as though, if only we had been allowed to arrange our own lives, we could have gained a much sounder discipline of character without the needless dangers we had undergone. But is not that unwisdom? We quarrel with life because of its risks; but would any one listen to the soldier who, after defeat, complained of having been sent into danger? What is a soldier, as we in this generation know to our great benefit, but one who faces peril unmurmuringly at the call of duty? Self-pity is the most ruinous of all moral tempers; the man who condones his own sin easily, pleading the excessive strain, is promising himself that under the same conditions he will sin again. There is no comfort to be had from poor excuses; there is comfort and exulting power to be drawn from the certainty that a loving God's ruling hand is over all. Temptation lies in His will; and I believe candour will force from every one of us the confession that in the crisis of moral struggle God never abandoned us but when we ourselves wished Him to depart.
But the Divine control is not negative merely, in the sense that temptation will not be allowed to go too far ; it is positive, because through its instrumentality God confers invaluable gifts not to be had in any other way. How can we imagine real discipline of character could be attained, except by means of—amongst other things—temptation? It may be a painful element in life, but does any one let the pupil's transient feeling about the disagreeableness of lesson-books, or the patient's about medicine, decide what is to be done? So, in greater matters, the risk of suffering must be run for the sake of tested Christian character. The virtues of action cannot be acquired in repose. The youth will never become a capable seaman who does no more than paddle about tamely behind the breakwater; and just so, the childish innocence that has missed the ordeal of moral conflict lacks, to the very end, the bone and sinew of proved Christian manhood in virtue of which we can pass on real help to others.
So, if any one here feels that his temptations have got wrong, and are doing him nothing but harm, I would ask him to fling over them the light of his faith in God. Remember that people, as cruelly beset as you are, have been able to detect, through it all, the loving pressure of God's hand. It was when the three Hebrews had entered the furnace heated seven times that they caught sight of that Divine figure, with its mysterious consolation, walking beside them. Reserve judgment till the worst is over; then, unless your experience is very unlike that of others who have put their trust in God, you will make the discovery that temptation, like the comets that flash across our sky, trails behind it a bright retinue of blessings. Sometimes it breaks in upon complacent peace; sometimes it rebukes neglect of prayer; sometimes it pricks the bubble of self-righteousness; sometimes it makes Christ more precious and therefore more near—and if it does any of these things, we shall not find it very terrible in retrospect, and the hallmark of a Father's loving purpose will stand out clearly. Trust God; He will never let you be tempted beyond what you can stand.
3. Something will be done to help us. "He will with the temptation make a way of escape." Temptation, that is to say, is inevitable in itself; it is part of man's life. What then? Does it just work itself out, in obedience to cold, rigid laws, with a dumb, heartless universe looking on? Not so. There is a way of escape, furnished by God Himself.
An escape—the word used here is a picturesque one. It means the exit from a mountain pass; and the picture it calls up is that of a gallant band penned overnight by the foe in a contracted defile, with every means of egress, apparently, closed up; yet in the morning the gully is empty, and the defenders over the hills and far away, because a way out has revealed itself. So, we are to believe, no man is so fatally hemmed in that he must surrender, his weapons struck out of his hands. There is an exit, provided by better wisdom than ours, and it can be found. What is more, the apostle hints that the temptation and the escape correspond to each other. As he puts it here, it is the way of escape—one that matches the difficulty and presents itself along with it. If you are tortured with an evil imagination, there is a method in which that very imagination can be sublimated, as people say today, that is, switched off to nobler objects. If your besetting sin is selfishness, you can somehow get out into the bigger world of sympathy. If it is hasty temper, then the quick feeling and ardent energies can spend themselves elsewhere without doing damage. God's plan never is to exterminate the mutinous instinct, but to find it better work.
I have no desire to say a miracle will be wrought. At least, it will most likely be only the miracle of opening your eyes to an exit that was there all the time. I remember how a friend of mine, now one of the bravest of missionaries, told me that in student days, when cruel and riotous appetite rose up within, he used to calm himself by repeating the name of Jesus under his breath. The music of the word refreshed him. There are others for whom hard work is the needed panacea. There are still others who will never master their tyrannous and growing self-absorption till they deliberately choose this or that needy life, very easy to discover in a world like this, and pour into it succour and brotherhood. These are openings—and there are others, for no catalogue could be exhaustive—openings and possibilities which lie about us now, and require no supernatural action of God to bring them into being. The passage that opens out in the seemingly blank wall of rock, and lets us through, was there from the beginning, and was duly disclosed when we came forward far enough to see it. What our Father does for us is to remove our blindness. When He has laid His hand over our eyes, and the scales fall, we are filled with wonder at our own despair.
A way of escape—is there one of us who does not feel how that makes a revolutionising change in the position? What is it breaks down so many of the tempted, and flings them, bruised and faint, under the grinding heel of sin? Just the sad persuasion that the struggle can only end one way; that they have been caught and caged and fettered by circumstance, till escape is unthinkable. Let the man see a wide gateway anywhere, out into the clear air where freedom is, and hope that brings triumph will lift its head again. He needs to listen to the voice of Christ, charged with promise: "Behold I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it."
In that case, the one question a tempted man has to answer is this: When God points the way out, shall I obey loyally, and take it? Sometimes it costs pain; are we ready to pay the price? The guerilla band escaping from the valley where the enemy had rounded them up, must clamber over rocks, perhaps, at the hazard of bruised limbs and bleeding hands; and when we have entangled ourselves in evil, or in situations which lead to evil, the escape will almost certainly be through pain and sacrifice. Often the sacrifice God asks of us is to put our pride in our pocket and take to flight. If He asks that of you, remember that it may require a far higher degree of courage to run away from temptation than to stay where you are. The one rule for a follower of Christ, in whose heart the Master is speaking, with the guidance that points to escape, is "Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it."
4. Lastly, the whole experience lies under the faithfulness of God. "God is faithful," says the apostle in the first words of the text, which are also the last in profound significance; and in these three words he outlines the great background against which this whole discipline of temptation, with its danger and its potential blessedness, is set. Without that background, the picture would be one of unrelieved gloom.
When you are making your forecast of the future, and particularly its threatening aspect, do you take the love of God and His promises into account? Do you always reckon in the power of One who is mighty to save? That alters the calculation. Leave God out, and then our expectations become grey and dismal, "like the landscape on a cloudy day, when the woods stand bleak, and the rivers creep melancholy through colourless fields. Let the sun come out, and the river flashes into a golden mirror, and the woods are alive with twinkling lights and shadows, and all the birds sing." God's faithfulness is the sun of tempted lives.
People often ask the question, or catch it up from other lips: Does it matter what a man believes? There is no difficulty about answering that. In the hour of temptation, in the very throes of it, nothing except what he believes will matter in the least. And the centre and pivot of all will be what he believes about God. Let the constant love of that strong Friend be assured, and the whole balance of life and hope is redressed, and light hangs over the coming years. "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her," the poet tells us; and in a still deeper sense, if Christ is true, we can rest troubled and tossed hearts, and feeble volitions, and haunting memories, upon the strong love of a faithful Creator.
Will not that make a difference when next the hour of temptation comes? Yes, it will. Go down to some great dock of our seaport towns, and watch the astounding sight of "a man setting the strength of his two arms against the whole weight of ocean when he closes the dock gates. How can any one man stand up against the great sea and defy it like that? Because behind him there is the whole science of engineering," and it is all enlisted on his side. So when the surge of evil is coming in upon us, to sweep us away in failure, all the power of a faithful God is at our disposal, and in His strength we can thrust back the tide. Claim that power today, claim it tomorrow, and each day in the future as it comes. God is putting it into your hand, for escape and victory and joy.