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True Abstinence

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT.

I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.--1 COR. ix. 27.


In the Collect for this day we have just been praying to God, to give us grace to use such abstinence, that our flesh being subdued to our spirit, we may follow His godly motions.

Now we ought to have meant something when we said these words. What did we mean by them? Perhaps some of us did not understand them. They could not be expected to mean anything by them. But it is a sad thing, a very sad thing, that people will come to church Sunday after Sunday, and repeat by rote words which they do not understand, words by which they therefore mean nothing, and yet never care or try to understand them.

What are the words there for, except to be understood? All of you call people foolish, who submit to have prayers read in their churches in a foreign language, which none, at least of the poor, can understand. But what right have you to call them foolish, if you, whose Prayer-books are written in English, take no trouble to find out the meaning of them? Would to Heaven that you would try to find out the meaning of the Prayer-book! Would to Heaven that the day would come, when anyone in this parish who was puzzled by any doctrine of religion, or by any text in the Bible, or word in the Prayer-book, would come confidently to me, and ask me to explain it to him! God knows, I should think it an honour and a pleasure, as well as a duty. I should think no time better spent than in answering your questions. I do beseech you to ask me, every one of you, when and where you like, any questions about religion which come into your minds. Why am I put in this parish, except to teach you? and how can I teach you better, than by answering your questions? As it is, I am disheartened, and all but hopeless, at times, about the state of this parish, and the work I am trying to do here; because, though you will come and hear me, thank God, willingly enough, you do not seem yet to have gained confidence enough in me, or to have learnt to care sufficiently about the best things, to ask questions of me about them. My dear friends, if you wanted to get information about anything you really cared for, you would ask questions enough. If you wanted to know some way to a place on earth you would ask it; why not ask your way to things better than this earth can give? But whether or not you will question me I must go on preaching to you, though whether or not you care to listen is more, alas! than I can tell.

But listen to me, now, I beseech you, while I try to explain to you the meaning of the words which you have been just using in this Collect. You have asked God to give you grace to use abstinence. Now what is the meaning of abstinence? Abstinence means abstaining, refraining, keeping back of your own will from doing something which you might do. Take an example. When a man for his health's sake, or his purse's sake, or any other good reason, drinks less liquor than he might if he chose, he abstains from liquor. He uses abstinence about liquor. There are other things in which a man may abstain. Indeed, he may abstain from doing anything he likes. He may abstain from eating too much; from lying in bed too long; from reading too much; from taking too much pleasure; from making money; from spending money; from right things; from wrong things; from things which are neither right nor wrong; on all these he may use abstinence. He may abstain for many reasons; for good ones, or for bad ones. A miser will abstain from all sorts of comforts to hoard up money. A superstitious man may abstain from comforts, because he thinks God grudges them to him, or because he thinks God is pleased by the unhappiness of His creatures, or because he has been taught, poor wretch, that if he makes himself uncomfortable in this life, he shall have more comfort, more honour, more reason for pride and self- glorification, in the life to come. Or a man may abstain from one pleasure, just to be able to enjoy another all the more; as some great gamblers drink nothing but water, in order to keep their heads clear for cheating. All these are poor reasons; some of them base, some of them wicked reasons for abstaining from anything. Therefore, abstinence is not a good thing in itself; for if a thing is good in itself, it can never be wrong. Love is good in itself, and, therefore, you cannot love anyone for a bad reason. Justice is good in itself, pity is good in itself, and, therefore, you can never be wrong in being just or pitiful.

But abstinence is not a good thing in itself. If it were, we should all be bound to abstain always from everything pleasant, and make ourselves as miserable and uncomfortable as possible, as some superstitious persons used to do in old times. Abstinence is only good when it is used for a good reason. If a man abstains from pleasure himself, to save up for his children; if he abstains from over eating and over drinking, to keep his mind clear and quiet; if he abstains from sleep and ease, in order to have time to see his business properly done; if he abstains from spending money on himself, in order to spend it for others; if he abstains from any habit, however harmless or pleasant, because he finds it lead him towards what is wrong, and put him into temptation; then he does right; then he is doing God's work; then he may expect God's blessing; then he is trying to do what we all prayed God to help us to do, when we said, "Give us grace to use such abstinence;" then he is doing, more or less, what St. Paul says he did, "Keeping his body under, and bringing it into subjection."

For, see, the Collect does not say, "Give us grace to use abstinence," as if abstinence were a good thing in itself, but "to use such abstinence, that"--to use a certain kind of abstinence, and that for a certain purpose, and that purpose a good one; such abstinence that our flesh may be subdued to our spirit; that our flesh, the animal, bodily nature which is in us, loving ease and pleasure, may not be our master, but our servant; so that we may not follow blindly our own appetites, and do just what we like, as brute beasts which have no understanding. And our flesh is to be subdued to our spirit for a certain purpose; not because our flesh is bad, and our spirit good; not in order that we may puff ourselves up and admire ourselves, and say, as the philosophers among the heathen used, "What a strong-minded, sober, self-restraining man I am! How fine it is to be able to look down on my neighbours, who cannot help being fond of enjoying themselves, and cannot help caring for this world's good things. I am above all that. I want nothing, and I feel nothing, and nothing can make me glad or sorry. I am master of my own mind, and own no law but my own will." The Collect gives us the true and only reason, for which it is right to subdue our appetites; which is, that we may keep our minds clear and strong enough to listen to the voice of God within our hearts and reasons; to obey the motions of God's Spirit in us; not to make our bodies our masters, but to live as God's servants.

This is St. Paul's meaning, when he speaks of keeping under his body, and bringing it into subjection. The exact word which he uses, however, is a much stronger one than merely "keeping under;" it means simply, to beat a man's face black and blue; and his reason for using such a strong word about the matter is, to show us that he thought no labour too hard, no training too sharp, which teaches us how to restrain ourselves, and keep our appetites and passions in manful and godly control.

Now, a few verses before my text, St. Paul takes an example from foot-racers. "These foot-racers," he says, "heathens though they are, and only trying to win a worthless prize, the petty honour of a crown of leaves, see what trouble they take; how they exercise their limbs; how careful and temperate they are in eating and drinking, how much pain and fatigue they go through to get themselves into perfect training for a race. How much more trouble ought we to take to make ourselves fit to do God's work? For these foot-racers do all this only to gain a garland which will wither in a week; but we, to gain a garland which will never fade away; a garland of holiness, and righteousness, and purity, and the likeness of Jesus Christ."

The next example of abstinence which St. Paul takes, is from the prize-fighters, who were very numerous and very famous, in the country in which the Corinthians lived. "I fight," he says, "not like one who beats the air;" that is, not like a man who is only brandishing his hands and sparring in jest, but like a man who knows that he has a fight to fight in hard earnest; a terrible lifelong fight against sin, the world, and the devil; "and, therefore," he says, "I do as these fighters do." They, poor savage and brutal heathens as they are, go through a long and painful training. Their very practice is not play; it is grim earnest. They stand up to strike, and be struck, and are bruised and disfigured as a matter of course, in order that they may learn not to flinch from pain, or lose their tempers, or turn cowards, when they have to fight. "And so do I," says St. Paul; "they, poor men, submit to painful and disagreeable things to make them brave in their paltry battles. I submit to painful and disagreeable things, to make me brave in the great battle which I have to fight against sin, and ignorance, and heathendom." "Therefore," he says, in another place, "I take pleasure in afflictions, in persecutions, in necessities, in distresses;" and that not because those things were pleasant, they were just as unpleasant to him as to anyone else; but because they taught him to bear, taught him to be brave; taught him, in short, to become a perfect man of God.

This is St. Paul's account of his own training: in the Epistle for to-day we have another account of it; a description of the life which he led, and which he was content to lead--"in much suffering, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watching, in fastings"--and an account, too, of the temper which he had learnt to show amid such a life of vexation, and suffering, and shame, and danger--"approving himself in all things the minister of God, by pureness, by wisdom, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the spirit of holiness, by love unfeigned;" "as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing all things."--In all things proving himself a true messenger from God, by being able to dare and to endure for God's sake, what no man ever would have dared and endured for his own sake.

"But"--someone may say--"St. Paul was an apostle; he had a great work to do in the world; he had to turn the heathen to God; and it is likely enough that he required to train himself, and keep strict watch over all his habits, and ways of thinking and behaving, lest he should grow selfish, lazy, cowardly, covetous, fond of ease and amusement. He had, of course, to lead a life of strange suffering and danger; and he had therefore to train himself for it. But what need have we to do as St. Paul did?"

Just as much need, my good friends, if you could see it.

Which of us has not to lead a life of suffering? We shall each and all of us, have our full share of trouble before we die, doubt it not.

And which of us has not to lead a life of danger? I do not mean bodily danger; of that, there is little enough--perhaps too little-- in England now; but of danger to our hearts, minds, characters? Oh, my friends, I pity those who do not think themselves in danger every day of their lives, for the less danger they see around them, the more danger there is. There is not only the common danger of temptation, but over and above it, the worse danger of not knowing temptation when it comes. Who will be most likely to walk into pits and mires upon the moor--the man who knows that they are there around him, or the man who goes on careless and light of heart, fancying that it is all smooth ground? Woe to you, young people, if you fancy that you are to have no woe! Danger to you, young people, if you fancy yourselves in no danger!

"This is sad and dreary news"--some of you may say. Ay, my friends, it would be sad and dreary news indeed; and this earth would be a very sad and dreary place; and life with all its troubles and temptations, would not be worth having, if it were not for the blessed news which the Gospel for this day brings us. That makes up for all the sadness of the Epistle; that gives us hope; that tells us of one who has been through life, and through death too, yet without sin. That tells us of one who has endured a thousand times more temptation than we ever shall, a thousand times more trouble than we ever shall, and yet has conquered it all; and that He who has thus been through all our temptations, borne all our weaknesses, is our King, our Saviour, who loves us, who teaches us, who has promised us His Holy Spirit, to make us like Himself, strong, brave, and patient, to endure all that man or devil, or our own low animal tempers and lusts, can do to hurt us. The Gospel for this day tells us how He went and was alone in the wilderness with the wild beasts, and yet trusted in God, His Father and ours, to keep Him safe. How He went without food forty days and nights, and yet in His extreme hunger, refused to do the least self-willed or selfish thing to get Himself food. Is that no lesson, no message of hope for the poor man who is tempted by hunger to steal, or tempted by need to do a mean and selfish thing, to hear that the Lord Jesus Christ, who bore need and hunger far worse than his, understands all his temptations, and feels for him, and pities him, and has promised him God's Spirit to make him strong, as He himself was?

Is it no comfort to young people who are tempted to vanity, and display, and self-willed conceited longings, tempted to despise the advice of their parents and elders, and set up for themselves, and choose their own way--Is it no good news, I say, for them to hear that their Lord and Saviour was tempted to it also, and conquered it?--That He will teach them to answer the temptation as He did, when He refused even to let angels hold Him over the temple, up between earth and heaven, for a sign and a wonder to all the Jews, because God His Father had not bidden Him to do it, and therefore He would not tempt the Lord His God?

Is it no good news, again, to those who are tempted to do perhaps one little outward wrong thing, to yield on some small point to the ways of the world, in order to help themselves on in life, to hear that their Lord and Saviour conquered that temptation too?--That he refused all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, when the devil offered them, because he knew that the devil could not give them to Him; that all wealth, and power, and glory belonged to God, and was to be got only by serving Him?

Oh do you all, young people especially, think of this. As you grow up and go out into life, you will be tempted in a hundred different ways, by things which are pleasant--everyone knows that they are pleasant enough--but wrong. One will be tempted to be vain of dress; another to be self-conceited; another to be lazy and idle; another to be extravagant and roving; another to be over fond of amusement; another to be over fond of money; another to be over fond of liquor; another to go wrong, as too many young men and young women do, and bring themselves, and those with whom they keep company, and whom they ought, if they really love them, to respect and honour, down into sin and shame. You will all be tempted, and you will all be troubled; one by poverty, one by sickness, one by the burden of a family, one by being laughed at for trying to do right. But remember, oh remember, whenever a temptation comes upon you, that the blessed Jesus has been through it all, and conquered all, and that His will is, that you shall be holy and pure like Him, and that, therefore, if you but ask Him, He will give you strength to keep pure. When you are tempted, pray to Him: the struggle in your own minds will, no doubt, be very great; it will be very hard work for you--sin looks so pleasant on the outside! Poor souls, it is a sad struggle for you! Many a poor young fellow, who goes wrong, deserves rather to be pitied than to be punished. Well then, if no man else will pity him, Jesus, the Man of all men, will. Pray to Him! Cry aloud to Him! Ask Him to make you stout-hearted, patient, really manful, to fight against temptation. Ask Him to give you strength of mind to fight against all bad habits. Ask Him to open your eyes to see when you are in danger. Ask Him to help you to keep out of the way of temptation. Ask Him, in short, to give you grace to use such abstinence that your flesh may be subdued to your spirit. And then you will not follow, as the beasts do, just what seems pleasant to your flesh; no, you will be able to obey Christ's godly motions, that is, to do, as well as to love, the good desires which He puts into your hearts. You will do not merely what is pleasant, but what is right; you will not be your own slaves, you will be your own masters, and God's loyal and obedient sons; you will not be, as too many are, mere animals going about in the shape of men, but truly men at heart, who are not afraid of pain, poverty, shame, trouble, or death itself, when they are in the right path, about the work to which God has called them.

But if you ask Christ to make true men and women of you, you must believe that He will give you what you ask; if you ask Him to help you, you must believe that He will and does help you--you must believe that it is He Himself who has put into your hearts the very desire of being holy and strong at all; and therefore you must believe that you can help yourselves. Help yourselves, and He will help you. If you ask for His help, He will give it. But what is the use of His giving it, if you do not use it? To him who has shall be given, and he shall have more; but from him who has not shall be taken away even what he seems to have. Therefore do not merely pray, but struggle and try YOURSELVES. Train yourselves as St. Paul did; train yourselves to keep your temper; train yourselves to bear unpleasant things for the sake of your duty; train yourselves to keep out of temptation; train yourselves to be forgiving, gentle, thrifty, industrious, sober, temperate, cleanly, as modest as little children in your words, and thoughts, and conduct. And God, when He sees you trying to be all this, will help you to be so. It may be hard to educate yourselves. Life is a hard business at best--you will find it a thousand times harder, though, if you are slaves to your own fleshly sins. But the more you struggle against sin, the less hard you will find it to fight; the more you resist the devil, the more he will flee from you; the more you try to conquer your own bad passions, the more God will help you to conquer them; it may be a hard battle, but it is a sure one. No fear but that everyone can, if he will, work out his own salvation, for it is God Himself who works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure. All you have to do is to give yourselves up to Him, to study His laws, to labour as well as long to keep them, and He will enable you to keep them; He will teach you in a thousand unexpected ways; He will daily renew and strengthen your hearts by the working of His Spirit, that you may more and more know, and love, and do, what is right; and you will go on from strength to strength, to the height of perfect men, to the likeness of Jesus Christ the Lord, who conquered all human temptations for your sake, that He might be a high-priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, because He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.


Charles Kingsley