Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
"We cannot do the things that we would." These are words of familiar and common use; this is the language in which we are all apt to excuse, whether to ourselves or to others, the various faults of our conduct. We should be glad to do better, so we say and think, but the power to do so fails us. And so far it may seem that we are but echoing the apostle's language; for he says the very same thing, "Ye cannot do the things that ye would." Yet the words as we use them, and as the apostle used them, have the most opposite meaning in the world. We use them as a reason why we should be satisfied, the apostle as a reason why we should be alarmed; we intend them to be an excuse, the apostle meant them to be a certain sign of condemnation.
The reasons of this difference may be understood very easily. We, in the common course of justice, should think it hard to punish a man for not doing what he cannot do. We think, therefore, that if we say that we cannot do well, we establish also our own claim to escape from punishment. But God declares that a state of sin is and must be a state of misery; and that if we cannot escape the sin, we cannot escape the misery. According to God's meaning, then, the words, "Ye cannot do the things which ye would," mean no other than this: "Ye cannot escape from hell; ye cannot be redeemed from the power of death and of Satan; the power is wanting in you, however much you may wish it: death has got you, and it will keep you for ever." So that, in this way, sickness or weakness of the soul is very like sickness or weakness of the body. We cannot help being ill or weak in many cases: is that any reason why, according to the laws of God's providence, we should not suffer the pain of illness? Or is it not, rather, clear that we suffer it just because we have not the power to get rid of it; if we had the power to be well, we should be well. A man's evils are not gone because he wishes them away; it is not he who would fain see his chains broken, that escapes from his bondage; but he who has the strength to rend them asunder.
Thus, then, in St. Paul's language, "Ye cannot do the things that ye would," means exactly, "Ye are not redeemed, but in bondage; ye are not saved, but lost." But he goes on to the reason why we cannot do the things which we would, which is, "because the flesh and the Spirit are contrary to one another," and pull us, as it were, different ways. Just as we might say of a man in illness, that the reason why he is not well, as he wishes to be, is because his healthy nature and his disease are contrary to one another, and are striving within him for the mastery. His blood, according to its healthy nature, would flow calmly and steadily; his food, according to his healthy nature, would be received with appetite, and would give him nourishment and strength; but, behold, there is in him now another nature, contrary to his healthy nature: and this other nature makes his blood flow with feverish quickness, and makes food distasteful to him, and makes the food which he has eaten before to become, as it were, poison; it does not nourish him or strengthen, but is a burden, a weakness, and a pain. As long as these two natures thus struggle within him, the man is sick; as soon as the diseased nature prevails, the man sinks and dies. He does not wish to die, -- not at all, -- most earnestly, it may be, does he wish to live; but his diseased nature has overcome his healthy nature, and so he must die. If he would live, in any sense that deserves to be called life, the diseased nature must not overcome, must not struggle equally; it must be overcome, it must be kept down, it must be rendered powerless; and then, when the healthy nature has prevailed, its victory is health and strength.
So far all is alike; but what follows afterwards? As "ye cannot do the things which ye would, because the flesh and the Spirit are contrary to one another," -- what then? "Therefore," says the apostle, "walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh." Surely there is some thing marvellous in this. For, let us speak the same language to the sick man: tell him, "Follow thy healthy nature, and them shalt not be sick," what would the words be but a bitter mockery? "How can you bid me," he would say, "to follow my healthy nature, when ye know that my diseased nature has bound me? Have ye no better comfort than this to offer me? Tell me rather how I may become able to follow my healthy nature; show me the strength which may help my weakness; or else your words are vain, and I never can recover." Most true would be this answer; and therefore disease and death do make havoc of us all, and the healthy nature is in the end borne down by the diseased nature, and sooner or later the great enemy triumphs over us, and, in spite of all our wishes and fond desires for life, we go down, death's conquered subjects, to the common grave of all living.
This happens to the bodies of us all; to the souls of only too many. But why does it not happen also to the souls of all? How is it that some do fulfil the apostle's bidding? that they do walk in the Spirit, and therefore do not fulfil the lusts of the flesh; and therefore having conquered their diseased nature, they do walk according to their healthful nature, and are verily able to do, and do continually, the very things that they would? Surely this so striking difference, between the universal conquest of our diseased nature in the body, and the occasional victory of the healthy nature in the soul, shows us clearly that for the soul there has appeared a Redeemer already, while for the body the redemption is delayed till death shall be swallowed up in victory.
For most true is it that in ourselves we could not deliver ourselves either soul or body. "Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh," might have been as cruel a mockery to us, as the similar words addressed to the man bodily sick, -- "Walk according to thy healthy nature, and thou shalt not suffer from disease." They might have been a mockery, but blessed be God, they are not. They are not, because God has given us a Redeemer; they are not, because Christ has died, yea rather has risen again; and because the Spirit of Christ helpeth our infirmities, and gives us that power which by ourselves we had not.
Not by wishing then to be redeemed, but by being redeemed, shall we escape the power of death. Not by saying, "Alas! we cannot do the things that we would!" but by becoming able to do them. Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh; but if ye do fulfil them, ye must die.
The power to walk in the Spirit is given by the Spirit; but either all have not this power, or all do not use it. I think rather it is that all have it not, for if they had it, a power so mighty and so beneficent, they surely could not help using it. All have it not; but I do not say that they all might not have it; on the contrary, all might have it, but in point of fact they have it not. They have it not because they seek it not: for an idle wish is one thing; a steady persevering pursuit is another. They seek not the Spirit by the appointed means, the means of prayer and attending to God's holy word, and thinking of life and death and judgment.
Do those seek the spirit of God who never pray to God? Clearly they do not. For they who never pray to God never think of Him; they who never think of Him, by the very force of the terms it follows that they cannot seek his help. And yet they say, "Oh, I wish to be good, but I cannot!" But this, in the language of the Scripture, is a lie. If they did wish to be good they would seek the help that could make them so. There is no boy so young as not to know that, when temptation is on him to evil, prayer to God will strengthen him for good. As sure as we live, if he wished really to overcome the temptation, he would seek the strength.
Consider what prayer is, and see how it cannot but strengthen us. He who stands in a sheltered place, where the wind cannot reach him, and with no branches over his head to cause a damp shade, and then holds up his face or his hands to the sun, in his strength, can he help feeling the sun's warmth? Now, thus it is in prayer: we turn to God, we bring our souls, with all their thoughts and feelings, fully before Him; and by the very act of so doing, we shelter ourselves from every chill of worldly care, we clear away every intercepting screen of worldly thought and pleasure. It is an awful thing so to submit ourselves wholly to the influence of God. But do it; and as surely as the sun will warm us if we stand in the sun, so will the Giver of light and life to the soul pour his Spirit of life into us; even as we pray, we become changed into his image.
This is not spoken extravagantly. I ask of any one who has ever prayed in earnest, whether for that time, and while he was so praying, he did not feel, as it were, another man; a man able to do the things which he would; a man redeemed and free. But most true is it that this feeling passes away but too soon, when the prayer is done. Still for the time, there is the effect; we know what it is to put ourselves, in a manner, beneath the rays of God's grace; but we do not abide there long, and then we feel the damp and the cold of earth again.
Therefore says the Apostle, "Pray without ceasing." If we could literally pray always, it is clear that we should sin never: it may be thus that Christ's redeemed, at his coming, as they will be for ever with him and with the Father, can therefore sin no more. For where God is, there is no place left for sin. But we cannot pray always: we cannot pray the greatest portion of our time; nay, we can pray, in the common sense of the term, only a very small portion of it. Yet, at least, we can take heed that we do pray sometimes, and that our prayer be truly in earnest. We can pray then for God's help to abide with us when we are not praying: we can commit to his care, not only our hours of sleep, but our hours of worldly waking. "I have work to do, I have a busy world around me; eye, ear, and thought will be all needed for that work, done in and amidst that busy world; now, ere I enter upon it, I would commit eye, ear, thought and wish to Thee. Do thou bless them, and keep their work thine; that as, through thy natural laws, my heart beats and my blood flows without my thought for them, so my spiritual life may hold on its course, through, thy help, at those times when my mind cannot consciously turn to Thee to commit each particular thought to thy service."
But I dare not say that by any the most urgent prayers, uttered only at night and morning, God's blessing can thus be gained for the whole intervening day. For, in truth, if we did nothing more, the prayers would soon cease to be urgent; they would become formal, that is, they would be no prayers at all. For prayer lives in the heart, and not in the mouth; it consists not of words, but wishes. And no man can set himself heartily to wish twice a day for things, of which he never thinks at other times in the day. So that prayer requires in a manner to be fed, and its food is to be found in reading and thinking; in reading God's word, and in thinking about him, and about the world as being his work.
Young men and boys are generally, we know, not fond of reading for its own sake; and when they do read for their own pleasure, they naturally read something that interests them. Now, what are called serious books, including certainly the Bible, do not interest them, and therefore they are not commonly read. What shall we say, then? Are they not interested in becoming good, in learning to do the things which, they would? If they are not, if they care not for the bondage of sin and death, there is, of course, nothing to be said; then they are condemned already; they are not the children of God. But one says, "I wish I could find interest in a serious book, but I cannot." Observe again, "Ye cannot do the things that ye would," because the flesh and the Spirit are contrary to one another. However, to return to him who says this, the answer to him is this, -- "The interest cannot come without the reading; it may and will come with it." For interest in a subject depends very much on our knowledge of it; and so it is with, the things of Christ. As long as the life and death of Christ are strange to us, how can we be interested about them? but read them, thinking of what they were, and what were their ends, and who can help being interested about them? Read them carefully, and read them often, and they will bring before our minds the very thoughts which we need, and which the world keeps continually from us, the thoughts which naturally feed our prayers; thoughts not of self, nor selfishness, nor pleasure, nor passion, nor folly, but of such things as are truly God's -- love, and self-denial, and purity, and wisdom. These thoughts come by reading the Scriptures; and strangely do they mingle at first with the common evil thoughts of our evil nature. But they soon find a home within us, and more good thoughts gather round them, and there comes a time when daily life with its various business, which, once seemed to shut them out altogether, now ministers to their nourishment.
Wherefore, in conclusion, walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh; but do even the things which ye would. And ye can walk in the Spirit, if ye seek for the Spirit; if ye seek him by prayer, and by reading of Christ, and the things of Christ. If we will do neither, then most assuredly we are not seeking him; if we seek him not, we shall never find him. If we find him not, we shall never be able to do the things that we would; we shall never be redeemed, never made free, but our souls shall be overcome by their evil nature, as surely as our bodies by their diseased nature; till one death shall possess us wholly, a death of body and of soul, the death of eternal misery.