'What am I going to be?' is the question that presses upon young people stepping out of the irresponsibilities of childhood into youth. But, unfortunately, the question is generally supposed to be answered when they have fixed upon a trade or profession. It means, rightly taken, a great deal more than that. 'What am I going to make of myself?' 'What ideal have I before me, towards which I constantly press?' is a question that I would fain lay upon the hearts of all that now hear me. For the misery and the reason of the failure of so many lives is simply that people have never fairly looked that question in the face and tried to answer it, but drift and drift, and let circumstances determine them. And, of course, in a world like this, such people are sure to turn out what such an immense number of people do turn out, failures as far as all God's purposes with humanity are concerned. The absence of a clear ideal is the misery and the loss of all young people who do not possess it.
So here in my text is an old man's notion of what young men ought to be and may be. 'Ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one.'
So said the aged John to some amongst his hearers in these corrupt Asiatic cities. It was not merely a fair ideal painted upon vacancy, but it was a portrait of actual young Christians in these little Asiatic churches. And I would fain have some of you take this realised ideal for yours and see to it that your lives be conformed to it.
There are three points here. The Apostle, first of all, lays his finger upon the strength, which is something more than mere physical strength, proper to youth. Then he lets us see the secret source of that strength: 'Ye have the word of God abiding in you.' And then he shows the field on which it should be exercised, and the victory which it secures: 'And ye have overcome the wicked one.' Now let me touch upon these three points briefly in succession.
I. First, then, note here the strength which you young people ought to covet and to aim at.
It is not merely the physical strength proper to their age, nor the mere unworn buoyancy and vigour which sorrows and care and responsibilities have not thinned and weakened. These are great and precious gifts. We never know how precious they are until they have slipped away from us. These are great and precious gifts, to be preserved as long as may be, by purity and by moderation, and to be used for high and great purposes. But the strength that is in thews and muscles is not the strength that the Apostle is speaking about here, nor anything that belongs simply to the natural stage of your development, whether it be purely physical or purely mental. Samson was a far weaker man than the poor little Jew 'whose bodily presence was weak and his speech contemptible,' and who all his days carried about with him that 'thorn in the flesh.' It is not your body that is to be strong, but yourselves.
Now the foundation of all true strength lies here, in a good, strong will. In this world, unless a man has learned to say 'No!' and to say it very decidedly, and to stick to it, he will never come to any good. Two words contain the secret of noble life: 'Resist!' and 'Persist!' And the true strength of manhood lies in this mainly, that, in spite of all antagonisms, hindrances, voices, and things that array themselves against you, having greatly resolved, you do greatly do what you have resolved, and having said 'I will!' let neither men nor devils lead you to say, 'I will not.' Depend upon it, that to be weak in this direction is to be weak all through. Strong passions make weak men. And a strong will is the foundation, in this wicked and antagonistic world in which we live, of all real strength.
But then the strength that I would have you seek, and strive to cultivate, must be a strength of will founded upon strong reason. Determination unenlightened is obstinacy, and obstinacy is weakness. A mule can beat you at that: 'Be ye not as the mule, which have no understanding.' A determination which does not take into its view all the facts of the case, nor is influenced by these, has no right to call itself strength. It is only, to quote a modern saying -- I know not whether true of the person to whom it was originally applied or no -- is 'only a lath painted to look like iron.' Unintelligent obstinacy is folly, like the conduct of some man who sticks to his pick and his task in a quarry after the bugle has warned him of an impending explosion, which will blow him to atoms.
But that is not all. A strong will, illuminated by a strong beam of light from the understanding, must be guided and governed by a strong hand put forth by Conscience. 'I should like' is the weakling's motto. 'I will' may be an obstinate fool's motto. 'I ought, therefore, God helping me, and though the devil hinders me, I will,' is a man's. Conscience is king. To obey it is to be free; to neglect it is to be a slave.
Is not this a better ideal for life than gathering any outward possessions, however you may succeed therein? A thousand things will have to be taken into account, and may help or may hinder outward prosperity and success. But nobody can hinder you working at your character and succeeding in making it what it ought to be; and to form character is the end of life. 'To be weak is miserable, doing or suffering.' Ay! that is true, though Milton put it into the devil's mouth. And there is only one strength that will last, 'for even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fail.' But the strength of a fixed and illuminated and conscience-guided will, which governs the man and is governed by God, shall never faint or grow weak. This is the strength which we should seek, and which I ask you to make the conscious aim of your lives.
II. Now note, secondly, how to get it.
'Ye are strong, and the Word of God abideth in you.' Those young Asiatic Christians, that John had in his eye, had learned the secret and the conditions of this strength; and not only in limb and sinew, or in springy and elastic buoyancy of youthful, mental, and spiritual vigour were they strong, but they were so because 'the Word of God abode in them.' Now, there are two significations of that great expression, both of them frequent in John's Gospel, and both of them, I think, transferred to this Epistle, each of which may yield us a word of counsel. By 'the Word of God,' as I take it, is meant -- perhaps I ought to say both, but, at all events, either -- the revelation of God's truth in Holy Scripture, or the personal revelation of the will and nature of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Whichever of these two meanings -- and at bottom they come to be one -- we attach to this expression, we draw from them an exhortation. Let me put this very briefly.
Let me say to you, then, if you want to be strong, let Scripture truth occupy and fill and be always present to your mind. There are powers to rule and to direct all conduct, motive powers of the strongest character in these great truths of God's revelation. They are meant to influence a man in all his doings, and it is for us to bring the greatest and solemnest of them to bear on the smallest things of our daily life. Suppose, now, that you go to your work, and some little difficulty starts up in your path, or some trivial annoyance ruffles your temper, or some lurking temptation is suddenly sprung upon you. Suppose your mind and heart were saturated with God's truth, with the great thoughts of His being, of His love, of His righteousness, of Christ's death for you, of Christ's presence with you, of Christ's guardianship over you, of Christ's present will that you should walk in His ways, of the bright hopes of the future, and the solemn vision of that great White Throne and the retribution that streams thence, do you think it would be possible for you to fall into sin, to yield to temptation, to be annoyed by any irritation or bother, or overweighted by any duty? No! Whosoever lives with the thoughts that God has given us in His Word familiar to His mind and within easy reach of His hand, has therein an armlet against all possible temptation, a test that will unveil the hidden corruption in the sweetest seductions, and a calming power that will keep his heart still and collected in the midst of agitations. If the Word of God in that lower sense of the principles involved in the gospel of Jesus Christ, dwell in your hearts, the fangs are taken out of the serpent. If you drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt you, and you will 'be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.'
Bring the greatest truths you can find to bear on the smallest duties, and the small duties will grow great to match the principles by which they are done. Bring the laws of Jesus Christ down to the little things, for, in the name of common sense, if our religion is not meant to regulate trifles, what is it meant to regulate? Life is made up of trifles. There are half a dozen crises in the course of your life, but there are a thousand trivial things in the course of every day. It would be a poor kind of regulating principle that controlled the crises, and left us alone to manage with the trifles the best way we could.
But in order that there shall be this continual operation of the motives and principles involved in the gospel upon our daily lives, we must have them very near our hand, ready to be laid hold of. The soldier that would march through an enemy's country, having left his gun in the hands of some camp follower, would be very likely to be shot before he got his gun. I remember going through the Red Sea; at the mouth of it where the entrance is narrow, and the currents run strong, when the ship approaches the dangerous place, the men take their stations at appointed places, and the ponderous anchors are loosened and ready to be dropped in an instant if the swirl of the current sweeps the ship into dangerous proximity to the reef. It is no time to cut the lashings of the anchors when the keel is grating on the coral rocks. And it is no time to have to look about for our weapons when the sudden temptation leaps upon us like a strong man armed. You must have them familiar to you by devout meditation, by frequent reflection, prayer, study of God's Word, if they are to be of any use to you at all. And I am afraid that about the last book in the world that loads of young men and women think of sitting down to read, systematically and connectedly, is the Bible. You will read sermons and other religious books; you will read newspapers, pamphlets, novels; but the Scripture, in its entirety, is a strange book to myriads of men who call themselves Christians. And so they are weak. If you want to be strong, 'let the Word of God abide in your hearts.'
And then if we take the other view, which at bottom is not another, of the meaning of this phrase, and apply it rather to the personal word, Jesus Christ Himself, that will yield us another exhortation, and that is, let Jesus Christ into your hearts and keep Him there, and He will make you strong. I believe that it is no piece of metaphor or an exaggerated way of putting the continuance of the influence of Christ's example and Christ's teaching upon men's hearts and minds, when He tells us that 'if any man open the door He will come in and sup with him.' I want to urge the one thought on you that it is possible, in simple literal fact, for that Divine Saviour, who was 'in Heaven' whilst He walked on earth, and walks on earth to-day when He has returned to His native Heaven, to enter into my spirit and yours, and really to abide within us, the life of our lives, 'the strength of our hearts, and our portion for ever.' The rest of us can render help to one another by strength ministered from without; Jesus Christ will come into your hearts, if you let Him, in His very sweetness and omnipotence of power, and will breathe His own grace into your weakness, strengthening you as from within. Others can help you from without, as you put an iron band round some over-weighted, crumbling brick pillar in order to prevent it from collapsing, but He will pass into us as you may drive an iron rod up through the centre of the column, and make it strong inside, and we shall be strong if Jesus Christ dwells within us. Open the door, dear young friends; let Christ come into your hearts, which He will do if you do not hinder Him, and if you ask Him. Trust Him with simple reliance upon Him for everything. Faith is 'the door'; the door is nothing of itself, but when it is opened it admits the guest. So do you let that Master come and abide, and you will hear Him say to you, as He said of old, 'Child! My grace is sufficient.' How modest He is. Sufficient! -- an ocean enough to fill a thimble! 'My grace is sufficient for thee; and My strength is made perfect in weakness.'
III. Now, lastly, notice the field on which the strength is to be exercised, and the victory which it secures. 'Ye have overcome the wicked one.'
There is a battle for us all, on which I need not dwell, the conflict with evil around and with evil within, and with the prince of the embattled legions of the darkness, whom the New Testament has more clearly revealed to us. You young people have many advantages in the conflict; you have some special disadvantages as well. You have strong passions, you have not much experience, you do not know how bitter the dregs are of the cup whose foaming bubbles look so attractive, and whose upper inch tastes so sweet. But on the other hand you have not yet contracted habits that it is misery to indulge in, and, as it would seem, impossible to break, and the world is yet before you.
You cannot begin too soon to choose your side. And here is the side on which alone victory is possible for a man -- the side of Jesus Christ, who will teach your hands to war and your fingers to fight.
Notice that remarkable phrase, 'Ye have overcome the wicked one.' He is talking to young Christians before whom the battle may seem to lie, and yet He speaks of their conquest as an accomplished fact, and as a thing behind them. What does that mean? It means this, that if you will take service in Christ's army, and by His grace resolve to be His faithful soldier till your life's end, that act of faith, which enrols you as His, is itself the victory which guarantees, if it be continued, the whole conquest in time.
There used to be an old superstition that --
'Who sheds the foremost foeman's life
and whosoever has exercised, however imperfectly and feebly, the faith in Jesus Christ the Lord has therein conquered the devil and all his works, and Satan is henceforth a beaten Satan, and the battle, in essence, is completed even in the act of its being begun.
'This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith'; not only because our confidence in Jesus Christ is the blowing of the bugle that summons to warfare and shakes off the tyrant's yoke, but it is also the means by which we join ourselves to Him who has overcome, and make His victory ours. He has fought our antagonist in the wilderness once, in Gethsemane twice, on the Cross thrice; and the perfect conquest in which Jesus bound the strong man and spoiled his goods may become, and will become, your conquest, if you wed yourselves to that dear Lord by simple faith in Him.
What a priceless thing it is that you may begin your independent manhood with a conquest that will draw after it ultimate and supreme victory. You will still have to fight, but you will have only to fight detachments. If you trust yourselves to Jesus Christ you have conquered the main body of the army, and it is only the stragglers that you will have to contend with hereafter. He that loves Jesus, and has given himself to Him, has pinned the dragon to the ground by its head, and though it may 'swinge the scaly horror of its folded tail,' and twine its loathly coils around him, yet he has conquered, and he is conquering, and he will conquer. Only let him hold fast by the hand which brings strength into him by its touch.
Will you, dear young friends, take service in this army? Do you want to be weak or strong? Do you want your lives to be victorious whatever may happen to them in the way of outward prosperity or failure? Then give yourselves to this Lord. His voice calls you to be His soldiers. He will cover your heads in the day of battle. He will strengthen you 'with might by His Spirit in the inner man.' He will hide His Word in your heart that you offend not against Him. He will dwell Himself within you to make you strong in your extremest weakness and victorious over your mightiest foe; and in that sign you will conquer and 'be more than conquerors through Him that loved you.'
Oh, I pray that you may ask yourselves the question, 'What am I going to be?' and may answer it, 'I am going to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might'; and to overcome, as He also hath overcome, the world and the flesh and the devil.