Jesus answered, "This kind cannot come out, except by prayer."
The work of the Christian Church essentially the same from age to age, although the external phase of it may change and pass away. "Casting out devils" sounds strangely on modern ears; its associations, whilst they are weird and picturesque, are too far away to seriously engage our attention. We are in the habit of dismissing it in an offhand fashion, as a form of religious activity necessarily confined to a transitional period of the development of Christianity, and having no relation to our own or any other age. But that is only a superficial view of the work of the gospel which will lead to such a judgment. "Casting out devils" is a task which belongs as much to the servant of Christ to-day as in the apostolicage. The particular form assumed by the "possession" may not be the same, but the fact of "possession" still continues; and the mission of the Son of God to "destroy the works of the devil" must be fulfilled, until human souls are freed from the thraldom to which Satan subjects them. In every sinful wish or thought Satan gains a foothold; in every sinful habit formed he may be said to "possess" the nature in which it exists. Until we regard sinful habits as not mere habits, but as involving the presence and power of the evil one, we need not expect to grasp or deal with the problem of evil in our world. In the work of converting human souls, we are contending not merely with those who are the immediate objects of our solicitude, but with a supernatural antagonist, holding them in subjection, and deeply skilled in the arts requisite for the maintenance of his influence. "For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts
of wickedness in the heavenly places
). It is due to this permanent characteristic of evil in human nature that such difficulties are met with as the text explains.
I. EXCEPTIONAL DIFFICULTIES IN SPIRITUAL WORK.
1. Occasioned by
(1) a peculiar intensity of indwelling evil. We cannot explain it, but it is full of stubbornness, subtlety, and power of resistance. There is a mysterious sympathy, it may be, between the sinner and the special sin that besets him, or prevents his yielding himself to Divine grace. And this may go the length of
(2) total enslavement of the nature. Like the epileptic of the story, not only the body but the spirit may be enthralled. The will is so weak that it is practically powerless. The external ministries of the Church are insufficient to deliver, unaccompanied as they are by any strong desire for salvation on the part of the sinner. It sometimes happens, too, in more general work, that a spirit of opposition displays itself, or circumstances are persistently unfavourable. The Christian toils on, but his efforts are like the dashing of himself against a rock, or the ploughing of the sand. There are none of God's people who are strangers to such experiences, which are:
2. From their very nature unexpected. The spiritual worker goes on with comparative or even brilliant success for a time, and then encounters sudden breakdown. The reason of this in most instances is, that a great proportion of Christian work is all but mechanical. It consists in a routine of duties; its results represent a sum total of indirect and sometimes unconscious agencies; religious institutions are originated perhaps in an impulse once imparted but not repeated, and are carried on thus far by their own momentum." There occurs all at once a check, and a sense of helplessness and humiliation ensues, involving the baffled worker in spiritual perplexity. Such difficulties are:
3. Not an unmitigated calamity. They have their uses in the Divine economy. When searching of heart is induced, and hidden sins are revealed, or absence of direct communion with God is made manifest, or pride and self-sufficiency are brought low, they have accomplished a good and necessary work.
II. HOW ARE THEY TO BE OVERCOME?
1. The means. "Prayer," or, in the Authorized or peculiar, but general. Could devils, then, come out by anything else than prayer, when man was the exorciser? It would almost seem as if the disciples had done their work hitherto by virtue of an external commission, using the name of Christ as a sort of talisman. This was sufficient for ordinary cases, but whenever one out of the usual occurred they were at a loss.
2. The reason for its necessity. The immediate occasion for the Master's admonition probably was the increasing laxity of the disciples in personal prayer, their outwardness, and their failure to grasp the essential principles of his kingdom. But there was a more profound reason for the advice. The servant of God should be in complete sympathy and oneness with his Master, and that can only be cultivated by frequent acts of devotion and the exercise of a constant faith. It is not in his own strength that difficulties are to be met, but in Christ's. But that can only be imparted through fellowship with his spirit, which depends for its efficiency and depth upon repeated acts of the spiritual nature. The disciple by this rule is called into conscious personal fellowship with God, whose power will only then be granted. Oneness with God is the secret of spiritual power.
3. The came principle applies to the whole fife of the Christian. True success depends upon vital spiritual effort, upon conscious co-operation with God, and consequent fasting from self. If we would not be taken at unawares we must be watchful, in constant actual exercise of faith, and uninterrupted personal communion with God. We are in danger of making too much of the external and accidental element in religion; we can never make too much of him who "worketh in" and through "us to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). -
But by prayer and fasting.
"Why could not we cast him out?" — "because of your unbelief." "All things are possible to him that believeth." But how is such faith to be attained? It is God's gift. God gives by means — by means of prayer. Whatever tends to increase the fervour of prayer tends to increase the energy of faith. Fasting also has this effect. In the Christian way are many hindrances; arising both from the agency of fallen spirits, and from the inveteracy of besetting sins. It appears from this narrative, that some spirits are more difficult to cast out of men than others — "this kind;" and it is certain, as a matter of fact, that some sins are more tenacious, more stubborn; and that for their expulsion, a more active and energetic exercise of faith is required, than for the subduing of other sins. "This kind goeth not forth but by prayer and fasting." He will conclude, therefore, that these things were intended to strengthen faith — that by these means he should assail his unbelief, in order that by changing his unbelief into faith, he may get rid of this cleaving stain that distresses his soul. He will therefore be exceedingly anxious to ascertain what "fasting" means. He ascertains what "prayer" is — public, private, social; he will be as anxious to ascertain with the same distinctness what "fasting" means; to see what in his particular case it means. I suppose the case of a man, whose tendency before he was converted was to luxurious feeding. This is not confined to the rich, as is commonly supposed, who can afford to multiply varieties and pamper their appetites. It is found in all classes, though variously indulged. There is a sort of animal delight which men take in their food, and even in the anticipation of their food. There are men, not a few, who dine more than once a day, by indulging an eager, fleshly avidity in anticipation; and when the reality comes, they yield themselves to reckless animal excitement, even without any check of reason; and they persevere until animal repletion demands a pause. It is descriptive of such, and it is not too much to say, that instead of eating to live, they seem to live to eat. Now this is a disease. We suppose a man of this description converted. By his conversion the disease is not then and there — at one stroke — eradicated; but a counteracting power is supplied to him. This counteracting power is to be brought to bear on this disease; and certainly this is a case in which the action of this counteracting power might well take the direction of abstinence from food. Here he would directly mortify the deed of the old body; for that was its tendency, that was its snare, that was its disease. But now I suppose the case of another sort of man. There are such people in this world as misers. I do not refer to that love of money, which, in a greater or less degree, is common to every man — but to a disease, a sort of mania, an idolatry for the hoarded heap. There are some men who so idolize their savings, that they absolutely deny themselves the common necessaries of daily animal support. Now suppose such a man converted; this disease is not entirely cured by his conversion; but a counteracting power is supplied to him. And how is it to be exercised? How is that man to fast? To abstain from food? No; he has been doing that already, in the service of his idol. That is a part of his disease. What, then, in this case, would occupy the scriptural place of fasting? Let him take from the store; let him draw out the pound, or the hundred, from the fostered heap; let him take his check book, and order something to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. That would be fasting. "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? saith the Lord; to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry?" Now, suppose another case, of a man or a woman of a highly imaginative turn of mind, and of a romantic tone of affection. She has indulged in reading works of fiction; so that all her imaginations are drawn off from the realities of life, and engaged in the luxuries of fictitious scenes of pleasure or of pain. What is fasting, in her case? Not abstaining from food. What then? Putting away her novels, burning her romances, and turning to the practical walks of life; "drawing out her soul to the hungry;" instead of weeping, in the luxury of ease, in her armchair, over a fancied sick person, to visit a real sick person, and carry something with her; go to the stern reality of cellars and garrets, instead of luxuriating over the pages of a novel. This is a fast, in her case; and by this, she will help her prayers, and increase her faith, and so advance in overcoming the besetting sin. These illustrations will, I hope, help to show you the true scriptural nature of this duty, varying with various cases because of the object in view. We are called "by the spirit to mortify the deeds of the body," not to mortify the body. This is the mistake that has been made. We are nowhere called on to mortify the body for the sake of the mortification, but to mortify the deeds of the body for the sake of the sanctification. And then, what is the object of our Church in such fasting? That you will learn by her collect for the first Sunday in Lent. "Give us grace to use such abstinence, that our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey Thy godly motions, in righteousness and true holiness, to Thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end." The object is sanctification.
Staying at Hastings a few months since I was much interested in watching the building of a breakwater just opposite my lodgings. It was done by driving massive piles of wood into the shingle. They were driven by a huge mass of metal being let fall upon them from a great height. True, the blows were not very quick one upon another, for it took some time to raise the weight to the necessary elevation; but when it did fall it accomplished something. Now suppose an onlooker had suggested that time was being wasted in hauling the Herculean hammer up, and had offered to tap the ironbound pile with a child's spade, saying he could give a hundred taps to the one blow, what would have been thought of his suggestion? It would have been laughed to scorn, and he would have been told that one of their blows would do more than a whole century of his tapping; that there was no waste of time in raising the iron thunderbolt, for the power of its blow was in proportion to the height from which it fell. So, believer, your power and mine to affect men is in exact proportion to the elevation of our soul life, and this elevation can only be obtained by secret communion with God, and abstinence from all that panders to the flesh and hinders the spirit's fellowship. Oh for a higher ambition to be made meet for the Master's use; a more intense longing for that secret power with God in private, that shall make us more than conquerors over hell in public.
I am thankful that these words concerning prayer have stood the ordeal of the late Revision. One seems to crave a reference to prayer after a lesson on the importance of faith. Prayer seems to be the voice by which faith must express itself; it is almost, or even quite, impossible to conceive of faith coming into action except in connection with and by means of the utterance of prayer.
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