There are some persons who are naturally inclined to be wise in their own conceits. They in their self-assurance entertain no doubt in their own minds of their ability to undertake any task that may come in their way and carry it through to a successful issue.
We smile at the one who, when asked whether he could play the piano, replied that he could not say, because he had never tried. There was weightier truth in the speaker's remark than is generally suspected. For it is often by our failures that we learn our shortcomings. A trial of his fingers on the piano would have demonstrated to others his inability to produce a series of harmonious sounds, and, possibly, to our friend himself. Then, having learned his own incompetency by the little experiment, he would be in that modest and receptive frame of mind which makes an apt scholar.
Now in the Christian life it is also often true that its great practical truths are only learned after personal failure. When a real effort to obey the word of God proves disastrous, then one's own weakness is discovered.
It may be that you have discovered that on the eve of some great spiritual enterprise your courage often fails you, and you become a deserter. You may also have found that something within you hinders you from speaking the truth at the critical moment, or from speaking kindly to those who are unfriendly to you, or from exhibiting a spirit of meekness when you are abused because you are a follower of Christ. In spite of many good resolutions, you may have to confess that you frequently fall into an angry mood and a display of ill temper most unbecoming in you, a follower of Christ Jesus the Lord.
Do you know why it is that such failures continue in spite of repeated attempts on your part to prevent them? Have you learned that the cause lies in yourself? that you lack power to overcome your own evil propensities? and that you are without the strength needful to battle successfully against your own nature?
To such as admit their own personal weakness in this matter this letter is addressed. The writer wishes to point out that in this disheartening difficulty which arises because one is unable to do what is right and true and gracious although with all his heart he wished to do it, scripture shows a way out of the difficulty, so that there is no need for any to give up the task in despair. He who finds that when he would do good, evil is present with him (Rom. 7:21) is instructed where to look for help.
Clearly, if you cannot by your unaided efforts practice the good habits enjoined upon you, and if your holy desires are ever thwarted by the hateful, contrary disposition dwelling within you, you need a sympathising Helper, a Deliverer apart from yourself. It is wretched to be failing continually, to be dragged down daily by a dead weight of sin from which you cannot free yourself. If then you cry out in the words of Paul, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this death? "the words that follow point you to the Lord Jesus: "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 7:24, 25).
You will observe that there are definite stages in the practical lesson of these verses; first, the admission of helplessness; secondly, the prayer for a Helper; and, thirdly, the knowledge that there is One, no stranger to you, who stands, as it were, at your very elbow, ready to give you what you are seeking. Perhaps it has never yet entered your thoughts that such a Deliverer is available for you. You may have imagined that, having been made a child of God, you are expected to live righteously, soberly, and godly before Him by your own persevering efforts under some intensive system of self-culture.
But the truth is that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of saints as well as of sinners, is ready to impart to you the strength you lack, if you on your part are ready to confess that you yourself have no strength. An illustration of this gracious service of our Lord is found in an incident taken from His own ministry.
I refer to one of the occasions on which the Lord Jesus went to a feast of the Jews at Jerusalem where there seems to have been a great number of blind and lame persons (John 5) Indeed we might even suppose that this class was a feature of the population of this city from its early days. At any rate the blind and the lame of Jerusalem are mentioned about a thousand years before the Gospel days, in the description of the capture of the stronghold of Zion by David from the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:8).
We read that on this particular occasion in the time of our Lord a great multitude of impotent folk, blind, halt, withered, were gathered together at the pool of Bethesda. All these sick folk were waiting there, each with the dim hope of being healed if he could succeed in being the first to step into the pool after its waters became troubled. This was a very restricted mercy, for, under the conditions, there was recovery for one only out of the whole company, and only for that one who was more nimble than any of his fellow-sufferers.
But in the Gospel narrative, our attention is drawn to one in the crowd who so far as we know was the least able to help himself in the struggle, and therefore was the least likely to get healed. He was in a pitiable state, having suffered from his weakness for thirty-eight years, and was without a friend to help him.
This poor man in his utter helplessness and hopelessness forms a picture of those who find themselves lacking in the spiritual power requisite to walk in God's ways and do His holy will. Instead of walking in the courts of the temple and praising God (Acts 3:8, 9), he was lying like a helpless log near the pool, cherishing a vain hope that he might be cured by his own efforts. He might have used words from Rom. 7 and said, "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"
Nevertheless a Deliverer was near him. The Lord Jesus came to him with the question, "Wilt thou be made whole? The poor man, like many perplexed believers in thought only of some arm of flesh, and not a heavenly Saviour, and replied, "I have no man to put me into the pool." Then the Lord said to him, "Rise, take up thy bed, and walk." The prostrate and helpless man, trusting the words and power of Christ Jesus his Lord, rose and lifted up the bed that hitherto had carried him, and walked. His powerless limbs were filled with strength by the Lord Jesus, and his erect walk bearing his own bed showed to all men that "out of weakness, he had been made strong."
I hope that from this incident my dear young friends will learn the simple lesson. It is useless to look to self to overcome self. But in your weakness you may call upon the Lord Jesus, and you will be able to say like the Psalmist, "In the day when I cried Thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul" (Ps. 138:3). Then you will be in that class of strong ones whom John describes as "young men": "I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you" (1 John 2:14).