By J.R. Miller
No truth means more to us in the way of encouragement and strength, than the assurance of Christ's sympathy. To sympathize is to feel with. The Scripture tells us that in heaven Jesus Christ is touched with a feeling of our infirmities. He feels what we are feeling. If we are suffering, the thing which troubles us, touches him. If we are wronged, the wrong pains him. But Christ is touched also with a feeling of our infirmities. Infirmities are weaknesses. We may have no particular sorrow or pain, and yet we may have infirmities. A man may not be sick, and yet he may be infirm, lacking strength.
Some men have no sympathy with weakness. They show it no consideration. They have no patience with those who stumble. They make no allowance for those who do their work imperfectly. But Jesus has infinite sympathy with weakness. One of the qualifications for the priestly office in the ancient times, was ability to sympathize with the people in their experiences, "who can bear gently with the ignorant and erring." This quality was in Christ. He was most patient with weakness, most gentle toward all human infirmity. His disciples were always making mistakes--but he never was impatient with them; he bore with all their infirmities.
There is special reference to temptation, when sympathy with weakness is mentioned. Christ is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, for he was tempted in all points like we are. He knows all about temptation. When we are in the midst of the struggle, and when it seems to us we cannot hold out, he sympathizes with us, and is most gentle toward us. If we are in danger of falling, he helps us to overcome.
An English naval officer told a grateful story of the way he was helped and saved from dishonor, in his first experience in battle. He was a midshipman, fourteen years old. The volleys of the enemy's musketry so terrified him, that he almost fainted. The officer over him saw his state, and came close beside him, keeping his own face toward the enemy, and held the midshipman's hand, saying in a calm quiet, affectionate way, "Courage, my boy! You will recover in a minute or two. I was just so, when I went into my first battle." The young man said afterwards that it was as if an angel had come to him, and put new strength into him. The whole burden of his agony of fear was gone, and from that moment he was as brave as the oldest of the men. If the officer had dealt sternly with the midshipman, he might have driven him to cowardly failure. His kindly sympathy with him dispelled all fear, put courage into his heart, and made him brave for battle.
It is thus that Christ is touched with a feeling of our infirmity when, assailed by sudden temptation, we quail and are afraid. He comes up close beside us and says, "I understand. I met a temptation just like yours, which tried me very sorely. I felt the same dread you feel. I suffered bitterly that day. I remember it. Be brave and strong, and your fear will vanish, and you will be victorious." Then he takes our hand, and the thrill of his sympathy and of his strength comes into our hearts, dispelling all fear.
This truth of the sympathy of Christ with human weakness has comfort for those who strive to live perfectly, and yet are conscious of coming short. Our Master sets us an absolutely flawless ideal. He bids us to be perfect, even as our Father who is in heaven is perfect. He gives us his own peace. He never became anxious about anything. Nothing disturbed the serenity and composure of his mind. No wrong done to him, ever vexed him or aroused resentment or bitterness in his heart. No insult ever ruffled his temper. He never dreaded the future, however full it was of calamity. He never doubted that God was good, and that blessing would come out of every experience, however dark it might be.
This peace of Christ is to be ours. We are to live as he did, reproducing the quiet, the love, the truth, the calmness of Christ in our lives. That is the ideal. But after hearing a sermon on the Christian perfection to which the Master exhorts his followers, one person said, "I am afraid I am not a Christian. My life falls far below the standard. I do not have unbroken peace. I am often disturbed in my mind, and lose control of my feelings and of my speech."
This experience is well near universal. If the lesson of perfection were the last word in the description of a Christian life, if no one can be called a Christian unless he measures up to the lofty standard, how many of us can call ourselves Christians? When a critic in the presence of Turner complained that a picture of his on exhibition was not perfect, the great artist said, "Perfect! You do not know how hard that is." When anyone complains that our lives are not perfect--he does not know how hard it is to reach that lofty ideal.
Here it is that the truth of Christ's sympathy with our infirmities, comes in with its comfort. Our Master wants us to live the perfect life--but he knows how weak we are, and is infinitely patient with us. A writer has said, "How many infirmities of ours does Christ smother? How many indignities does he pass by? And how many affronts does he endure at our hands, because his love is invincible, and his friendship unchangeable? He rates every action, every sinful infirmity, with the allowances of mercy; and never weighs the sin--but together with it he weighs the force of the inducement--how much of it is to be attributed to choice, how much to the violence of the temptation, to the stratagem of the occasion, and the yielding frailties of weak nature."
Many of the words of Christ reveal his sympathy with weakness. In that most wonderful of all his promises, in which he invites the weary to him, promising them rest, he asks men to take his yoke upon them, and then says, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." It is not a yoke which crushes by its weight. He never lays upon his followers any burden which they cannot bear. His commandments are not grievous. He never calls us to any duties that we cannot perform. Whenever he lays a load upon us--he promises grace to carry it. He never allows us to be tempted above what we are able to endure. There was never yet a responsibility put upon a Christian which was too great for his strength. No one ever is called to endure a sorrow which is sorer than he can bear.
Another word which shows his sympathy with human infirmities is quoted from one of the great prophets as being fulfilled in Christ himself: "A bruised reed shall not break, and smoking flax shall not quench." What could be more worthless than a reed bruised trampled in the dust? Yet so gentle is our Master that he does not fling aside as of no account, even so worthless a thing as a shattered reed. There may be a little life remaining in it, and so he takes it up tenderly, cares for it gently, is patient with it, and waits, until at length it lives again in delicate beauty. Or take the other figure: "Smoking flax shall not quench." The lamp has burned down so that the flame has gone out, and there is only a little curling smoke coming from the black wick. Does he snuff it out and throw it away? Oh, no! such frailty appeals to him. "There may be a spark left yet," he says, and he breathes upon it, blowing it, putting oil again into the exhausted lamp, and in a little while there is a bright flame where there was only offensive smoke before.
After the terrible earthquake and fire at San Francisco, some children far out in the country were gathering up pieces of charred paper which had been carried by the currents of air. Among these fragments they found a partly burned leaf of the Bible. A boy found it, and took it home to his father, who smoothed it out and read for the first time the immortal words, "Now abides faith, hope, love, these three, and the greatest of these is love." It was a strange message to come out of the great conflagration; strange--but wonderfully fitting. Everything else of beauty and power had gone down in dust and ashes--but love remained--that was imperishable, and faith and hope remained. Nothing is worth living for, but love--God's love, and the love that it inspires. If we would be rich with riches which nothing can take from us, we must make larger room in our hearts for this love. Christ loves, and has infinite compassion for weakness, for infirmity, for life's bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks. We shall become like Christ only in the measure in which we get the same compassion into our hearts, and are filled with a like sense of the weakness in others.
"Touched with a feeling of our infirmities." This wonderful revealing of the heart of Christ in his glory, should be full of comfort to those who, with all their striving, are unable to reach the perfect ideal. Christ understands. He sees into our hearts, and he knows when we have done our best, though that best fall so far below the standard. He knew when we tried to keep sweet-tempered in the provocation and irritation to which we were exposed yesterday and yet failed--and spoke bitterly and impatiently. He knew when we wanted to be calm and trustful, and to have quiet peace in our heart in some time of great sorrow, or in some sore loss or disappointment. Then when, in spite of our effort, the peace failed and we cried out--he knew what was due to unbelief in us, and what to human weakness. We have a most patient Master. He is pitiful toward our infirmities. He is tolerant of our outbreaks. He is gentle toward our failures. Do not think that you are not a Christian, because you have failed so often, because you fall so far below what you ought to be. Christian life is a long, slow growth, beginning with spiritual infancy, and reaching at last up to mature spiritual manhood.
But is it just to our patient, gracious Master--that we remain always spiritual infants--and never grow into full stature? We glory in the sympathy of Christ with our infirmities--but is it worthy of us, always to have the infirmities--and never to become any stronger? If he would have us accept his peace and learn the sweet lesson--is it worthy in us to go on living a life of fretfulness, discontent, and anxiety, of uncontrolled temper and ungoverned moods? Should we not try at least to please our Master in all things--even though we may never be able to live a single whole day without displeasing him in some way? It is the sincere effort which he accepts. If he knows that we have done our best--he holds us blameless, though we are not faultless. But we should not take advantage of our Master's sympathy with our infirmities--to continue in imperfect living, and to keep the infirmities uncured, unstrengthened.
So let us keep the ideal unlowered--we dare not lower it. "You therefore shall be perfect--as your heavenly Father is perfect," stands ever as the unmovable mark and goal of Christian life. Christ's patient sympathy with our failures and weaknesses never brings the standard down a single line, to make it easier for us to reach it. There the ideal stands--and we are bidden to climb to it. Paul confessed that he had not yet attained to the goal--but said he was striving to reach it--ever pushing upward, with all his energy, earnestness, and bravery. Let us not in cowardly indolence live on forever on life's low levels--let us seek to climb to the heights. Let us set our feet a little higher every day, overcome some weakness, and gain some new height!
"Touched with a feeling of our infirmities." We may not always find sympathy in human hearts. Even those who ought to be most patient with us, may fail to understand us, and may prove exacting, severe, harsh in judgment, scathing in blame, bitter in denunciation. But in the love of Christ--we find infinite compassion, and sympathy which never fails, and never wearies. He remembers that we are dust. Only let us ever be true to him, and always do our best, confessing our manifold failures, and going on continually to better things.