By my Spirit!
"This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the LORD Almighty." Zechariah 4:6
Those who work for Christ cannot too often be reminded that only divine power can effect spiritual changes in human lives. Perhaps it may be forgetfulness of this truth which makes so much Christian work fruitless and unavailing. We try to lead souls to Christ by our own earnestness, our own skillful presentation of the gospel, our own eloquent persuasions and reasonings—and then we wonder why they do not come. We seek to make people better by our own ethical teaching, our own urgent pleas for high Christian living, our own pressing of even scriptural motives for holiness—and then we wonder why those whom we thus strive to lead upward do not grow more Christlike.
We need to recognize the fact that the best human teaching will not avail to change men's hearts; that even divine truth, however cogently presented and however eloquently urged—will not alone effect the spiritual regeneration and sanctification of human lives. This is very clearly taught in the Scriptures.
Our Lord spoke of his own work as incomplete until the Holy Spirit should come to take the things that were his, and reveal them unto men. He said it was expedient that he should go away—that the Spirit might come. Thus even the cross of Christ, with its wonderful revealing of divine love, was not enough to draw men to God. The cross removed the barrier of guilt and opened the way by which sinful men might return to the Father. But even with the way opened and with the glorious exhibition of love which was made on the cross—men would never have been saved if nothing else had been done.
There was an ancient legend that while Christ hung on Calvary a dove settled on his cross. This was regarded as an emblem of the Holy Spirit. We doubt that the legend is true, but we know that without the Spirit even the sacred blood of Christ would not have availed to save the lost.
Men must be made willing by a divine constraint to come to God—or none will ever come to him. Their hearts must be softened, and their natural enmity to holiness conquered. Men could never have been saved, had not Christ by dying made expiation for sin. Likewise they could never have been saved, had not the Holy Spirit come to work in their hearts, to convict them of sin and to draw them unto Christ.
So we learn our entire dependence upon the Holy Spirit for all results in spiritual work. "Not by might, nor by power, but my Spirit, says the Lord." We can do nothing ourselves. We have ability, only as God works in us and through us. Human nature is not something that we can lead easily and quietly where we will. There is in every life a mighty resistance to all that is holy and heavenly, which can be overcome only by an energy that is divine.
There is a little prayer which shows a true comprehension of the spiritual resistance to holiness and to God, which there is in every human heart. The prayer is: "Lord, take my heart, for I cannot give it; and when you have it, oh keep it, for I cannot keep it for you; and save me, in spite of myself, for Jesus Christ's sake." If we put ourselves to the test, we shall find that this prayer in a most wonderful way fits into our own experience.
"Lord, take my heart, for I cannot give it." We are in the habit of saying that we have given ourselves to Christ, or of urging others to give themselves to him, as if it were an easy thing to do. But in experience it is not easy. As we try to give our hearts to Christ, we find something holding them back, as if there were invisible chains of steel fastened around them and then secured in the granite rock. We see the evil from which we would flee, and the good to which we would soar away, and we have wings which are made to carry us Godward—but when we would fly up toward Heaven we find that we are not free and that we cannot mount to God. At this point everyone who is striving to give himself to Christ discovers his need of more than human will or purpose.
The divine hand must break the chains that bind him, and set him free. The Lord must take our heart—for we cannot give it to him. Nor can any loving friend, parent, pastor or teacher, seeking the salvation of another, unbind the cords that hold the soul back to its old environment. This the divine hand alone can do. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit."
The second part of this little prayer fits itself to common experience just as wonderfully as does the first. "And when you have it, oh keep it, for I cannot keep it for you." Sometimes people imagine that after they have once become Christians, they will have no more trouble, that it will be very easy to be faithful to Christ. But they soon learn that they cannot keep themselves Christians after they have once become Christians—any more than they could at first change their own hearts and give their lives to Christ.
In Guido's painting of Michael and the Dragon, the archangel stands upon the fallen foe, holding in his hand a drawn sword. He is victorious, but the monster beneath his feet yet lives; it writhes and cowers, but it is not yet dead. This represents the nature of the Christian's conquest over his old nature—he has it under his feet, but it still lives.
The seventh chapter of Romans tells us how hard even Paul found it to be true to Christ, and shows him in a hopeless struggle until he gets the victory through Christ. We cannot keep ourselves holy, even when we have been washed white in the Redeemer's blood. Christ alone can keep our heart for us, for we cannot keep it for him. There is the same need for the Holy Spirit in Christian living, all the way along until we get inside Heaven's gate, as there was in regeneration.
Then the last clause of the prayer will be found suited to all Christian experience: "And save me in spite of myself." If any of us are finally saved, it will be in spite of ourselves. Christ never saves anyone in spite of himself, in the sense that he takes him against his will. But it is divine grace which first leads us to submit to Christ, and then keeps us living for Christ all along the years.
A half-witted lad was asked who saved him, and replied that God did a part, and he did a part. He was than asked what part he did, and he said that he opposed God all he could.
That is what we all do—we resist and oppose the Divine Spirit at every point. We talk about consecration and self-surrender, but the old nature yet lives in us and it is only the omnipotence of grace that restrains us from sin and that keeps us from dragging ourselves back out of God's hands again. The whole tendency of our being by nature, is away from God; and all of us need continually to pray the prayer, "Lord, save me in spite of myself!"
So religion is more than merely serving God out of gratitude for his sacrifice of love—it is the power of God's spirit working is us and working upon us.
Thus we are helped to realize our need of dependence upon the Spirit of God, in all our work for human souls. We may do nothing ourselves but tell the story of the love of God, and press it home on heart and conscience. All the rest, God's Spirit must do. Hence we need to go to our work from our knees—and then go back from our work to our knees, praying for the divine blessing on all that we say and do. God alone is strong enough to overcome all human resistance, and to save sinners in spite of themselves.