by Wilhelmus à Brakel
Not only does much time elapse between the promise and the possession of the matter which hope assuredly anticipates, but also much opposition from enemies is to be expected. Therefore, the person who exercises hope needs to be valiant in order to endure all things and overcome all obstacles. We thus add to hope spiritual strength or courage.
Spiritual strength is an undaunted steadfastness of heart, given by God to His children, whereby they, while entertaining a lively hope of acquiring the promised benefits, overcome fear for all danger and opposition, unyieldingly engage in warfare, and courageously persevere in obedience toward God.
The following is a true proverb: Ardua quae pulchra, or, eminent matters are difficult to be obtained. This is true in both natural and spiritual matters. Those spiritual matters to be acquired are most eminent. He who is not acquainted with them, however, will neither trouble himself about them, nor risk any danger for them; but he who is acquainted with them will risk everything for them and will fortify his heart with hope. This fortitude, even though the world designates it as being stubborn and strong-willed, is nevertheless an eminent virtue. It is an ornament for the Christian which is pleasing to God, dreadful to the world, and personally beneficial. It is a virtue which God requires and to which believers are frequently exhorted, namely, ―Be strong.
The seat of spiritual strength is to be found in the soul, intellect, will, and affections of the believer. All of these are fully engaged relative to the objects at hand. It is not a physical activity (even though this is also essential in the execution of this strength), but rather an activity of the soul. It is not merely an activity of the intellect, observing this virtue in its beauty, but all faculties are active. It is not an activity which is occasionally engaged in, but rather it is a propensity, a habitual disposition and competence, which initially is infused by God, but which is exercised by the influence of the Holy Spirit, and by much exercise improves and becomes stronger. ―His heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord. His heart is established, he shall not be afraid‖ (Ps 112:7-8). The heart of the unconverted is not the subject of this strength, for they are unto all good work reprobate (Titus 1:16). They have no promise, no faith, no hope, nor internal spiritual life. What spiritual strength and courage could they then have? Only the regenerate are the courageous ones and they have what we have just mentioned—something which the unconverted do not have. All ―the righteous are bold as a lion‖ (Prov 28:1). To those who are called to be saintsthe apostle says, ―Quit you like men, be strong‖ (1 Cor 16:13).
Both object and goal are identical here. Spiritual strength relates to the good that is to be acquired and the evil that is to be overcome. God promises many benefits to His own according to body and soul, doing so, however, upon the condition that they will be acquired via the means commanded and ordained by God. The spiritually valiant person is acquainted with them, loves them, believes the promises, and anticipates them in hope. With this perspective he initiates his endeavor, follows after it, and seeks to apprehend it. In this work much resistance is encountered: loss of honor, possessions, and even life. One will encounter shame, contempt, ridicule, hatred, opposition from every perspective, poverty, illness, and all manner of adversity. All of that has the potential to engender fear, and through fear to cause either full or partial cessation of the endeavor. Spiritual courage will not yield, however, but will persevere all the more vehemently. It cannot be moved by anything; it does not even count life dear (Acts 20:24). While thus engaged, the soul may suffer from spiritual desertion and strife. Faith may be assaulted, and hope both shaken and tossed to and fro, so that the inner turmoil is frequently overwhelming. The courageous person, however, proceeds as if blind, does not succumb, keeps courage, and battles as a courageous hero, defending himself and inflicting injury to the enemies. However, an additional evil arises—an evil which has a more far-reaching effect than the previous evil: the old Adam. It flatters, entices, and causes the person to go astray. Here he stumbles, there he falls, then he receives a grievous wound and then again a deadly wound in his soul. That which is good is neglected, the evil is committed, and this is able to make a spiritual soldier unbelieving concerning his state, and cause him to feel hopeless and become discouraged. However, spiritual strength looks beyond that as well. If the believer cannot remain upright with his burden, he will crawl with it, and if he succumbs to it, he will rise again and renew the battle with new courage. If he cannot see his way through, he believes in and relies upon the Lord Jesus, commends the outcome to Him, and is determined to persevere, regardless of what the cost may be. If the enemy is too strong and he is overcome, he will nevertheless do his best and not surrender—he who is put to the worst in the battle is also fighting. Thus, both good and evil are the objects of the activity of spiritual strength.
The Essence of Spiritual Strength
The integral essence of spiritual strength consists in a valiant steadfastness of heart. This in turn consists, first of all, in there being a lively hope. The benefits hoped for are so desirable that they can endure all that is uncomfortable. Hope in the faithfulness and truthfulness of the promising God makes acquisition such a steadfast and unquestionable fact, that the stronger the believer is in this respect, the stronger his courage will be.
Secondly, it consists in victory over fear. Nature shrinks back from suffering and seeks to avoid it. The courageous person conquers fear, however, for he sees that there is no other way to obtain the desired benefits, while at the same time he realizes that everything which is in opposition has no power to conquer him and prevent him from reaching his objective, omnipotent help being on his side. Thus, fear disappears. ―The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid‖ (Ps 27:1); ―Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil‖ (Ps 23:4).
Thirdly, it consists in perseverance in the performance of one‟s duty. This consists in a courageous entering upon the way which leads to the possession of the benefits hoped for, while awaiting all that may be encountered. Thus, such a person proceeds, in dependence upon God and Christ and relying upon His help.
These three matters constitute valiant steadfastness of heart, or spiritual courage. Observe this disposition in the following passages: ―Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life ... nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord‖ (Rom 8:35, 37-39); ―Be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord‖ (1 Cor 15:58).
The Origin of Spiritual Strength
The origin of this strength is God. ―He shall strengthen your heart‖ (Ps 31:24); ―He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength‖ (Isa 40:29).
This necessitates a closer examination to ascertain how God is operative in this respect, and how He causes man to be active by various means—they being secondary causes.
First, God grants a clear vision of the glory of the end to be attained, that is, of the benefits to be acquired. He presents the acquisition of them as being a certain and immovable fact. The more clearly the intellect perceives the end in view and the more powerfully the heart is assured of its certainty, the greater spiritual strength will be and the more fervent its manifestation will be. Observe this in the Lord Jesus, ―who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame‖ (Heb 12:2). Observe this also in Moses, who esteemed ―the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward‖ (Heb 11:26).
Secondly, God assures the soul of His help and support, and impresses upon the heart His promise relative to this. ―Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of My righteousness‖ (Isa 41:10). A believer receives these promises by faith and strengthens himself by means of them. As someone who in a storm finds himself too weak to remain standing takes hold of a post or a tree and remains standing due to its immobility, the courageous person likewise takes hold of the strength of the Lord, and thus remains strong and unyielding. ―Let him take hold of My strength‖ (Isa 27:5). This is what David did. ―But David encouraged himself in the Lord his God‖ (1 Sam 30:6).
Thirdly, the Lord shows the limitations, insignificance, and impotence of all that opposes. He shows that the honor of man, their love, the goods of this world, and all that appears beautiful and glorious in it, are in reality nothing, and that he can miss all this and nevertheless be joyful (Hab 3:17-18). The Lord shows that He is his portion—his all-sufficient portion (Lam 3:24), and that all that is beautiful in this world when compared to this portion is but dung (Phil 3:8). He shows that all the hatred, evil, and persecution of men is nothing more than a bag of air, since they can neither move nor stir apart from the will of God—and that poverty, adversity, etc., are but a light tribulation which will very readily pass by (2 Cor 4:17). Hereby souls are fortified to such an extent that they even take ―pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ‘s sake,‖ for when they are weak, they are strong. They thus glory in their tribulations in order that the power of Christ may rest upon them (2 Cor 12:9-10).
Fourthly, the Lord shows them the goodness and righteousness of the matter which they are undertaking— showing them that He has commanded them to do so and that it is not their cause but His. This makes them courageous in the battle. They deem it to be to their honor that they, for Jesus‘ sake, may battle against the enemies and that they are wounded in this battle. This enabled the apostles—in an astonishing manner—to speak with freedom before the great council (Acts 4:13), and having been scourged, to depart ―rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name‖ (Acts 5:41).
Fifthly, the Lord shows them the ungodliness and the unrighteousness of those who oppress them. As they acknowledge the Lord to be a righteous Judge, they thus observe that He hates their persecutors, their cause, and their objectives. He Himself will therefore strive against them and reward them according to their iniquities. This engenders courage, and while triumphantly exulting over them, they say, ―The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them‖ (Ps 118:6, 10). This encouraged David in the battle against Goliath, in that he had defied the Lord (1 Sam 17:45).
Sixthly, the Lord shows them the help which He has previously afforded them—both according to body and soul. It is as if He says, ―When you considered everything lost; when you had already pronounced the sentence of demise and death upon yourself; when unrighteous things had the upper hand over you, your faith succumbed, your hope was almost at an end, your spiritual life was in a stupor, and when you indeed thought, ‗It is done and it will never be right with me again,‘ have not I then frequently delivered you?‖ This experience renders much strength. ―The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, He will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine‖ (1 Sam 17:37); ―Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that He will yet deliver us‖ (2 Cor 1:10).
Seventhly, the Lord comforts the soul engaged in warfare by inwardly assuring her of His grace. It is as if He says to her, ―My grace is sufficient for thee. If I am your God, if I forgive you all your sins, love you, preserve you by My power, and shall eternally glorify you, is all then not well? Therefore, I do this and shall do it. I shall neither leave you nor forsake you. Be therefore courageous and I shall be with you. The evil which you fear either cannot or will not be able to bring upon you what you fear. Or else, I shall give you sufficient strength to bear it and I shall cause it to turn out for your best. ‗When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee‘ (Isa 43:2)—I shall be with thee. Be therefore of good courage and fight valiantly.‖ When the soul is comforted in such a manner, it is as if she receives wings to mount as an eagle, to run and not be weary, and to walk and not faint.
Eighthly, despair at times also generates strength—which is most amazing. If, due to fear, you do nothing but shrink back; if you have given in to everything; if you are in the lowest condition and have despondently succumbed to the cross; if in all things you go along with the world; if during persecutions you have hidden yourself, been hypocritical, and have denied the truth; if in every respect you have followed your lusts and appear to have been conquered by them, behold, then that life which is still concealed within begins to manifest itself and you will receive strength from your weakness. You will wax ―valiant in fight,‖ and turn ―to flight the armies of the aliens‖ (Heb 11:34). Just as fire breaks forth all the more vehemently due to being compressed by surrounding cold or something else, so it also occurs with the believer. The conscience is aroused, faith becomes active, and fear disappears, for he has nothing to lose—it cannot be worse. He will thus come forward again and manifest who he is. He will become stronger than he has ever been before. The weak person will say, ―I am strong‖ (Joel 3:10). This we occasionally observe in those who have denied the truth, namely, that they recant and endure the fire with much more courage than someone who has remained steadfast.
The Effects of Spiritual Courage
The effect of spiritual courage is a courageous prevailing in the battle and perseverance in obedience toward God. That competence or propensity which never translates into deeds is useless. God has given His children grace for that very purpose—not that it would remain dormant and concealed within them, but in order that they would labor with it. Particularly, this courageous valor cannot remain hidden if the opportunity is there—and there always are opportunities. The enemies are always engaged in battle against grace in the believer for the purpose of eradicating it, or to prevent it from being exercised. Believers are always surrounded by the Lord‘s injunctions to either do or refrain from something. There is thus always opportunity for the exercise of spiritual courage.
First, the believer perseveres in the battle. A Christian must continually be in armor, for he is in the church militant. The enemies, the devil, the world, and the flesh are continually active and continually make assault upon his life. He must therefore continually be active in resisting them. The command is: ―Strive to enter in at the strait gate‖ (Luke 13:24); ―Earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints‖ (Jude 3); ―Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life‖ (1 Tim 6:12).
(1) In a battle something desirable is at stake, which in this case is spiritual life here and felicity hereafter. The enemies rise up against this, wish to rob the believer of this, and prevent him from manifesting this life.
(2) The believer knows the enemy—he knows who he is and what his objective is. Believers are indeed acquainted with the devil, the world, and their own flesh, and the enemies are in turn acquainted with them.
(3) There is enmity in the heart. Thus, there is here not only a total contradiction of natures, which cannot but seek to expel each other, but these also stand in each other‘s way and mutually rob each other of joy. Therefore they cannot tolerate each other‘s presence.
(4) There is subtlety in trying to gain the advantage. Enemies are cunning in taking advantage of every opportunity, and thus a Christian, even though he is as harmless as a dove, is also as wise as a serpent.
(5) There is the use of violence. Enemies have great power which they exercise to the utmost with no regard for either body or soul. The believer in himself has but little strength, but by the omnipotent help of God he resists them in everything and does not yield in anything.
(6) There is the ultimate outcome of the battle. During the battle first the one and then the other will have the upper hand, but believers will at last be more than conquerors.
Since the Christian has such enemies, he is in need of strength and courage—both of which he uses. Having overcome fear, he, attacks them with spiritual weapons and courageously breaks through their battle arrays and tramples them under foot.
Secondly, a courageous person is not satisfied with repelling and expelling his enemies; rather, at the same time he also perseveres courageously in order to effect obedience toward God. He lifts up his heart in the ways of the Lord as Jehoshaphat did (2 Chron 17:6). Secretly, as a matter between God and himself, he does what the Lord wills him to do, and externally manifests himself to be a Christian by his deeds. He does what needs to be done and says what needs to be said. He is not disturbed by the barking of those dogs and lets them know this. He courageously proceeds and causes them to yield, saying with David, ―Depart from me, ye evildoers: for I will keep the commandments of my God‖ (Ps 119:115). Such is the nature of spiritual courage.
Excerpt from The Christian's Reasoonable Service by Wilhelmus à Brakel