By the gate, in this passage, is meant the way to acquire that holiness or perfection of the spiritual life without which no man can enter into a state of happiness. Entrance to the higher life is obtainable solely by individual effort and not, as some would fondly hope, by the ceremonial observances of religion, which indeed may be regarded as guides and finger-posts that lead up to the gate but do not open it. The gate is thereby, as it were, knocked at but nevertheless remains shut. For we read that certain came to the door and knocked, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us," and the answer was, "Verily I say unto you, I know you not." These were the foolish virgins who took their lamps without oil in them, signifying those who have form without life—faith without love—those who attend to the outward symbol but not to the inward reality. A man is no better for saying his prayers if he does not regulate his life according to them. If, for instance, he prays for a temperate spirit and yet falls into the first temptation to drunkenness. If he prays for a diligent, industrious, useful spirit, and yet leads and idle, slothful, indolent life. If he prays for a charitable temper, and yet allows himself to fall into a passion at the first cross to his self-love that comes his way. If he prays for lowliness, and yet takes the first opportunity to show his resentment or his contempt of a fellow-creature. If he prays for honesty, and yet takes the first sly opportunity to defraud and to deceive. If he prays for meekness, and yet takes the first opportunity to show what is called a "proper spirit" towards him who insults him by doing him all the harm he can. If he prays for a tender indulgence for the feeling and infirmities of his neighbor, and yet joins in the first jest at his failings and the laughs of ridicule against him. Of what value are the prayers of such a person? What is it that makes it so common a practice to sin and pray, and pray and sin alternately? It is not this very thing—the difficulty of entering the strait gate; that is, the difficulty of acting in accordance with our prayers; the difficulty of acting contrary to our evil nature; the difficulty, in short, of that self-denial which our duty requires of us? "He that would come after Me must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me."
The hardship of entering in at the strait gate is the hardship of keeping the divine precepts and submitting ourselves with all patience to the yoke of Christ; for His yoke is not easy until we have become accustomed to it, and His burden is not light until we can bear it with patience and cheerful submission. The hardship which the natural mind experiences in resisting temptation is "the Cross," and the self-denial is the resolution to take up that cross and bear it—not by substitution, but each man his own cross—that is, to accustom ourselves to resist temptation. And the only test of really bearing our cross, and of really denying ourselves is the doing of it cheerfully and not grudgingly or of necessity. The difficulty of a handicraft lasts only while we are learning it. What at first is supremely difficult—if not seemingly impossible—becomes every day less difficult, until at last, when we have mastered it, it becomes quite easy. For in all education difficulty ceases with the attainment of mastery. And so the gate is strait until by practice we have got used to it, and the yoke becomes easy when we have learnt the right way to bear it, and that can only be done by continual practice. Thus it is that the crosses of life become as nothing to him who habitually and systematically accustoms himself to bear them. And it is to him that overcometh that the crown of life is given—the crown of victory over the evils of our natural mind. This crown is the ease with which the yoke of Christ is borne. The easy which we experience is the proof, the confirmation, of our having become conquerors. And the Peace consequent upon the Warfare and the Victory are the reward. The crown of victory is but the symbol or outward sign of this peace, this hidden consolation or feeling of sweet confidence and repose. But the battle must first be fought—the battle with our Inward Enemies, and their name is legion. A good life—a life worth living—does not consist in mere hearing of our duty in sermons, and formulas, and books; nor in the mere saying of prayers, or the mere working up of our feelings into a religious fervor of ecstasy by various forms of artistic and hypnotic devices such as exquisite music, painted windows, the odor of incense, pompous processions, or the soothing influence of a dim religious light. All these things—sometimes call "means of grace"—however helpful they may be to some minds, are certainly not the Christian warfare. They are at most but the sound of the trumpet whereby the soldier is aroused to the battle. The battle itself consists of quiet, steady, manful resistance of evil not outside of us but within. It is not mere "passive resistance" to an outward force, but a hard, desperate, hand-to-hand struggle with our passions. It is a strife for self-mastery. For instance, you are tempted to anger. Here is the strife, here is the combat between reason and folly, between good and evil, between passion and patience. You are in a strait. To you the way to Life is yet a strait gate unless you have by repeated resistance obtained the victory. If you have been used to give way, to you it is a strait gate. For example, some poor person—a friend or neighbor—has come into unlooked-for good fortune. You ought to rejoice at this, but your selfish nature is tempted to envy. To you the way Life is yet a strait gate unless by repeated resistance you have gotten the victory. If you have been used to indulge in your evil propensity, to you it is a strait gate. You wish for wealth, and a temptation is before you to take a sly advantage. It is your duty to defy this impulse, but to you the way to Life is yet a strait gate unless by repeated resistance you have overcome your selfish nature. You are prompted to some fascination, to some person indulgence. You are in a strait; you ought to flee from the seduction; you ought to say, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" To you the way of Life is yet a strait gate, and will continue so until by constant habit you have gotten the victory.
The Inward Enemies we have to overcome are the passions and vices of the mind, and as we master these, one after another, our thoughts and affections are gradually changed. Heaven is opened within us. We have entered the gate. And the way to overcome those latent vices is to habituate ourselves to a regular and strenuous resistance of evil within ourselves until self-indulgence ceases to be pleasing to us, and self-denial ceases to be irksome. Until, in fact, our affections become changed, and we do that as an intense pleasure which at present we do as a painful task—until we come into the liberty of Christ—the freedom to will and to do constantly the things which are true. And this will be the case after some perseverance in the way of duty, for so the Master has promised: "He that hath My Commandments, he it is that loveth Me, and I will love him, and will come unto him and make My abode with him and manifest Myself unto him"—that is to say, by His peace which is thus to be acquired.
And you, dear friend, whoever you be that read these plain words, say not, as one so often hears, that you cannot do this without the Grace of God, and that you must wait until it comes to you in answer to your prayer. As well might you cry out for the light of day while the sun shines around you. That is the Grace of God. You have it already in the very wish to have it, and it is ever present with you, operating around you, and within you, in the spiritual laws of your nature. As well might you say that you cannot walk without feet, while you have feet; or that you cannot work without hands, while you have hands; or that you cannot see without eyes, while you have eyes. As you have limbs for the motion of your body, so also have you reason and liberty for motion of your mind.
Clearly, then, it is your duty, as a reasonable being, to use with all diligence that power and that freedom which are necessary for you salvation.