When the neophyte in soul culture resolves that henceforth he will know and live the truth which will make him free—when he starts out to live the true life, he is very often disappointed at his tardy progress. As with most tasks not easy of accomplishment, he finds the first steps are the most difficult. He is convinced that could he by some means evade the early stages, when the wayward thoughts will not be disciplined, half the battle would be won. For battle it really and truly is. But selfish and angry thoughts will occasionally arise, pride will not be subdued, and sometimes thoughts of a degrading nature will come unbidden and appear to undo all that has been accomplished. When this happens the seeker after the higher life is dejected, loses hope, and feels that the task he has set himself to do to be beyond his meager strength. Yet whilst thus almost despairing of ever attaining to any heights of spiritual purity and power, he feels he cannot—he dare not, retrace the few steps he has taken, for he knows that "he who puts his hand to the plough and turns back is not fit for the kingdom." The distant heights attained by others he has dimly discerned on the horizon, and although almost hopeless of ever attaining them, he, like Bunyan's pilgrim, is impelled forward.
This experience, however, is not at all singular to the seeker after purity of life and conduct. Habits of thought long continued are not easily got rid of; they have become so ingrained into the nature as to be almost automatic and involuntary. Old habits and ancient customs alike are hard to break away from, and the man who strives to free himself from the shackles of sinful thoughts and desires will find the task no light one, nor the work of but a few short days or weeks. To escape from the prison-house of sin and selfishness is a task requiring time, patience, and endurance.
Even the physical culturist—the man who strives to develop his physical powers to their fullest extent—does not imagine that his goal can be reached in a few weeks or months. He knows perfectly well it is a matter of years of real hard work and continual self-denial. But he is content to wait, and to persevere, without thought of any immediate result or signs of abnormal muscular development, knowing that in the end the issue cannot possibly be otherwise than satisfactory.
The tyro in athletics too, entering his first race, never dreams of being returned the victor so early in his career. He knows that to be impossible. But he is not depressed or despondent on that account. Instead of which he returns to his training with more assiduity, attending to every detail of health, disciplining his appetites and passions, and by this means fitting himself for the time when he looks forward to winning the coveted prize with confidence and assurance.
The aspirant to success in contests requiring muscular strength is not discomfited or cast down when he suffers defeat, rather he expects it, knowing that in reality it is not defeat, but only the gaining of experience for future contests.
Thus it should be with the seeker after spiritual strength. His backslidings, his temporary relapses into old evil habits of thought and speech should be no cause for dejection. They are not defeats, but rather incentives to stronger and more determined effort; obstacles to be overcome and vanquished; a salutary discipline so that the soul may be strengthened for fresh conquests. No sinner ever became a saint in a moment. Without the difficulties, the struggles, and the temptations, the goal would not be worth the striving, or when attained be but an illusion.
But things of price are bought with pain;
The easy way is not the right,
He that would conquer heaven must fight.
The consciousness of the tendency to fall back gives zest to the strife, and strength to overcome.
The athlete in training is satisfied with his daily physical exercises, and for some weeks does not look for any signs of progress; indeed, it frequently happens that for a time instead of progression there is a decided retrogression. The body being unaccustomed to the new mode of life, the muscular system temporarily deteriorates; but it is only temporary, for when this stage if is passed progress is just as rapid.
The spiritual culturist perhaps also experiences this apparent—not real—retrograde step. All the evil tendencies of his nature seem to rise and threaten to overwhelm him, and for a time he feels discouraged. But it is not permanent, only a passing phase, these are the demons who jealously stand at the entrance of the narrow way, and who must be fought with. But the individual who has determined that nothing shall hinder his walking the narrow way, will find these monsters possessed of but little power, mere shadows, and easily overcome, for nothing can withstand him who has firmly and fixedly made his resolution. And when once the narrow path is entered the soul becomes stronger and stronger, the vista becomes resplendent with beauty after beauty, and to what heights of spiritual purity and power he will eventually attain he himself would not dare conceive.
—Jean Nicholas Grou