Difficulties Concerning Failure, by Hannah Whitall-Smith

The title of this chapter may startle some readers. “Failures,” they will say. “We thought there were no failures in this life of faith!”

I would answer that there should not be failures and need not be failures, but there sometimes are failures, and we must deal with facts and not with theories. Teachers of this interior life do not say that it becomes impossible to sin. They only insist that sin ceases to be a necessity, and a possibility of continual victory is opened before us. There are very few, if any, who do not confess to have at times been overcome by at least a momentary temptation.

I am speaking of conscious, known sin. I am not talking about the subject of sins of ignorance, or what is called the inevitable sin of our nature. These are all met by the provisions of Christ, and do not disturb our fellowship with God. I have no desire nor ability to discuss the doctrines concerning sin. I will leave the theologians to discuss and settle these. I speak only of the believer’s experience in the matter.

There are many things which we do innocently enough until an increasing light shows them to be wrong. These may all be classed under sins of ignorance. Since they are done in ignorance they do not bring us under condemnation and do not come within the range of the present discussion.
An example of this once occurred in my presence. A little baby girl was playing one warm summer afternoon, while her father was resting on the lounge. A bottle of ink on the table got the child’s attention, and unnoticed by anyone, she climbed on a chair and took it. Then, walking over to her father with an air of childish triumph, she turned it upside down on his white shirt and laughed with glee as she saw the black streams trickling down on every side.

This was very wrong for the child to do, but it could not be called sin because she knew no better. Had she been older, and understood that bottles of ink were not playthings, it would have been wrong. “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” James 4:17) . In all I say concerning sin in this chapter, I desire it to be fully understood that I refer simply to that which comes within the range of our consciousness.

Identifying Sin

Misunderstanding on the point of known or conscious sin opens the way for great dangers in the life of faith. When a believer trusts that he has entered upon the highway of holiness and then finds himself surprised into sin, he is tempted to be either completely discouraged and to give everything up as lost, or, to cover up his sins and refuse to be honest about it. Either of these courses is equally fatal to any real growth and progress in the life of holiness. The only way is to face the fact at once, identify it as sin, and discover if possible, the reason and the remedy. This life of union with God requires complete honesty with Him and with ourselves. The blessing that the sin would only momentarily disturb is sure to be lost by any dishonest dealing with it. A sudden failure is no reason for being discouraged and giving up all as lost. Neither is the integrity of the higher Christian life affected by it. We are not preaching a state, but a walk. The highway of holiness is not a place, but a way. Sanctification is not a thing to be picked up at a certain stage of our experience, and possessed forever after, but it is a life to be lived day by day and hour by hour. We may turn aside from a path for a moment, but the path is not obliterated by our leaving it and can be instantly regained. In this life and walk of faith, there may be momentary failures that need not disturb the attitude of the soul regarding entire consecration, perfect trust, its happy communion with its Lord.

To instantly turn back to God is the great point here. Our sin is no reason for stopping to trust. It only proves that we must trust more fully than ever. Discouragement offers no remedy no matter what the cause of sin. As a child who is learning to walk might lie down in despair when he has fallen and refuse to take another step, so this believer, who is seeking to learn how to live and walk by faith, gives up in despair because of having fallen into sin. In either case, get right up and try again. When the children of Israel had met with disastrous defeat before the little city of Ai soon after their entrance into the land, they were so completely discouraged that we read in Joshua 7:59: “Wherefore the hearts of the people melted, and became as water. And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads. And Joshua said, Alas, O Lord God, wherefore hast Thou at all brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would to God we had been content, and dwelt on the other side Jordan! O Lord, what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land shall hear of it and shall environ us round, and cut off our name from the earth: and what will Thou do unto Thy great name?”

What a wail of despair this was! And how exactly it is repeated by many a child of God today, whose heart, because of a defeat, melts and becomes as water. He or she is set for further failures and shows a lack of trust in God like the Israelites. No doubt Joshua thought then, as we are likely to think now, that discouragement and despair naturally result after such a failure. But God thought otherwise in Joshua 7:10 we read: “And the Lord said unto Joshua, Get thee up, wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?” The proper thing to do, was not to abandon themselves to discouragement, humble as it might look, but to face the evil at once and get rid of it, and immediately to sanctify themselves.

Confess Sin Immediately

“Up, sanctify the people” (Joshua 7:13) is always God’s command . ” Lie down and be discouraged is always our temptation. Our feeling is that it is presumptuous, and almost impertinent, to go at once to the Lord after having sinned against Him. It seems as if we first ought to suffer the consequences of our sin for a little while and endure the accusation of our conscience. We can hardly believe that the Lord can be willing at once to receive us back into loving fellowship with Him.

A little girl once expressed this feeling to me, with a child’s honesty. She asked whether the Lord Jesus always forgave us for our sins as soon as we asked Him, and I said, “Yes, of course He does.” ‘just as soon?” she repeated doubtingly. “Yes,” I replied, “the very minute we ask, He forgives us.” “Well,” she said deliberately, “I can’t believe that. I should think He would make us feel sorry for two or three days first. And then I should think He would make us ask Him a great many times, and in a very pretty way too, not just in common talk. And I believe that is the way He does, and you need not try to make me think He forgives me right at once, no matter what the Bible says.”

She only said what most Christians think, and what is worse, what most Christians act on, making their discouragement and their remorse separate them further from God than their sin would have done. Yet it is so totally contrary to the way we like our own children to act toward us, that I wonder how we ever could have conceived such an idea about God. How a mother grieves when a naughty child goes off alone in remorse, and doubts her willingness to forgive. How her whole heart goes out in welcoming love to the repentant little one who runs to her at once and begs her forgiveness! Surely our God felt this yearning love when He said to us, “Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backsliding” (Jeremiah 3:22).

The same moment that we become aware of sin, we also ought to confess our sin and receive forgiveness. This is especially important to an unwavering walk in the “life hid with Christ in God,” for no separation from Him can be tolerated here for an instant.

We can only walk this path by “Looking (continually) unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2), moment by moment. If our eyes turn away from Him to look upon our own sin and our weakness, we will leave the path at once. The believer who seeks the higher Christian life and finds himself overcome by sin, must flee with it instantly to the Lord. He must act on 1 John 1:9, “lf we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The believer must not hide his sin and seek to excuse it. Nor should he let time push it out of his memory. He must confess his sin and put it away from him. He must believe, then and there, that God is faithful and just to forgive him his sin, that He does do it, and further, that He also cleanses him from all unrighteousness. He must by faith claim an immediate forgiveness and an immediate cleansing, and must go on trusting harder and more absolutely than ever.

As soon as Israel’s sin had been brought to light and put away, at once God’s word came again in a message of glorious encouragement: “Fear not, neither be thou dismayed….See, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land” (}Joshua 8:1). Our courage must rise higher than ever. We must abandon ourselves more completely to the Lord, that His mighty power may more perfectly work in us. Moreover, we must forget our sin as soon as it is confessed and forgiven. We must not dwell on it, and examine it, and indulge in distress and remorse. We must not put it on a pedestal and then walk around it and view it on every side, magnifying it into a mountain that hides God from our eyes. We must follow Paul’s example and, “forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,” we must “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13,14).

Examples Of Temptation

Let me give two contrasting examples. The first concerns a sincere Christian man who was an active worker in the Church, and who had been living for several months in an experience of great peace and joy. He was suddenly overcome by a temptation to treat a brother unkindly. Having supposed it to be an impossibility that he could ever sin that way again, he was plunged at once into the deepest discouragement, and concluded he had been altogether mistaken and had never entered into the life of full trust at all. Day by day his discouragement increased until it became l despair. He concluded that he had never even I been born again and gave himself up for lost. He spent three years of utter misery, going farther and farther away from God, being gradually drawn off into one sin after another, until his life was a curse to himself and to all those around him. His health failed under the terrible burden, and there were fears for his sanity.

At the end of three years, he met a Christian lady who understood this truth about sin that I have been trying to explain. After speaking with him a few moments, she found out his trouble, and said at once, “You sinned, there is no doubt about it, and I don’t want you to try to excuse it. But have you never confessed it to the Lord and asked Him to forgive you?” “Confessed it”’ he exclaimed, “why, it seems to me I have done nothing but confess it and beg God to forgive me, night and day these three dreadful I years .” “And you have never believed He did forgive you?” asked the lady. “No,” said the poor man, “how could I, for I never felt as if He did?” “But suppose He had said He forgave you, wouldn’t that have done as well for you to feel it?” “Oh yes,” replied the man; “if God said it, of course I would believe it.” “Very well, He does say so,” was the lady’s answer. She turned to the verse mentioned earlier (1 John 1:9) and read it aloud. “Now,” she continued, “you have been confessing and confessing your sin for three years, and all the while God says in the Bible that He was faithful and just to forgive it and to cleanse you. Yet you never once believed it. Remember 1 John 5:10 says: “he that believeth not God hath made Him a liar.”

The poor man saw the whole thing and was amazed. When the lady suggested that they should kneel down, he obeyed and confessed his past unbelief and sin. He claimed, then and there, a present forgiveness and a present cleansing. The result was glorious. The darkness of his soul gave way to light and he began to praise God aloud for the wonderful deliverance. In a few minutes his soul was once more resting in the Lord and rejoicing in the fullness of His salvation.

The other example concerns the case of a Christian lady seeking the higher Christian life, who had a very bright and victorious experience. Some time later, she was suddenly overcome by a violent burst of anger. A flood of discouragement swept over her soul for a moment. The temptation came as this, “There now, that shows it was all a mistake. Of course you have been deceived about the whole thing and have never entered into the life of faith at all. And now you may as well give up altogether, for you never can entirely consecrate yourself more fully nor trust more fully than you did this time. It is very plain, this life of holiness is not for you!” These thoughts flashed through her mind in a moment. But she was taught well in the ways of God, and she said at once, “Yes, I have sinned, and it is very sad. But the Bible says that if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And I believe He will do it.” She did not delay a moment, but while still boiling over with anger, she ran into a room where she could be alone. Kneeling down beside the bed she said, “Lord, I confess my sin. I have sinned. I hate it, but I can’t get rid of it. I confess it to You with shame and confusion. And now I believe according to Your Word, that You do forgive me and cleanse me from this.” She said it out loud, for the inward turmoil was too great for it to be said inside. As the words “You do forgive me and cleanse me from this” passed her lips, the deliverance came. The Lord said, “Peace, be still!” and there was a great calm. A Hood of light and joy burst on her soul. The enemy fled, and she was more than conquered through Him that loved her. Her sin, confession, and recovery did not even take five minutes, and her feet were planted more firmly than ever on the blessed highway of holiness. She sang her song of deliverance with deeper meaning “I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:1).

In every emergency the only remedy is to trust in the Lord. And if this is all we ought to do, and all we can do, isn’t it better to do it at once? And I have realized the folly of seeking deliverance in any other way, by saying to myself, “I will have to trust in the end. Why not trust at once, in the beginning.” We have entered upon a life and walk of faith. If we fail in this life and walk of faith, our only recovery must lie in an increase of faith, not in a lessening of it.

Let every failure drive you instantly to the Lord with a more complete abandonment and a more perfect trust. And if you do this, you will find that although it is sad to have failed, the failure has not broken your sweet communion with Him for long.

Where failure is met in this way, a recurrence is far more likely to be prevented than where the soul allows itself to pass through a season of despair and remorse. If failure should sometimes recur, and is always treated in the same way, it is sure to become less and less frequent, until it finally stops altogether. There are some happy souls who learn the whole lesson at once. But the blessing is also upon those who take slower steps and gain a more gradual victory.

Causes Of Failure

Having discussed the way to be delivered from failure, I would now like to say a bit about the causes of failure in this deeper walk. The causes do not lie in the strength of the temptation nor do they lie in our own weakness, or in any lack in the power or willingness of our Saviour to save us. The promise to Israel was positive: “There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life” (Joshua 1:5). The promise to us is equally positive: “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” ( 1 Corinthians 10:13).

In the book of Joshua, we read that the people who had conquered the mighty Jericho “Fled before the men of Ai” (Joshua 7:4). They didn’t flee because of the strength of their enemy, nor did they flee because God failed them. The cause of their defeat lay somewhere else, and the Lord Himself declares it: “Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, but turned their backs before their enemies” Joshua 7: 1, 12). It was a hidden evil that conquered them. Buried under the earth in an obscure tent in that vast army was hidden something against which God had a controversy. And this little hidden thing made the whole army helpless before their enemies. In Joshua 7:13 we read, “There is an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you.”

The lesson here is simply this, that anything cherished in the heart which is contrary to the will of God, be it ever so insignificant or deeply hidden, will cause us to fall before our enemies. Any conscious root of bitterness cherished toward another, any self-seeking, any harsh judgments, any slackness in obeying the voice of the Lord, any doubtful habits or surroundings will effectually cripple and paralyze our spiritual life. We may have hidden the evil in the most remote corner of our heart. We may have even hidden from our own sight and refused to even recognize its existence, although we cannot help being secretly aware that it is there all the time. We may steadily ignore it, and persist in declarations of consecration and full trust. We may be more earnest than ever in our religious duties. We may have the eyes of our understanding opened more and more to the truth and the beauty of the life and walk of faith. We may seem to ourselves and to others to have reached a solid position of victory. Yet, we may find ourselves suffering bitter defeats. We may wonder, question, despair, and pray. Nothing will do any good until the sin is dug up from its hiding place, brought out to the light, and laid before God.

When a believer who is walking in this interior life meets with a defeat, he must look for the cause at once. He is not to look at the strength of the enemy, but in something behind some hidden lack of consecration lying at the very center of his being. Just as a headache is not itself the disease but only a symptom of a disease situated in some other part of the body, so the failure in such a Christian is only the symptom of an evil, hidden in probably a very different part of his nature.

Sometimes the evil may be hidden in what looks like good. A judging spirit or a subtle leaning to our own understanding may be hidden beneath apparent zeal for the truth. An absence of Christian love may be hidden beneath apparent Christian faithfulness. A great lack of trust in God may be hidden beneath an apparently rightful care for our affairs. I believe our blessed Guide, the indwelling Holy Spirit, is always secretly revealing these things to us by continual pangs of conscience, (convictions), so that we are left without excuse for hiding the sin. But it is very easy to disregard His gentle voice and tell ourselves that all is right, while the fatal evil continues to be hidden in our midst, causing defeat in the most unexpected quarters.

Secret Corners Of Sin

Here is a good example of this. We moved into a new house, and in looking it over to see if it was all ready for occupancy, I noticed in the cellar a very clean looking cider barrel headed up at both ends. I thought that perhaps I should take it out of the cellar and see what was in it, but I decided to leave it undisturbed. It seemed to be empty and looked clean, and it would have been quite a piece of work to get it up the stairs. I didn’t feel at peace about it, but left it anyway. When house cleaning time came every spring and fall, I would remember that barrel with a little twinge of housewifely conscience, feeling I could not quite rest in the thought of a perfectly clean house while the barrel remained unopened, perhaps containing some hidden evil. Still, I managed to quiet my conscience, thinking of the trouble it would take to investigate it.

For two or three years the innocent looking barrel stood quietly in our cellar. Then, without apparent reason, moths began to fill our house. In vain I tried to get rid of them. They increased rapidly and threatened to ruin everything we had. I suspected the carpets were the cause, and subjected them to a thorough cleaning. I suspected our furniture, too, and had it newly upholstered. I suspected all sorts of impossible things. At last the thought of the barrel came to me. At once I had it brought out of the cellar. When the head was knocked in, I think it safe to say that thousands of moths poured out. The previous occupant of the house must have had something in it which breeds moths, and this was the cause of all my trouble.

In the same way I believe that some innocent looking habit or indulgence, some apparently unimportant thing, lies at the root of most of the failure in this interior life. All is not given up. Some secret corner is kept locked against the Lord. Some evil thing is hidden in the recesses of our hearts, and so we cannot stand before our enemies.

In order to prevent failure, or to discover its cause if we have failed, it is necessary to keep continually before us this prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Do not think that I believe in failure because I have said all this about it. There is no necessity for it at all. The Lord Jesus is able to deliver us out of the hands of our enemies that we may “serve Him without fear. In holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74,75). Let us then pray, every one of us, day and night, “Lord, keep us from sinning and make us living witnesses of Your mighty power to save us to the uttermost.” Let us never be satisfied until we are pliable in His hands and have learned to trust Him. We are told in Hebrews 13:21, He will be able to “Make (us) perfect in every good work to do His will, working in (us) that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen!”

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