Strong and Free!
George Everard, 1882
"Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Isaiah 40:30-31
"Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong." 1 Corinthians 16:13
"Strong and Free!" Such were the words I noticed beneath the picture of a noble eagle with outspread wings soaring upwards to the sky. It was the motto of an Athletic Society, and when I saw it, it was upon a placard announcing certain athletic sports to be held in the neighborhood.
I take these words as a suitable motto for all young men. I scarcely know a better illustration of a high and glorious course, than that of the eagle, strong and free, mounting higher and higher. Nor is it a life beyond you. A gracious promise tells how it may be attained: "Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31).
In many respects the motto is a good one for young men. It is a capital thing to be "strong and free" physically. Hence such sports as tend to develop the muscle and give elasticity to the body are not to be despised. Strong limbs, a supple frame, whatever enables a man to undergo severe toil, to endure hardship and privation, to put the best foot forward — all this is most valuable and helpful. It is a priceless gift to the soldier or the sailor — to the traveler in uncivilized countries, to the emigrant who has to clear the land and build himself a homestead, in fact, to every one who would be strong to labor, active and quick in what he has to do, and able to rough it whenever there is need.
I knew of a young clergyman, in years gone by, who had this power, and by means of it did very much good. He was an excellent Alpine climber, and had great physical strength, and knew how to utilize it in the service of his Master.
With a lantern on his shoulder, he would walk six, eight, or even ten miles, then give an admirable lecture, illustrated by missionary slides; then pack up his gear, walk back, and reach his home somewhere about midnight.
Unhappily on one of his Swiss journeys he was too venturesome. He attempted to climb the Matterhorn, but he fell, and with his two companions he lies buried at Zermatt, surrounded on all sides by the mountain heights he loved so well.
There is no need you should follow him in risking your life, but I do hope you will endeavor, like him, to be "strong and free" in body, and then make good use of the gift you possess.
To do this, beware of all sloth and self-indulgence. Beware of every habit of excess that will injure the vigor and strength of your constitution. When you have opportunity, give an afternoon or evening to a good game of cricket, to the Gymnasium, or boating, or football, or mount your bicycle and enjoy the pleasure of going almost as fast as the express train. If this is beyond you, at any rate take a good walk of eight or ten miles, or even of three or four. This is far better than idling around the house, when you might be getting good healthy exercise.
A word by the way I would here drop to any young friend who is fond of his bicycle. I am glad you are, though sometimes you come rather too near, and so quietly withal, that I am afraid you are going to run over my toes! I suppose I must put up with this, but there is one thing I do ask you. I wish you would spare the Sunday. I am sure you would if you knew the blessing of keeping it holy, and the pain you sometimes give to those who value it aright. Put your bicycle aside on Saturday night. It won't grow rusty before Monday, and perhaps you will enjoy it all the more from having spent a quiet, happy day in the House of God.
One thing I am sure you will never regret. The more you can spend of God's day in whatever will be a help to yourself and others — the greater will be your peace and the brighter your crown hereafter.
To the surprise of his wife, a Christian working man used to rise earlier on Sunday than any day in the week. At last he gave her the reason: "I like the day I give to my Savior to be the longest in the week." If your spirit is something like this, every Sunday will be a step on the ladder, leading you nearer to your everlasting Home.
But our motto will lead us a step or two further. It is good to be "strong and free" physically — yet it is still better to be so morally. What a benefit and comfort to yourself and to many beside will it be, if you are strong in moral principle and decision of character — and free from the slavery and bondage of bad habits. The angel said to Daniel, "O man greatly beloved, be strong, yes, be strong." So would I say to you. Be strong to do the right, to go forward in the path of straightforward honesty and integrity of purpose, in spite of legions of enemies and hosts of difficulties. Speak truly, live truly, act truly. Be strong to resist whatever is of evil. Abhor and reject every temptation to turn aside.
Be firm as a rock against every enticement to pleasure or profit, at the cost of a good conscience. Be able to say "No," to mean it, and to stick to it, though the wary tempter has a tongue as smooth as oil and as musical as a siren's note.
Avoid the very first step in evil. Don't break the fence with the idea that you can soon make up the breach. Don't go a little way in the wrong direction imagining that you can easily make up what is lost.
It is said that if a man goes out with newly cleaned boots, he walks carefully, so as not to bemire them; but when they have been soiled with the mud in the streets, then he will go through the deepest mire and not mind it. I am sure this is true in one sense. There is a pain about the first act of sin; but when the conscience is accustomed to what is wrong, a man will go anywhere and do anything, and will feel but little the sin he is committing.
My young friend, beware of a single blot on the conscience! Keep clear of associates with whom you are not safe. Watch against the touch of evil. Turn from the spot where danger is likely to meet you.
Many a young man flatters himself that he is "a bird of freedom," while he is the truest slave under the sun. He cannot say "No" to the least temptation, though he knows full well that it is . . .
injuring his character,
destroying his future prospects,
bringing upon himself a scourge of many cords in the upbraidings of a guilty conscience,
and wounding and grieving those who love him best upon earth.
If he is free, it is the freedom of the lamb in the desolate wild, free to roam where it will — but sure to perish at length through hunger or as the spoil of fierce wolves. Far be from you freedom like this! Give me rather the safety of the fold, the guiding care of the Good Shepherd; yes, and if need be, the rod to chasten me when I stray, that I may return to the peace and security of His faithful guardianship.
From the arts that would allure us,
From the toils that would ensnare,
You who slumber not, secure us
By Your ever-watchful care:
And if e'er from You we roam,
Fetch, O fetch, Your wanderers home.
But how may you be thus "strong" in right principle and "free" from such bonds and snares as I have named? There is only one way. A good education is not enough. Even the example and training of godly parents, though beyond all price, is not strong enough to secure you at all times against the assaults that may overcome you. The true secret of moral strength and liberty, is the spiritual strength and freedom which Christ alone can give.
In yourself you have no strength — none whatever. "Without me," Christ says, "you can do nothing." You have no power to do a single thing aright, or to beat down one snare of the wicked one.
"Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall" (Isaiah 40:30). That is, mere natural powers, mere human strength, even the good purposes of youth, will succumb in the great battle with sin, the world, and the Devil. Man is described as "a worm," and what power has the worm to resist an enemy or to rise above the earth on which it crawls?
But learn to know your weakness, and then learn to know the abundant strength laid up for you in Christ. "My son, be strong in the grace which is in Christ Jesus." "My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness." "If the Son, therefore, shall make you free, you shall be free indeed."
It is the Holy Spirit dwelling in the heart, who imparts true strength and liberty — and, when you come by faith to Christ, this gift He bestows. Trusting in His grace, leaning on His mighty arm, strengthened with all might according to His glorious power, in the very highest sense you shall know what it is to be "strong and free."
You shall be strong! You shall be strong to fight His battles and to endure hardness as a good soldier of His cross. You shall be strong to run the heavenly race and to win a bright crown of glory. You shall be strong to do right, however hard and difficult at times it may be. And you shall be free! You shall break off the fetters of former sin. You shall enjoy the liberty of a conscience set free from the bonds of guilt. You shall have freedom of access into God's presence, as a dear child, crying Abba, Father. You shall experience that Christ's yoke is an easy one and His burden light, because you bear it in the spirit of grateful love.
In the service which Your love appoints
There are no bounds for me,
But my heart is taught the secret truth
That makes Your children free,
And a life of self-renouncing love
Is a life of liberty.
Yes, abiding in Christ, waiting upon the Lord in humble, continual prayer, you shall be "strong and free." Like the eagle mounting higher and higher, you shall rise nearer to God, and drink in more of the joy of communion with Him. You shall live a joyful, heavenly life while here below, and rise at length to share the joys which are at Christ's right hand.
Before I close this chapter I should like to draw a couple of contrasts.
You may remember the story of an Irish eagle in its upward flight looking down on the lake beneath and catching sight of a carcass floating on the surface. Poising for a moment on its pinions, it darted downwards, fixed its claws in the dead body of the animal, and gorged itself with the spoil it had found. But it never rose again. When it attempted to do so, the water had frozen on its wings, and it was shortly afterwards captured and killed.
The story has its lesson for the young. You may be caught in the same way. You have begun to seek a higher life — but there comes a terrible snare. Your eye is attracted by something which is pleasant to the flesh, and if you yield, it may be death to the soul. You may be drawn down to earth. You may lose all taste for higher things. The wing of faith may lose its power. You may be led by this one thing, to give up the bright and blessed hope of the everlasting kingdom, and you may live and die without Christ and without hope.
Remember the words, "He who sows to the flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting."
But let me present another contrast. Have you ever noticed the eagles chained and caged at the Zoological Gardens? There you see some noble bird which, in its native state, would roam for miles, and make many a flight toward the sky — now unable to escape its fetters, and day after day losing more and more its vigor and strength. It is not now "strong and free," as once it may have been — but a poor captive, wearing out its life in its long imprisonment.
And is there not something here that may be parallel to the condition of many a one?
There are those who permit their thoughts and desires to be chained down to earth, by business duties or the cares of daily life. They give themselves to these as if there were nothing higher or better. They neglect the sacred duty of prayer. They never ponder the great truths of Holy Scripture. Even the Sunday makes but little difference, as on God's holy day there is no hearty seeking after God and His kingdom. Oh, do not thus cast away your brightest and highest privilege. Do not thus sacrifice the joys which might otherwise mingle with your commonest duties.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21