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The Imprisoned Eagle

J. T. Mawson

I saw a pathetic sight when last in Scotland. It was a great eagle in a massive cage. The sun shining brilliantly in the heavens seemed to be calling to it to rise from the earth and rejoice in its natural element, and the royal bird in response to the call fixed its eye on the sun and spread its mighty wings and stooped for flight, and then, becoming conscious of the iron bars that held it a prisoner, it dropped its wings and lowered its head in apparent disappointment and shame. I watched that captive bird on that lovely summer afternoon with growing interest. Again and again the light flashed in its eyes as it faced the sun and lifted its wings in the futile endeavour to soar away to the upper air, and just as often its wings sank down and it bowed its neck, the most striking figure of depression and defeat that I had ever looked upon. And yet it had the desire for liberty, that was clear in the flashing eye, and it had the power for liberty, that was clear in the outstretched pinions; it was the cage that held it prisoner in spite of these.

The captive bird became a parable to me. It spoke to me of Christians, and, alas! how many such there are, who have the desire for heavenly things, which are their own things, for the Divine nature is in them, or they are not Christians at all; and they have the power also to rise up in thought and affection to where their true life is, for the Holy Spirit dwells in them, and yet as to the practical enjoyment of these things they know nothing. Some of them did once, perhaps, but not now, for they are held as prisoners to the earth. What is the cage that holds them? With some it is worldly, ungodly associations, some friendships or alliances formed, it may be for earthly gain, that has cribbed and caged and straitened them. The Christians at Corinth were in this plight, when Paul had to write to them, “O ye Corinthians . . . ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels” (2 Cor. 6:11-12).

Others have been encaged by the flesh, they are carnally minded, they have not understood or have forgotten that “we are debtors not to the flesh to live after the flesh, for if ye live after the flesh ye shall die” (Rom. 8:12-13). The lusts of the flesh have ensnared them, the things with which once they tampered have become settled habits, and it is when they would be free that they discover what captives they are. There are others who, like those over whom the apostle wept, mind earthly things; the love of money, it may be, holds them in a narrow cage, and in their lust for things below they have lost the joy of the heavenly hope.

The experience of these Christians is not unlike that of the imprisoned eagle. They attend meetings and listen to the Word of the Lord, and their hearts are stirred, they lift their eyes and catch a passing glimpse of what the Lord is, and their desires are quickened after those things that they know are really theirs, but they are held fast, and sighs instead of songs break from their sad hearts as they own to themselves, even if they hide it from others, the completeness of their defeat. They toss through sleepless nights upon their beds, with regrets and vows and prayers, but when the morning breaks they find that all their resolutions are unavailing. The bait with which the devil enticed them has been transformed into a cage that holds them; they are prisoners who should be the Lord’s free men, and they almost despair of ever again knowing the thrill of spiritual joy and liberty.

I am sure that what I am writing is the bitter experience of some who will read what I have written, and I can understand the eager question arising in their hearts—Is there any way of deliverance? Yes, there is, for the Lord is gracious. It is grace that gives deliverance at the beginning of the Christian life, and it is grace that can restore the liberty when it has been lost. And however terrible the backsliding may have been, God remains the God of all grace, and delights to forgive. This does not mean that He passes over the sins of His children as though they were nothing, but it does mean that in the Lord Jesus Christ there is a full propitiation for them all.

But on the side of the backsliding and entangled soul the conscience must be exercised, the more keenly the better. There is great hope in those tears and sighs, those “Vows in the night, so fierce and unavailing.”

They all show that the life in the soul has not been utterly crushed. There is no condition so terrible as that in which the conscience is seared and the soul past feeling, but when the heart is wrung by the sad backsliding it is evidence of a faithful Advocate with the Father, and a faithful Holy Spirit dwelling within—and the sighing of the prisoner goes up to God (Ps. 79:11). All this should yield comfort and courage to the repentant heart.

There can, of course, be no deliverance unless there is the renouncing of the evil thing by the heart. It was the heart that was first attracted and ensnared, and there restoration must begin. An evil course may be abandoned for a while under pressure or through fear of consequences, or because the opportunity for its pursuit is gone, but it will be surely taken up again when the fear is past and the opportunity returns, and the bars of the cage will be tripled in strength. The only hope is in the heart being purged from its evil way. This will be secured most surely by the remembrance of the Cross and what it means.

The Cross stands unchanged; it was and is to us the manifestation of an invincible and tender love; it tells us of a propitiation for our sins; of Jesus Christ the righteous, who met every charge that could be brought against us. The sins of our pre-conversion days were all atoned for there, and those sins in which we have indulged since that happy moment too; and Jesus, who bore all the suffering for us in that awful hour, now lives in the presence of the Father for us, our Advocate when we sin (1 John 2:1). As we consider the Cross, there is forced from our wondering hearts the apostle’s cry, “The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me.” Yes, even though that “me” is a shameful and wretched backslider.

Let it be freely owned, as it has been fully proved, that there never was any profit to any Christian who sought satisfaction in fleshly things; they only bring strife into the soul and bitter regrets. Minding the things of the flesh dishonours the Lord, gives the devil a temporary triumph, and more than wastes the precious time of the Christian and makes him the unhappy captive of the things he has run after.

On the other hand, all the peace and joy and satisfaction that any of us have known, and all true service to men and to God, have sprung from occupation with Christ. How blessed to know that He is as ready to restore those things if they have been lost as He was to give them at the first. Ah, but that should make the backsliding heart all the more ashamed of the backsliding, and that would bring it to the point of frank and unreserved confession. God requireth truth in the inward parts; there must be no guile before Him, and there is no need for it, for He knows all, and will forgive all, when all is confessed.

“When I kept silence,” said David, “my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long, for day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me: [wonderful, faithful love!] my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity I have not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:3-5). Matchless grace this, that responds at once to this open confession of the truth before God. Nay, it is the grace of God that brings the heart to the confession of the sins, and then that same grace forgives. “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

“Still sweet ’tis to discover

    If clouds have dimmed my sight,

When passed, Eternal Lover,

    T’ward me as e’er Thou’rt bright.”

The first step to liberty is for the heart to be brought to the realization of the sinfulness of the backsliding, and then in the sense of the unchanging grace of the Lord and of the Father to confess it; then is forgiveness sure. But where this is real to the heart, there will be along with it the knowledge that only by that grace that has forgiven the past can we stand in the future. Again and again will the soul be ensnared so long as any self-confidence remains. Our prayer in the sense of our helplessness should be, “Lord, be Thou my strength,” and that is a better prayer than “Lord, strengthen me,” when it is a question of things to which our foolish hearts are prone. Our safety lies in reliance on the Lord. Then the restored heart must avoid too much occupation with the past; if recalled it should be only to bless God for the grace that has pardoned it all; so that knowing that we have been forgiven much we might love much. But self-occupation is disastrous to progress and overcoming; there is neither strength nor liberty in it, and where there has been much backsliding there is always a tendency to it. True Christian liberty lies in joy in the Lord.

“He is altogether lovely,

    The fairest of all the fair;

His glory eclipseth ever

    All glory everywhere.

He is brighter by far and better

    Than the brightest and best of earth,

In Jesus our Lord and Saviour

    Is everlasting worth.”

The Spirit of God dwells in the body of each blood-purchased child of God to enable him to live in this glorious liberty, and when the heart turns with loathing from the evil way and returns to the Lord, whose love never changes, the bars of the cage that held it prisoner are torn apart and liberty follows. Then can the restored and liberated soul mount up on wings like the eagle.

It may be that the unequal yoke that has ensnared some is a Christless marriage, and from that they cannot be free. Inexpressibly sad are all such cases; but there is hope even for such. Only let the disobedience to the Lord’s express command be confessed, and the heart may be set at liberty, even though the cage remains. Let there be subjection of spirit to God, and the humble acceptance of His chastisement, and the husbands that obey not the Word “may without the Word be won by the conversation [conduct] of the wives” (1 Pet. 3:1).

Grace is our one hope and strength. Where sin abounded grace did much more abound. It is greater than all our failure; it cannot fail. Sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under law but under grace, and there is forgiveness with the Lord that He may be feared.

But let no one suppose that forgiveness and liberty mean deliverance from chastisement, or that grace protects us from reaping what we sow, or that God in His care for us will cease to discipline us. To expect this would show that the lesson had not been fully learned. Where the heart is fully recovered there will be a lowly acknowledgment of the rightness of all God’s ways in government, and an overflowing gratitude for all His grace.