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But rightly guided by the grace of God through these degrees, it will have its consummation in the spirit: for that was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual ( 1 Corinthians 15:46). And we must bear the image of the earthy first, before we can bear the image of the heavenly. At first, man loves himself for his own sake.
That is the flesh, which can appreciate nothing beyond itself. Next, he perceives that he cannot exist by himself, and so begins by faith to seek after God, and to love Him as something necessary to his own welfare.
But when he has learned to worship God and to seek Him aright, meditating on God, reading God’s Word, praying and obeying His commandments, he comes gradually to know what God is, and finds Him altogether lovely. So, having tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is ( Psalm 34:8), he advances to the third degree, when he loves God, not merely as his benefactor but as God. Surely he must remain long in this state; and I know not whether it would be possible to make further progress in this life to that fourth degree and perfect condition wherein man loves himself solely for God’s sake. Let any who have attained so far bear record; I confess it seems beyond my powers. Doubtless it will be reached when the good and faithful servant shall have entered into the joy of his Lord ( Matthew 25:21), and been satisfied with the plenteousness of God’s house ( Psalm 36:8). For then in wondrous wise he will forget himself and as if delivered from self, he will grow wholly God’s. Joined unto the Lord, he will then be one spirit with Him ( 1 Corinthians 6:17). This was what the prophet meant, I think, when he said: “ I will go forth in the strength of the Lord God: and will make mention of Thy righteousness only” ( Psalm 71:16).
Surely he knew that when he should go forth in the spiritual strength of the Lord, he would have been freed from the infirmities of the flesh, and would have nothing carnal to think of, but would be wholly filled in his spirit with the righteousness of the Lord.
In that day the members of Christ can say of themselves what St. Paul testified concerning their Head: “Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more” ( 2 Corinthians 5:16).
None shall thereafter know himself after the flesh; for “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” ( 1 Corinthians 15:50). Not that there will be no true substance of the flesh, but all carnal needs will be taken away, and the love of the flesh will be swallowed up in the love of the spirit, so that our weak human affections will be made divinely strong.
Then the net of charity which as it is drawn through the great and wide sea doth not cease to gather every kind of fish, will be drawn to the shore; and the bad will be cast away, while only the good will be kept ( Matthew 13:48). In this life the net of all-including love gathers every kind of fish into its wide folds, becoming all things to all men, sharing adversity or prosperity, rejoicing with them that do rejoice, and weeping with them that weep ( Romans 12:15). But when the net is drawn to shore, whatever causes pain will be rejected, like the bad fish, while only what is pleasant and joyous will be kept. Do you not recall how St Paul said: “Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is offended and I burn not?” And yet weakness and offense were far from him. So too he bewailed many which had sinned already and had not repented, though he was neither the sinner nor the penitent. But there is a city made glad by the rivers of the flood of grace ( Psalm 46:4), and whose gates the Lord loveth more than all the dwellings of Jacob ( Psalm 87:2). In it is no place for lamentation over those condemned to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels ( Matthew 25:41). In these earthly dwellings, though men may rejoice, yet they have still other battles to fight, other mortal perils to undergo. But in the heavenly Fatherland no sorrow nor sadness can enter: as it is written, “The habitation of all rejoicing ones is in Thee” ( Psalm 87:7, Vulg.); and again, “Everlasting joy shall be unto them” ( Isaiah 61:7). Nor could they recall things piteous, for then they will make mention of God’s righteousness only. Accordingly, there will be no need for the exercise of compassion, for no misery will be there to inspire pity.