Taken Unawares

John Macbeath

If the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come (Matthew 24:43).

It is unusual for a thief to send a post card making an appointment with the owner or tenant of a house that he intends to visit. Part of the evil genius of his craft is to come when he is least expected. We live our lives under the discipline of the unexpected. Jerusalem missed the unexpected good, and we are warned against the unexpected bad. Our temptations take us unawares. In the New Testament the thief is a favorite figure for the unexpected. “If the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched.” “The day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night.” “I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” We are living in a world where evil takes no respite, where life demands of us a vigilance that takes no vacation.

Can we examine our past so as to learn something from our unguarded hours, so that in the future we shall not be so guilty of unexpected failure? Is there any time in the day, or any period in our life, when we are more susceptible to temptation than at other times? Are there any circumstances or moods that put us off our guard, and make us an easy prey to some particular kind of temptation? Let us try to write the history of our failures; let us study their causes, and see if we can find out how it came to pass that we were inveigled into sin. Was there anything in our condition of mind at the moment that gave the adversary his chance? What was it in our circumstances that made us lose control? Can we learn how to meet the future with some measure of preparedness, and with some hope of victory?

A man may be taken unawares when he is tired, or when he has done some fine thing, and feels that he merits some special consideration. Esau is a striking example of a man being taken unawares when he was tired. He had been a long time out on the hunt, roughing it in the wild. He was a great, strong, hearty hunter, a man accustomed to the open, to the play of sun and wind. With the thought of a daintily spread table, and the restful attractiveness of home, he came back shaggy, foot-weary, and hungry, and he arrived when Jacob was preparing a meal. The savoury atmosphere excited the palate of the hungry man. The sweet odour stimulated desire. Then he discovered that Jacob had his price, that he would only serve Esau for a consideration. His sense of values was vitiated by weariness and hunger and he accepted Jacob’s crafty terms.

Any man in a tired mood, after exhausting toil, after the pressure of labour, or sorrow or pain, is a little sorry for himself. To a tired man a bird in the hand is worth any number in the bush. He wants something at once, he wants immediate gratification; he does not possess the patience to wait. And Esau sold his birthright for a meal. Afterwards, when he was satisfied, and had discovered that for the indulgence of impatient appetite he had bartered away the birthright of the years, he was melted with vexation and grief, and wanted to recall the bargain; but it was too late. The act of an unguarded moment had passed beyond repair.

You recall that one of the divine instructions given to Israel was: “Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way; how he smote thee when thou wast weary.” Amalek came in behind and struck at the foot-weary and the tired. You recollect the craftiness of Ahithophel when he laid his schemes before Absalom for the assault upon David in the day of the rebellion: “I will come upon him while he is weary.” Ahithophel was never for a moment a match for David, no match for his skill, agility, and command; but when David was limp, and exhausted, and weary, Ahithophel would attack. That is part of the craftiness of evil; sin waits until we are off our guard, until we are no longer alert, but relaxed and susceptible-then it thrusts at us with unpitying subtlety.

Dante discovered that a far worse enemy for a man to face than the lion and the leopard was the wolf, because the wolf gives no open fight; he does not meet you front to front in honest battle. He has not the lion’s strength or the leopard’s swiftness, he has his own deadly subtlety. His policy is to keep his victim on the move, furtively following here and there, sometimes behind, sometimes on the right hand, sometimes on the left, until the weary fugitive becomes an easy prey. You know that if the hawk and the dragonfly went after every bird and every insect that crossed their line of vision, they would end the day weary and unfed. It is the fashion of the hawk and the dragonfly to go after one bird or insect until it falls. It is the habit of the weasel not to run after every rabbit in the warren, but after one rabbit until the little panting fluffy thing becomes the weasel’s prey.

You and I often excuse ourselves for our faults and mistakes because we were tired. We came home a little out of sorts; we gave way to temper and irritation, and when our friends chided us for being unlike ourselves, we protested that we were tired. On the same pretext we allow ourselves some unusual indulgence, we get out of the straight jacket into the loose gown, a gamble, a moral adventure, an excursion somewhere out of sight into the night.

We all have our limitations and for the most of us they are easily reached. Vitality over-strained, strength over-spent means breakdown; a breakdown in health is bad, a breakdown in character is worse. The tension of life may tire us; monotonous work, prolonged labour or protracted unemployment may reduce moral resistance. The strain of faith or sorrow or disappointment of hard-won success may increase our susceptibility to temptation. When you have passed through a long period of monotonous labour, or strenuous or exciting activity, you feel yourself entitled to some unusual indulgence. That is what some men claimed at the base in France and in Egypt. “We have had a thin time,” they said, “Now we are going to have a fat time.” “A fat time” in Rouen after the front, in Cairo after the desert, meant anything you like. And afterwards–the good is paid for in advance, the bad is paid for afterwards–the disillusioned men confessed the game was not worth the candle. From various causes, for various reasons, the children of Esau are everywhere. They repeat his sin, they repeat his sorrow too.

A man may be taken unawares when he is happy; we are in a dangerous mood when we think ourselves entitled to some special consideration or merit; we are in an equally dangerous humour when indulgence has had its fill. Temptations come in the very heart of our pleasures and delights. The man who springs to mind as an illustration of the danger which attaches to happiness is Herod. You recall that gay and happy night in the palace. Herod was susceptible to the allurement of the spacious guest hall; the beauty of the decorations; the infatuations of the dancing girls. The whole setting yielded a delirium of delight. Herod was happy, he knew no restraint and no fear, he experienced the intoxicating emotion of exultant pleasure. And in that hour of dangerous happiness he made the extravagant offer to the daughter of Herodias: “Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee unto the half of my kingdom.”

His defenses were down; his emotional excitement confused his better judgment. Unsuspicious of lurking danger he unwittingly gave tragic wrong its chance, and when the girl came back and asked for the head of John the Baptist, the king was sorry. His delirium was changed to sudden remorse and self-reproach. He never expected such a request, and yet he felt himself bound by his oath to meet it. With a mistaken sense of honour he considered that he must abide by his vow. And John the Baptist died on the altar of a king’s unguarded happiness and a maiden’s freakish fancy. Tragic are the betrayals of our lighthearted hours; the thoughtless jest, the unguarded word and act that put us in a position from which retreat with honour is not easy. When you read a story like that you get an illuminating commentary on the saying in the Psalms: “Rejoice with trembling,” for in the very heart and sanction of our joy there may lurk some unsuspected peril, like a thunderbolt that comes crashing out of a blue sky, or a sunken rock lying treacherously in a smooth sea.

Carlyle pronounced a very astute judgment on the French Revolution when he said that the French Revolution was the result of frivolousness. When delights become delirious and go to the head, when we are altogether off our guard, we may say something or do something from which there is no complete recovery, or something that will have its own far consequence of tears.

Have you not seen at a wedding or other social function, some young man or woman, when wine is served, being laughed into tasting it? The gaiety of the company served to make indulgence harmless and innocent. But the first sip was not the last; and exciting thirst was stimulated; a treacherous relish was cultivated by indulgence, and repeated attempts to quench its growing desire at last shattered a life. There are other things that are indulged in gay company that blunt our sensitiveness, and throw us off our guard, and we come back with something slain within us, some wrong done to another life; some faith, or hope, or purity spoiled, and life may never be the same again.

A man may be taken unawares when he is disheartened or discouraged. The example of the discouraged man to whom the tempter made his approach is Peter. The incident in mind is that which filled the hours preceding the crucifixion of Jesus, when all the disciples were scattered. No man wanted to look another in the face; every man felt sadly ill at ease. Peter was all alone with himself and his vexation. It was a cold night in spring, the wind was sharp on the hills of Judea, and the narrow streets of the city were bitterly chill; there was a lighted fire in the hall with a bunch of men gathered round it, while Peter lurked in the shadows sharing a little of the heat. But he was found out. The alert, quick eyes of a girl recognized him, and accused him of being one of the associates of Jesus. Then the big thing happened in Peter’s life; he denied that he ever had any kinship or link with Christ at all.

It is profoundly impressive to discover how often men act out of character; say or do something utterly at variance with their regular conduct. They seem to take a holiday from their religion, detach themselves from its claims, live for an hour like pagans, forgetting that they give more away in that hour than they can ever recapture. Peter in that hour and mood denied his Master. He was taken unawares because discouraged and depressed. His gloomy thoughts weakened his will, turning his courage to fear and the bewildered man gave his Lord away. Christ had seemed to fail and in His failure had left Peter desolate and broken spirited. It is not always the best thing to nurse your grievance, to make much of your disappointment. It has the effect of weakening your resistance, and of diminishing the fighting force of your inward life.

There are moments of depression and of disillusionment that throw the spirit off its guard. It does not matter very much what the source of the disillusionment may be; whether it may be in ourselves or in others, or in our circumstances, it is a mistake to allow our depressions to betray us into some false action, it may be the resignation of our work for Christ, our service to the Church, our Christian faith itself. We make our denials of Christ as really as Peter did and far more often. Our discouragements and depressions open the way for an adversary ever alert to his opportunity.

“Principalities and powers,

Mustering their unseen array,

Wait for thy unguarded hours:

Watch and pray.


“Gird thy heavenly armour on,

Wear it ever, night and day;

Ambushed lies the Evil One:

Watch and pray.”


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