The Dividing of Soul and Spirit

The Messenger of the Cross (CFP white cover), 91-100, Watchman Nee

The word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do. (Heb. 4.12,13)


The dividing of soul and spirit is exceedingly essential since it concerns the Christian’s spiritual growth. How can a Christian seek for that which is spiritual if he does not even know the distinction between spirit and soul? He will often mistake the soulish for the spiritual, and thus stay long in the realm of soulish living instead of seeking for the spiritual. The word of God cites many times the features of the spirit as well as those of the soul. For instance, the Bible records being sorrowful in the spirit as well as being sorrowful in the soul, it mentions being joyful in the spirit as much as being joyful in the soul. Hence people draw the conclusion that since the expressions of the spirit and the soul are the same, the spirit must be the soul. This is like saying, "Because you eat food and I too eat food, therefore you must be me." Yet Hebrews 4.12 says that "the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit." Since soul and spirit may be separated, soul must be soul and spirit must be spirit.

We are shown in Genesis 2 that when God first created man He "formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (v.7) This breath of life is man’s spirit since it came directly from God. As it touched man’s body, the soul was produced—and man became a living soul.

Man’s spirit has God-consciousness, knows God’s voice, and is able to communicate with Him. But after the fall of Adam, his spirit became dead to God. Thereafter the spirit of Adam (and of all his descendants) was so oppressed by the soul that his spirit was knit intimately with the soul. When a person is saved, though, his spirit becomes alive to God; but due to the close uniting of the spirit with the soul for such a long period, it requires the word of God to divide or separate them.


Though the expressions of the soul and the spirit appear similar, they belong to different realms—they come from two different sources. When you are joyful today, this joy may come from the soul or from the spirit. Joy is being expressed, but there is a difference from where it comes. Likewise, you may feel sorrowful today. Now sorrow is sorrow; yet it may come from different sources. From whence does it come? This is the question God will himself ask. Does it come out from your soul or out from your spirit?

For example, God promised Abraham he could have a son. At that time Abraham was already advanced in age and seemingly without much hope. After having waited for a long while with God’s promise still unfulfilled, his wife came up with a plan to let him marry her maid Hagar, and thus Abraham obtained Ishmael. But after fourteen years, God caused Abraham’s wife Sarah to give birth to Isaac. As we read through Genesis chapters 15, 16, 17 and 21, we may not perceive what Isaac and Ishmael represent; but wait until we read Galatians 4 in the New Testament and we discern immediately the meaning of both. Paul tells us that the one (Isaac) is born through promise but the other (Ishmael) is born after the flesh (v.23). Do you now see the difference? People reason that as long as they obtain a son, all is well. But God will inquire as to how that son is born. We want a son, be he Isaac or Ishmael. Yet the word of God says that Ishmael represents what is fleshly while Isaac represents what is spiritual. What Ishmael stands for is that which man obtains in his own wisdom and by his own power; what Isaac stands for is that which is out from God and given by God.

What therefore is soulish? Soulish is that which is done by oneself. And what therefore is spiritual? It is that which is done by God. And these two are radically different. A person can do something without any need for waiting upon God and trusting in Him. Such action is fleshly and it is soulish. But if a person cannot speak before God speaks, cannot move except God moves first; if he must look to God, wait and depend on Him—then that person and that action is spiritual. Let us thus ask ourselves if all we do is in the Holy Spirit? This is such an important question. Frequently there is nothing wrong in what we do, nevertheless there is condemnation registered within us when we do it. The reason for this inward sense is not that what we do outwardly is necessarily wrong but because the thing we do is not initiated from God—that is to say, it is not the outcome of the working of the Holy Spirit in us.


1 Corinthians 3 talks about building. It refers to our work and service for God. Some build with gold, silver and precious stones, whereas others build with wood, hay and stubble. What is the work done with gold, silver and precious stones? What is the work done with wood, hay and stubble? In the Scriptures the gold, silver and precious stones point to what is of God: gold represents the glory which comes from the Father; silver, the redemption which is the work of the Son; and precious stones, the work of the Holy Spirit, since these stones are compounds formed underground through intense heat. That which has about it the eternal glory of God, the cross of the Son, and the organization of the Holy Spirit is called gold, silver and precious stones. To what, then, do the wood, hay and stubble point? Obviously, all which comes out of man himself: the glory of man is like straw (hay) and flowers; the nature of man is like wood, and the work of man is like stubble.

Now gold, silver and precious stones do not appear on the surface of the earth. They have to be dug up from the deep recesses of the earth. Wood, hay and stubble, on the other hand, grow on the face of the earth and are easily obtainable. Hence whatever comes out of the depths as a result of what takes place deep within shows the work of God in them; but whatever can be done by the flesh from out of man has no value whatsoever. What can be easily done does not possess much spiritual value, for this is merely outward; but what comes from the depths because it is from God is worth much.

This difference is noticeable in preaching. Some in preaching need to wait upon God until a burden is formed, just as in conception. This is the work of gold, silver and precious stones. Some preach because their brain is sharp and their lips are eloquent. They can also remember many things. Therefore they can stand up and preach. They actively work, but all this is wood, hay and stubble in the sight of God—hence having so little spiritual value.

Once a brother was preaching at a certain place. From the human standpoint, the outward conditions were excellent. He should therefore have been reasonably happy. Yet strangely enough, as time went on he found himself deflated within. Though he worked vigorously, within himself he felt hungrier, drier and increasingly deflated. Once the work was done he had to confess his sins before God and to acknowledge that it was done by himself.

The question here does not turn upon the outward condition of the work but upon the matter of who primarily is doing the work; that is to say, where does it originate? For instance, one preacher may learn to say the same words and preach the same message as another, yet people feel he is just a clever person; whereas all sense the other is a man who knows God. With some servants of the Lord we bow our heads, saying, "God is here"; with others, we can only say he is clever and eloquent. If you touch God, you can cause other people to touch Him too; but if you touch only the soul, you only cause people to touch you yourself. How vast is the difference!


This is not only true in the matter of seeing God but is equally true in our personal life on earth. One day a Christian went to talk with a servant of God. Being somewhat fearful of criticism, this Christian exerted his utmost strength to keep himself humble during the conversation. His attitude as well as his word were quite humble in tone. But while he was trying to be humble, those who sat nearby detected the strain of it. Now if a person is truly humble, he has no need to exercise so much effort. Actually, this Christian was simulating humility, and therefore it required great effort indeed. Can you say he was not humble? Well, he appeared to be so, but in point of fact it was man-made humility, and such belongs to the soul. For if God had worked in this brother, he could have been humble quite naturally. He himself would not have felt he was being humble, and those around him could have instead seen the work of God in him.

The lady who powders herself needs to look at the mirror frequently, but Moses’ face shone often without his even being conscious of it. Whoever manifests the effects of God’s working in him, that can be called spiritual. But the one who attempts to manufacture something must employ much strength; therefore he feels weary at being a Christian, although a Christian should never exercise his own strength in any case. We often judge that so long as a thing looks good it is probably all right, but God looks at the source as to whether it is of Him or an imitating in the power of the flesh.

The same could be said in another situation. Let us say that someone tries to be patient. Yet the more he tries to be patient, the more you with a discerning spirit feel sorry for him. But another person can be patient without his even being conscious of it. In that case you bow your head in thanks, saying that God has truly worked in that life. You notice that the second is of God but the first is out from himself. The difference lies not in respect of outward appearance but in respect of the source.

Oh do let us see that even though something out of the natural life may appear quite spontaneously, that in itself does not signify that it is of the spirit. Someone, for example, is born with a gentle nature. Yet one day he will realize the total difference between his natural gentleness and Christ-given gentleness. Another individual may have been born with the natural capacity of loving people, yet he too will one day see the vast difference between his natural love and that love which comes from the Lord. The same will be true of the man who is born with natural humility in his character, but he also will one day discern the difference between God-given humility and his natural humility. This something which a person is born with tends to more easily substitute itself for what is spiritual than that which may be simulated by man. How often people will take what is naturally endowed in them as a substitute for what the Lord seeks to do in them. Yet as a matter of fact, what comes from the soul has no connection with God, since only what comes from the spirit is related to Him.

The meekest of all men will discover someday that temptation is stronger than his natural meekness. One day his meekness will be exhausted, his patience will come to an end: he can endure only so much, he can be meek only to a certain degree. Whereas the natural strength of man is limited, the strength given us by the Lord is something totally different. What the Lord can do, I cannot do; for it is not I who do it but it is because the Lord being in me, I can therefore do it spontaneously. And afterwards I will marvel as to how such a thing could ever be. I can only bow my head and say, "I have no patience; yet, Lord, You are doing it in me." And without a doubt this that comes forth is truly something spiritual.


We ought to acknowledge, however, that it is not easy for us ourselves to differentiate between what is spiritual and what is soulish merely by their outward appearances. It is futile to ask ourselves daily whether this is spiritual or that is soulish. Such questioning will have no spiritual value at all. We may ask, but we will not get an answer. We may analyze but we will not get any results. If we do not ask, we will certainly never know; yet even if we do ask, we still will not know.

In spiritual things, self-analysis will not only fail to show us the reality, it will even create spiritual paralysis. Real seeing and understanding comes only from God’s illumination. As light shines, we just naturally see. We therefore do not need to ask ourselves questions; all we need to do is to ask God to cause His word to shine in us, for the word of God is living and most effective; it is sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to dividing between soul and spirit, between both joints and marrow. As soon as the word of God enters, you can immediately perceive what is soulish from what is spiritual. There is a judgment within you which is sharper than any human judgment. If you make a move, your inward sense tells you that this move is not right or not deep enough, or that it is you who are doing things and you who are trying to influence people. When you see inwardly, you really see. May God have mercy upon us by granting the inner light by which we may distinguish inwardly.

The dividing of soul and spirit is the foundation for a Christian to have discerning power. Yet whether we have this discerning power or not depends on inward illumination and not on outward instruction. What we should expect before God is that the entry of His word will give light so that He may show us what in our personal life and work is soulish or what is spiritual.

Knowing the Self

The Messenger of the Cross (CFP white cover), 101-119, Watchman Nee

Thou shalt remember all the way which Jehovah thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or not. (Deut. 8.2)

To understand the reason for this verse we must recall what God promised the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. When he appeared on the Mount, God said: "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be mine own possession from among all peoples" (Ex. 19.5). When the children of Israel heard this word, the people answered in one accord and without any hesitation: "All that Jehovah hath spoken, we will do" (v.8). They thought that since God had delivered them in such a marvelous way and had led, supplied and protected them, He would indeed be obeyed in whatever He might require of them.

However, what you say and promise may not be what your hands and feet will do. God will prove you on practical issues to determine if you really do worship Him and follow His will. Though you may think and even feel that you are perfectly willing to listen to God’s word, the flesh has become so corrupted that what you might think and feel are not very trustworthy. That is why God must prove you as to your obedience of His commandments. And that is why Moses is telling the Israelites here that God had proved them "to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or not." It was as though their promise being inadequate, they must be humbled and proved in the wilderness for forty years. Yet such "humbling" and "proving" were not designed for their spiritual downfall but for the manifestation of their real condition.

Without the humbling and proving experience of the wilderness and the subsequent defeats and rebellions, who would have known how utterly corrupt in their hearts these children of Israel were? Judging by their enthusiastic promise at the foot of Mount Sinai, we would think them to be a most obedient people. But they who promised so readily at Mount Sinai were the very people who later in the wilderness worshipped the golden calf, murmured against God and Moses, lusted to return to Egypt, and finally refused to enter Canaan. Nevertheless, after so many failures they at last realized that they were corrupt, that their flesh had absolutely nothing to be proud of, and that their self-importance in their thinking themselves better than other races was totally false since in point of fact they were not at all superior to any other nation in the world. Only then did they acknowledge that God had chosen them not because they were better than others but because of His free grace; for God had said to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy" (Rom. 9.15,16).

Now just as God had led the children of Israel in the Old Covenant period, so He seeks to lead His people today. What lesson He wants to teach His children now is the same lesson He tried to teach the Israelites before. And the lesson is that we may know ourselves. God desires His people to know that they are corrupt beyond repair, that they are full of sins, uncleannesses and weaknesses. He would lead the believers to the end of themselves. He would convince them to reckon their own selves as totally hopeless and absolutely useless so that they might cast themselves upon God in their helplessness and seek to know His will, depend on His power and accomplish His purpose.

Yet few believers are aware of this. Few really know they are full of corruption and uncleanness as well as know they are totally useless. Few deem themselves as having nothing. Most believers think of themselves as being trustworthy in many respects. And they feel they are stronger than other believers. Who, then, really knows himself through and through?

Let us understand that God has no need for our defeats and failures—only we do; for He knows full well how our flesh is corrupt and whether we stand and overcome or we fall and are defeated. He already knows our frame too well! He does not look for our flesh to achieve His righteousness for He realizes that except for sinning we can do nothing else. When we are doing good, He knows we are corrupt. And when we are doing evil, He again knows we are corrupt. He does not need to wait until we fall to realize our wretchedness. But it is we who need these defeats and falls, for without them we are not able to know ourselves. For while we experience smooth sailing, being often victorious and full of joy, we may regard ourselves as being fairly good and having possession of something that other people do not have. Though we may not dare to boast openly of anything, nevertheless, when we make some progress in spiritual life or have some success in spiritual work we cannot help but conceive the thought that now we are truly holy and powerful and excelling quite well. In such a state as this, it is easy to become careless and to lose the attitude of depending on God. Accordingly, the Lord permits us to fall from glory to dust. He allows us to sin, to fall, and to draw back. All these will cause us to know how utterly corrupted beyond natural help we are. We learn we are no different from the world’s greatest and worst sinners. With the result that we dare not be self-reliant, self-glorifying and self-boasting anymore but will in all things cast ourselves upon God with fear and trembling. How we therefore need both defeat and failure to humble us, to cause us to know ourselves and the utter corruption of our flesh.

We recall how before we were saved and born again the Holy Spirit convicted us that we were sinners and that all our past goodness was as "a polluted garment" (Is. 64.6) which could neither cover our nakedness nor save us. We also became aware that even if we should try our best to do good thereafter, our own righteousness could never satisfy the demands of the law. We came to realize that we could never establish our own righteousness outside of Christ (Rom. 10.3). We therefore came to God in utter helplessness, accepted the Lord Jesus as our righteousness, and were saved through His redemption. Such was our past experience.

Yet how forgetful we are! At the time we were saved and born again, we knew we could not depend on our own good but must depend entirely on the work of Christ. The Holy Spirit showed us our terrible state of perdition, causing us to see that we were full of uncleanness and corruption and to perceive the total undependability of our own righteousness. Immediately following our salvation, and though we were full of joy because of the grace of forgiveness we had received, we remained humble. But after a while, we began to forget the first principle of salvation. Due to the new desire of the new life, we once again tried to meet the outside requirements with a righteousness of our own. We somehow lapsed into ignorance of the fact that when God told us at the time we were saved that our righteousness was absolutely useless He meant it was eternally useless. And just as He declared at the moment of our salvation how He would never be pleased with whatever came from ourselves—irrespective of their outward appearance—so He would declare the same thing to us ever afterwards.

We ought never forget that the way we obtained divine life is to be the same way that we are to nourish that life. The principle we learned at salvation must be maintained forever. Self is always useless, is always judged by God, and should therefore continually be delivered to death. How very sad that the righteousness which we forsook at the time of first believing in the Lord is once more welcomed not too long a while afterwards. What we acknowledged as useless self is gradually becoming active once again.

God’s original intention for us after we are saved is that step by step we should come into deeper knowledge of our corruption as well as into greater rejection of our own righteousness. The attitude we took towards our selves at the time of salvation is only the first step in the perfect work of God. He wants to see such work go deeper and deeper until we believers are completely delivered from the dominion of self. What a pity that Christians should ruin the work of God.

The first work of the Holy Spirit in a believer after he is saved is to lead him to know himself so as to induce him to obey the will of God and to deny what comes from himself. He is to learn to trust in God completely. But how difficult this lesson is! To know one’s self is to be deprived of glory; to deny one’s self is to make oneself suffer. So that in reality a believer is not too eager to know himself and therefore he does not know himself that well; indeed, he will ignorantly deem himself as trustworthy. Now because of the believer’s unwillingness to have such self-knowledge, the Holy Spirit is not able to reveal to him his true character in the sight of God. As a result, the Lord is forced to use some painful means to make a believer know himself. And the means most frequently used is to let the believer fail.

As the failures in the wilderness enabled the children of Israel to know their heart, so similar failures will cause believers today to know how wretched they are in themselves. Because of their self-reliance and the viewing of themselves as talented, able and powerful, they lack the heart for complete dependence on God. Hence God lets them fail in their attempts. They will realize how undependable they are when their works do not produce true and lasting fruit.

How believers regard themselves as naturally very patient, kind, gentle and pure. To counteract this self-delusion God permits many things to happen in their lives to take away their patience, kindness, gentleness and purity so that they shall know that nothing is dependable which comes out of the natural self. How Christians view themselves as loving God, boasting of their perfect consecration towards the Lord and their diligent labor on His behalf! God allows the world and the people of the world to woo them in such a way that they are either secretly tempted or openly backslidden. And thus will they know how vulnerable is their love for God. Or believers may think of themselves as totally for the Lord and holding nothing for themselves. In response, God causes them to experience praises and accolades of men in order to show them how they subtly steal His glory and seek for men’s exaltation. Then, too, sometimes when believers make a little progress in the spiritual life, they are prone to think of themselves as now being victorious and sanctified. But just as these Christians are indulging in some such self-satisfaction, God permits them to fail and to sin exactly as do other people—or even worse than others. With the result that they know they are no better than anybody else.

At the risk of being misunderstood, I would like to say this to you: God would rather have His children sin than do good. Again, please do not misunderstand my word here. I am not, by these words, advising you to sin, because the Lord takes no pleasure in sin. But since believers are so self-reliant, self-boasting and self-satisfied—being full of their own thoughts, feelings and actions—God would rather see them sin than do good. Otherwise, they shall never know themselves nor shall they ever be delivered from that pitiable, sometimes laughable, yet abhorrent self life.

We should know to what extent God wants us to reach forward. Where does He save us from and to where will He save us? It is quite true we shall not go to hell but go to heaven. But is this all which God has purposed for us? No, He wishes to save us to the extent of our being wholly delivered from ourselves and of our entering fully into His life so that we will no longer live by the life of the soul. In His eyes there is nothing more unclean than "self"—it being the mother of all sins. Self is God’s greatest enemy, because self always declares independence from Him. He therefore looks upon all self as extremely unclean, totally unacceptable and absolutely useless. What basically is self? Whatever man possesses and is able to do without seeking, waiting and depending on God is self.

Although the Lord hates "self" so much, the attitude of believers towards it is quite different. They delight in depending on self, cherishing self, and glorying in self. They are ignorant of their true self; and neither do they know how unclean and corrupt and weak the self is in God’s eyes. They lack the divine insight into the matter. In short, they do not know themselves. If in such a situation they should make much progress, experiencing an increasing number of successes and victories, their self life will be nourished and grow bigger and it will thus become harder to deny. Each time they do a good deed, they drift a step further from the life of God. A little more power of their own means a little more distance away from the Holy Spirit. More success results in more glory to self, hence prolonging the evil life of self.

It is for this reason that I said earlier that God would rather have the believers sin than do good: because the more they sin, the more they shall realize their undependability; the weaker they are, the more they shall see the vanity of self; and the more they fall, the clearer they shall perceive their helplessness and hopelessness. God would rather see believers sin at such a time in their walk because sinning will enable them to know themselves more thoroughly and to depend on the Lord.

God has no other aim than to lead you to the end of yourself that you may know yourself. This is thus the explanation for why, when sometimes you have struggled to overcome, you nevertheless have failed. Oh how you cried, you strove, you fought, you pursued, you prayed, you worked and labored, you employed all kinds of means to overcome sin and reach holiness; yet you ended up in defeat.

Although at times you did experience a little victory, such victory was only temporary. You tried your best to sustain it, but it flew away like a bird. You concluded that you were worse than all, and therefore you could not gain the victory. Such experiences find their meaning in the fact that God was leading you to know your own self. It is not because you were too corrupt to gain a victory; rather, it was because you were not corrupt enough in your own eyes to win the victory. You ought to recognize that it is you yourself who cried, it was you who struggled and fought, it was you yourself who prayed and pursued, that it was you who worked and labored. You were the one active, and it was all for your own self.

How much do you really depend on God? Do you truly know yourself as irredeemable and are thus ready to rely on God? What is the motive for your struggling and pursuing anyway? Is it not for your own self? Yes, you seek to overcome sin and to strive at holiness; but for what? Is it not for the sake of giving you more joy, more glory, and more ground for boasting? Unless you come to acknowledge your own weakness and deceitfulness, you will continue to fail and fall until you recognize that you are powerless and deserve no honor.

God wants you to be united with Him and to depend on Him in all things so that you may do His will and glorify Him. But since you do not know your real character as evidenced by the fact that you continue to consider yourself good and able, you will naturally not rely on God and thus fail to render glory to Him. You will be self-reliant and self-glorifying. Even now you still do not know how weak you actually are. Hence God allows you to be repeatedly defeated. And with each defeat it tells you you are weak.

Yet you insist on not believing; you still refuse to despair of yourself; you instead continue to be full of hope. You conclude that that defeat of yours was due to the lack of exerting yourself. If you exert yourself more the next time, you say to yourself, then you will no doubt overcome. Many have been your defeats, and many have been the times that you encountered ups and downs. Yet you remain ignorant of how weak you truly are. Up to the very present hour, you are not ready to learn the lesson which God has designed for you. You are still planning your last effort for gaining the final victory. Having suffered so many defeats, why are you not yet totally despairing of yourself and wholly casting yourself upon God? When will you expect nothing from yourself, committing yourself completely into God’s hand? Oh! When that finally does happen, you will depend on Him without planning or doing anything out from yourself. But because you have not yet learned your lesson, you will have to incur greater and more defeats to give you the self-knowledge which will impel you to cease from your own work so that God may deliver you.

We all know that no rescuer dares to rescue a person who has just fallen into the water with the likelihood of drowning. For at that moment the strength of the fallen person is very strong—perhaps even stronger than usual. When the rescuer approaches the drowning person, the latter may try to wrap himself around the rescuer and keep him from swimming. With the result that both may sink and be drowned. Consequently, a wise rescuer will wait until the drowning person has struggled enough in the water on his own and begun to give up struggling. Only then will the rescuer approach the fallen one and bring him to safety.

In like manner God today allows His children to struggle and struggle till they realize how futile is their effort since they are merely getting themselves into a more perilous position. The Lord will wait until their strength is exhausted and they themselves judge that they are dying. At that moment, their thought runs something like this: If God does not deliver me, I cannot maintain my lot even for a minute; if God does not save, I will certainly die! Not until that very moment will God stretch out His saving hand. Whenever a believer ceases to trust in himself, God will wholly save him at that moment. For the Lord has no other aim than to show the believer that he is absolutely useless in divine life and work. Apart from depending on God, the believer has no life nor work.

Oh how deceitful we can be! How tenaciously interested we are in ourselves! Who can tell how many believers are living today by their deceitful self! Many are those who take "self" as the guiding principle of living. Almost everything is for self and almost everything proceeds from self. Such believers are much more dangerous than other people. It appears that in all things they cannot escape from self. If they learn to know one more thing, it is for the sake of glorifying self. This is not only true in spiritual things, it is also true in worldly things. Everything becomes a ground for elevating the self. Oh, who can fully understand the deceitfulness of the flesh? God must break and wreck such believers. He will give them no easy environment lest their ego be nourished. He will deal with them in severe circumstances lest they be boastful. He will let them know what their inner motive really is by allowing them to be defeated so that in defeat they may examine themselves and realize how much in their ordinary days they are for themselves and not for the glory of God.

For forty long years God led the children of Israel through the wilderness. He let them fall and sin many times, with this one purpose in view: that they might know themselves. In the same way today what God has been doing in your life is for the purpose of causing you to know your real image. Your past defeats ought to have already convinced you of the absolute vanity of yourself; yet to this present moment you insist on clinging to your precious self! Because of this, God is compelled to keep you in the wilderness longer that you may have more experience of wilderness defeats so as to realize at last how utterly corrupt, vain and weak you are before God. And if you still do not learn your lesson today, you will have to continue in defeat.

What is God’s purpose in having given the law to men through these thousands of years? It has been given not for men to keep but for men to violate, for the law was established for transgressions. Do not be shocked by this statement, for concerning the law this is the purpose of God, as is amply demonstrated in the Scriptures. God has known long before that men are corrupt beyond remedy, and He willed long ago that we should be saved freely by His grace. He knows we are so corrupt that we cannot bring anything to Him for acceptance. But He additionally knows that we do not realize this ourselves. He therefore employs ways and means to teach us in order that we too may know about ourselves what He has always known. Only after we recognize our corruption will we ever accept His grace.

Now one means He employs is the law, which He requires us to keep. If we are good, we will certainly keep it; but if we are corrupt, we will with equal certainty break it. It may therefore be said that the very breaking of the law reveals that we are corrupt, that our inability to do what the law demands proves that our flesh is weak (see Rom. 8.3). When people see that they are so weak as to be unable to satisfy the demands of divine law, they will finally despair of themselves, give up any thought of being saved by works, and entirely trust in the grace of God. Hence the Bible declares: "What then is the law? It was added because of transgressions"—that is to say, it was added to reveal the corruption of men—"till the seed should come to whom the promise hath been made" (Gal. 3.19)—this latter clause referring to the Lord Jesus and His salvation.

We believers know that we cannot be saved by works but only by grace. But do we know why? It is because we are so corrupt, weak and unclean that we cannot accomplish the righteousness of God nor keep His law, and consequently we do not have any good works to show but must depend on grace. God in saving us by grace tells us that we are so utterly corrupt that He has no other recourse but to give His grace. And when we at last entered through the gate of salvation we very well knew how helpless we were.

Why then is it that today you begin to think of yourself as so good? Why is it that you have not learned the lesson God has been teaching through the law to His followers throughout these thousands of years? Alas, you still do not know yourself!

In our public preaching and testimony, we have paid special attention to the principle of the cross. But keep in mind that the cross is not a kind of magic power which will deliver you from all your sins by the mere calling on it. Except you willingly accept the principle of the cross, you will not see it work in your life. The cross is a principle, and the principle of the cross is to deny self and depend on God. If you are ignorant of the utter corruption of your real self, you will not receive the help of the cross in delivering you from sin when you expect its power in an emergency.

A person may say: "I am surprised that I could commit such a sin." This reveals that that individual does not know himself. He has no knowledge as to how corrupt he is, as to how he is capable of committing any sin. Let it be understood that apart from the new life which God has given us at the time of new birth, we ourselves are no better than anybody else. Let us acknowledge that every man has the possibility of being a robber, and every woman, a prostitute The reason why some are not is due to a different environment. I do not hesitate to confess that the seed of every sin is within me and that I could commit any sin if the life of God does not rule in me.

How many tears are shed today not for the sake of sin, but for the sake of "self" that is incapable of reaching the expected goodness of a believer. Much seeking, prayers and faith appear to be directed towards God, yet within all these endeavors is most likely the anticipation of self-good. And hence God permits you to be defeated again and again so that you may see finally the utter corruption of the flesh. And once your weakness is proven by such defeats, it is hoped by God that you may know your true self, forsake it and turn to trust in Him.

Each defeat ought to give you a little more knowledge of yourself. Each failure should show you a little more of your weakness. Each sin should make you expect less of yourself and make you more willing to forsake your self. Yet often every fall only brings in more struggle and fight. Self is increased in strength instead of it being decreased. How vain it is for anyone to confess with the lips and even cry out for help if he fails to accept the principle of the cross in judging self.

Have not the Scriptures already warned us of such error? Romans 6 speaks of our co-death with Christ; Romans 7 speaks of the battle between the new and the old lives; and Romans 8 speaks of the victory in the Holy Spirit. With co-death, we ought to be victorious. Yet why is it that after we have known and accepted the truth of Romans 6, we still cannot be victorious? It is because we lack the defeat of Romans 7. Both verse 6 and verse 11 of Romans 6 tell us that the death of our "self" is a fact. Why, then, do many—believing in this truth—fail to experience the victory of Romans 8? It is because they have not failed enough. God will lead us through the defeat of Romans 7 many times over till finally we are forced to confess: "I am carnal, sold under sin. . . . I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing" (Rom. 7.14b, 18a). And such an experience is true self knowledge.

God will let a believer fall until he willingly acknowledges, "I am sold under sin! There is no good in me!" Not till then will he know that except a power comes from outside, he is hopeless and helpless. But then he will cry out: "Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me?" (7.24) When he really perceives how corrupt he is, he will then know and acknowledge that unless Christ rescues him he cannot overcome sin.

At the beginning of Romans 8 the co-death of Romans 6 is again mentioned as the means for total victory. Oh, we are familiar with the salvation through co-death, and we earnestly expect the glory of victory. Yet the problem today is knowing self. Our past defeats are not a few, yet we are unwilling to know self in such defeats; instead, we try our best to improve and cover our self. If only we were willing to examine those past defeats in the light of God’s holiness, we would surely know what kind of people we are. If we are ready to go a step further by denying self, God will lead us into the restfulness of Canaan.

Naturally we do have a little knowledge of ourselves, and in our past experiences we have been led by God to know something of our corruption. But I am honestly afraid that the knowledge of many concerning self is not deep enough. Let us not be fearful of knowing ourselves too clearly! Although self is quite ugly and very fearful, so abominable and so hateful, we still must know. We must never stop short and conclude that we already know the self thoroughly: we are far, far away yet in knowing our self!

Knowing the self is a lifelong lesson for a believer. In order to arrive at this purpose of God a stubborn believer may have to go through defeats which others do not have or need. He may even conclude that the Lord is especially hard on him, not realizing that this is due to his stronger tie to his "self." For not long after he gains a victory, he has begun to become self-important once again. He ceases to trust in the Lord with fear and trembling as before and instead commences to glorify himself afresh. So back to failure God sends him once more. How many believers do indeed have victories up to the present. But they somehow never seem to be able to learn the lesson God is teaching them of true self-knowledge.

Oh, do let us see that outside of self-knowledge, self-examination and self-denial, there is really no way to spiritual life. If we would constantly judge ourselves because of knowing ourselves, we would avoid many defeats and achieve God’s purpose,

Today all who (1) follow their own will, (2) rely on their own strength and (3) glorify their own self are people who do not know themselves. But once any one is thoroughly broken by God, that person shall see himself as abominable and hateful. He will not dare initiate anything or dare to do anything in his own strength. He will instead wait for God’s will in all things and depend on God’s power. In the event there is any achievement he will dare not be self-conceited because he knows he is unworthy of any glory. May the Lord lead us all into such an experience and thus bring glory to Him.