Chapter XIX Duty And Law

Right and Wrong.––Sin, temptation, repentance, throw us back upon something behind them all. Why is it wrong to do wrong? And, what is wrong? People have answered these questions in various ways. Some say it is wrong to neglect or offend other men, and that therefore to care for and consider our fellows is right; and right only because they choose to do it. Others say they have the right to do as they like: therefore they can do no wrong; but when other people injure them, these are ready enough to complain of suffering wrong. Others, again, say that whatever is natural is right; and on this ground they will justify greed, sloth, uncleanness, selfishness, saying, 'Oh, it's human nature.' By the way, let me again say, it is a grievous misrepresentation to put down what is low, lazy, and unworthy to human nature, and never to say of heroism, self denial, devotion, these are human nature too. For, indeed, what human nature is depends upon how we use it. This nature of ours is capable of base behaviour, as we know too well; but it is equally capable of magnanimity and generosity. But people usually mean the poor side of human nature when they say that what is natural is right.

We all know the Law.––These various gropings in the dark to find out the meaning and reasons of right and wrong are forms of self-deception.

We all know that sin is the transgression of the law. Every living soul is aware that there is a law. He is not able to put it into words, perhaps, and may make wild and dreadful errors in interpreting the law, but he is aware. The most ignorant savage knows as well as the Psalmist that, "Thy commandment is exceeding broad." But, because he is ignorant and base, he does not know that the law is beautiful and works for blessedness; that is, he has not an instructed conscience, but only a conscience dimly aware of a law, the meaning of which he gropes after in the dark.

He knows, too, that obedience to the undeciphered law is due from him. He is dimly conscious that law is everywhere; that––

     Or act or say, or do but think a thought,
     And such and such shall surely come to pass,
     Fore-ordered sequent of such act or thought.

His uneasiness is appalling; he tries to appease his conscience by sacrifice; to explain the riddle of life by superstitions, making his god such an one as himself.

Contrast this restless uneasiness in the dark with the serenity of the enlightened Christian conscience. The Christian, too, is aware of the law which is about him, closer than the air he breathes, ordering his relations with all persons and all things, ordering his affections and his thoughts. But the law does not irk him. "Oh, how I love thy law!" he cries with the Psalmist; and he takes up gladly his share of the work of the world, so much of the fulfilling of the law as is due from him; he acknowledges his Duty.

As the planets revolve round the sun in obedience to their law, so he revolves in the orbit of his life, and his deepest joy is Duty. Not that he fulfils the law which is within his heart. Like the planet on which he lives, he is constantly pulling away from the law he owns; but he is as continually recovered, so that he does indeed finish his course.

Law and Will.––The reason why it is a joy to perceive the law, and an unspeakable gladness to fulfil even a little of that law, is, that we recognise law as the expression of the perfect will of God. Law, existing by itself and for itself, without any to will or desire, is a monstrous thought––a thought to chafe our spirits and take the heart out of all our strivings––because there is no comfort of love in it and no reasonable conviction. But how good and pleasant it is to know that at the heart of all things is our God, who wills the good and right behaviour of every creature in His universe, and who enables us all for right doing, for that fulfilling of His law in which all things work together for good! Our little lives are no longer small and poor when we think of the great things of the world. They are a necessary part of the great whole, ordered under law, fulfilling His will, and singing as the morning stars in the gladness of obedience.

Acquiescence.––The possibility of an erratic course, of breaking away into space––a glittering object, may be, for a time; to be, by and by, quenched in darkness––should make us the more fervent in our duty-doing. All sense of bondage ceases when we say, "I rejoice to do thy will, O my God; yea, thy law is within my heart." And, with this spring of glad obedience within us, we arise and shine, because every feeble, faltering step is sustained; when we fall we are raised, when we pause we are strengthened and cheered to go on; and, poor things as we know ourselves to be, our path is that of the just, shining more and more unto the perfect day.

     "Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!
     O Duty! if that name thou love,
     Who art a light to guide, a rod
     To check the erring, and reprove;
     Thou, who art victory and law
     Where empty terrors overawe;
     From vain temptations dost set free;
     And calm'st the weary strife of frail humanity!

     "Through no disturbance of my soul,
     Or strong compunction in me wrought,
     I supplicate for thy control;
     But in the quietness of thought.
     Me this unchartered freedom tires,
     I feel the weight of chance desires;
     My hopes no more must change their name,
     I long for a repose that ever is the same.

     "Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
     The Godhead's most benignant grace;
     Nor know we anything so fair
     As is the smile upon thy face:
     Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
     And fragrance in thy footing treads;
     Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong,
     And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.

"To humbler functions, awful Power,
     I call thee: I myself commend
     Unto thy guidance from this hour;
     O let my weakness have an end!
     Give unto me, made lowly wise,
     The spirit of self-sacrifice;
     The confidence of reason give;
     And in the light of truth thy bondman let me live!"
          ––WORDSWORTH.