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XIX.

HUMAN FREEDOM.

"The foolishness of man subverteth his way;

And his heart fretteth against the Lord."—Prov. xix. 3.

There is such a valuable expansion and commentary on this proverb in the book of Ecclesiasticus that it seems worth while to quote it in full: "Say not, it is through the Lord that I fell away, for the things He hates thou shalt not do. Say not, it is He that caused me to err, for He has no use for a sinful man. Every abomination the Lord hates, neither is it lovely to those that fear Him. He Himself at the outset made Man, and left him in the power of his own control, that, if thou wilt, thou shouldst keep His commandments, and to do faithfully what is pleasing to Him. He set fire and water before thee, that thou shouldst stretch out thy hand to which thou wilt. In front of men is life and death, and whichever a man pleases shall be given to him. Because wide is the wisdom of the Lord; He is mighty in power, beholding all things; and His eyes are upon them that fear Him, and He Himself will take note of every work of man. He never enjoined any one to do wickedly, and He never gave to any one licence to sin."499499   Eccles. xv. 11-20.

It is our constant tendency to claim whatever good251 we do as our own doing, and to charge whatever evil we do on causes which are beyond our control,—on heredity, on circumstances of our birth and upbringing, or even on God. The Scriptures, on the other hand, regard all our good deeds as the work which God works within us, when our will is given to Him, while all our evil is ascribed to our own foolish and corrupt will, for which we are, and shall be, held responsible. This is certainly a very remarkable contrast, and we shall do well to take account of it. It is not necessary to run into any extreme statement, to deny the effects either of taints in the blood which we receive from our parents, or of early surroundings and education, or even the enormous influence which other people exercise over us in later life; but when all allowance is made for these recognised facts, the contention of the text is that what really subverts our lives is our own folly,—and not uncontrollable circumstances,—and our folly is due, not to our misfortune, but to our fault.

Now we will not attempt to deal with all the modifications and reservations and refinements which ingenuity might offer to this doctrine; however charity may require us to make allowance for others on the ground of disadvantages, it is questionable whether we help them, and it is certain that we weaken ourselves, by turning attention constantly from the central fact to the surrounding circumstances; we will therefore try to steadily look at this truth of Individual Responsibility, and lay it to heart. When we have acquitted ourselves of blame, and have obtained a discharge in the forum of our own conscience, it will be time to seek other causes of our guilt, and to "fret against the Lord."

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But before we turn inwards and appeal to our own consciousness, may we not observe how absurd it is that the Lord should be charged with responsibility for our sins? What do we know of the Lord except that He hates and abominates sin? It is as the Hater of sin that He is revealed to us in ever-clearer forms from the first page of revelation to the last. But more, the most powerful proof that we possess of His existence is to be found in the voice of conscience within us; we instinctively identify Him with that stern monitor that denounces so vigorously and unsparingly all our offences against holiness. The God of revelation is from the first declared to be "He who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children." The God of conscience is by the very nature of the case identified with the uncompromising sentence against evil; is it not then obviously inconsistent to lay our sins to the charge of God? We are more assured of His Holiness than of His omnipotence; we cannot therefore bring His omnipotence to impeach His holiness. We see Him as the Avenger of sin before we see Him in any other capacity; we cannot therefore bring any subsequent vision of Him to discredit the first. It is surely the dictate of plain common sense, as St. James says, that "God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempteth no man: but each man is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then the lust, when it hath conceived, beareth sin: and the sin, when it is full grown, bringeth forth death."500500   James i. 13-15.

Now our actual responsibility for our own sins, and253 the troubles which result from them, will perhaps come out in the clear light of conscience, if we regard our conduct in the following way. We must make an appeal to consciousness. There are actions which, consciousness tells us, rest entirely on our own choice, and concerning which no sophistry, however ingenious, can furnish an adequate exculpation. There was in these cases, as we well remember, the plain offer of an alternative "Fire or Water, Life or Death." We knew at the time that we were equally able to take either of them; we felt no compulsion; there was, it is true, a great tumult of conflicting motives, but when the motives were balanced and the resulting verdict was declared, we were perfectly conscious that we could, if we chose, reverse the verdict and give our judgment against it. Our first deviations from truth, from purity, from charity, come up before us as we reflect; the struggle which went on survives vividly in memory; and when we yielded to the evil power we were conscious at the time, as we remember still, that our will was to blame. As the lie glided from the lips, as the unhallowed thought was allowed to pass into act, as the rein was thrown on the neck of the evil passion, we knew that we were doing wrong, we felt that by an adequate exercise of the will we could do right. Cast your eye back on the steps by which your character was formed, on the gradual destruction of your finer feelings, on the steady decline of your spiritual instincts, on the slow deadening and searing of your moral sense. Do you not remember how deliberately you submitted to the fascinations of that dangerous friend, whom your conscience entirely disapproved? how wilfully you opened and perused the pages of254 that foul book, which swept over your soul like a mud-torrent and left its slimy sediment there ever after? how you consciously avoided the influence of good people, made every excuse to escape the prayer, the reading, the sermon, which was to you a conscience-stirring influence, an appeal of God to the soul?

As you retrace those fatal steps, you will be surprised to discover how entirely your own master you were at the time, although the evil deeds done then have forged a chain which limits your freedom now. If at any of those critical moments some one had said to you, Are you free to do just which of the two things you please? you would have replied at once, Why, of course I am. Indeed, if there had been any compulsion to evil, you would have rebelled against it and resisted it. It was really the complete liberty, the sense of power, the delight in following your own desire, that determined your choice. The evil companion persuaded, your conscience dissuaded, neither compelled; when the balance hung even you threw the weight of your will into the scale. The book lay open; curiosity, prurience, impurity, bade you read; your best conviction shamed you and called you away: when the two forces pulled even, you deliberately gave your support to the evil force. The solemn voice of prayer and worship called you, moving you with mystical power, waking strange desires and hopes and aspirations; the half-mocking voice of the earth was also in your ear, tempting, luring, exciting, and when the sounds were about balanced, you raised up your own voice for the one and gave it the predominance.

Or if now in the bondage of evil you can no longer realize that you were once free, you can look at255 others who are now where you were then; notice even when you try to tempt your younger companions into evil, how the blush of shame, the furtive glance, the sudden collapse of resistance, plainly proves that the action is one consciously determined by an evil choice; notice how your first blasphemies, your first devil-born doubts, suggestions, and innuendoes, bring the pained expression to the face, and raise a conflict which the will has to decide. In this appeal to consciousness or to observation we must be scrupulously honest with ourselves; we must take infinite pains not to garble the evidence to suit a foregone conclusion or to excuse an accomplished fall. I think we may say that when men are honest with themselves, and in proportion as they are pure and innocent, and not yet bound hand and foot by the bondage of their own sins, they know that they have been free, that in the face of all circumstances they still stood uncommitted; that if they yielded to temptation it was their own "foolishness that subverted their way."

But now we may pass from these inward moral decisions which have determined our character and made us what we are, to the ordinary actions which form the greater part of our everyday conduct. Here again we are generally inclined to take credit for every course which has a happy issue, and for every unfortunate decision to cast the blame on others. We are reminded, however, that our misfortunes are generally the result of our own folly; we are too impatient, too hasty, too impetuous, too self-willed. "Desire without knowledge is not good, and he that hasteth with his feet misseth the way."501501   Prov. xix. 2. If we look back upon our mistakes256 in life, it is surprising to see how many were due to our own headstrong determination to follow our own way, and our complete disregard of the prudent counsels which our wiser friends ventured to offer us. "The way of the foolish is right in his own eyes: but he that is wise hearkeneth unto counsel."502502   Prov. xii. 15. "Where there is no counsel, purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established."503503   Prov. xv. 22. "Hear counsel," is the command of this chapter, "and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end."504504   Prov. xix. 20. "Every purpose is established by counsel,"—affairs of state, whether civil505505   Prov. xi. 14. or military,506506   Prov. xx. 18.—and so by counsel a man is made strong and is able to carry out the warfare of his own personal life.507507   Prov. xxiv. 5, 6. It is well for us therefore not only to accept counsel which is proffered to us, but to be at pains to get it, for it often lies, like the waters of a well, deep down in a man's mind, and requires some patience and skill in order to elicit it.508508   Prov. xx. 5.

Our false steps are due to a rash precipitancy which prevents us from looking at the question on all its sides, and learning the views of those who have had experience and know. The calamities which befell us were foreseen by many onlookers, and were even foretold by our friends, but we could accept no advice, no warning. And while therefore it is perfectly true that our own judgment was not sufficient to ward off the evil or prevent the faux pas, we are none the less to blame, our own foolishness has none the less subverted our257 way, for it was our own fault that we refused to be advised, it was our own incredible folly that made us form so wrong an idea of our wisdom.

Suppose then that in our retrospect of life and in the estimation of our errors, we mark off all those sins for which our conscience duly charges us with direct responsibility, and all those blunders which might have been avoided if we had wisely submitted to more prudent judgments than our own, what is there that remains? Can we point out any group of actions or any kind of errors which are yet unaccounted for, and may possibly be charged on some other person or thing than ourselves? Is there yet some opening by which we may escape responsibility? Are there any effectual and valid excuses that we can successfully urge?

Now it appears that all these possible excuses are netted and completely removed—and every avenue of escape is finally blocked—by this broad consideration; God is at hand as the wisest of Counsellors, and we might by simple appeal to Him, and by reverently obeying His commandments, avoid all the evils and the dangers to which we are exposed. So far from being able to excuse ourselves and to lay the blame on God, it is our chief and all-inclusive fault, it is the clearest mark of our foolishness, that we do not resort to Him for help, but constantly follow our own devices; that we do not rely upon His goodness, but idly fret against Him and all His ordinances. "There are many devices in a man's heart," but over against these feeble, fluctuating, and inconsistent ideas of ours is "the counsel of the Lord, which shall stand."509509   Prov. xix. 21. "The fear of the Lord tendeth to life: and he that hath it shall abide258 satisfied; he shall not be visited with evil."510510   Prov. xix. 23. There is a way of life, there is a plain commandment, a law of God's appointing: "He that keepeth the commandment keepeth his soul: but he that is careless of his ways shall die."511511   Prov. xix. 16. It is simply our own carelessness that is our ruin; if we would pay the slightest heed, if there were one grain of seriousness in us, we should be wise, we should get understanding, and so find good in the salvation of the soul;512512   Prov. xix. 8. we should not, as we so often do, "hear instruction, only to err from the words of knowledge."513513   Prov. xix. 27.

We may wonder at the strong conviction with which this truth was urged even under the Jewish law; it may seem to us that the requirements then were so great, and the details so numerous, and the revelation so uncertain, that a man could scarcely be held responsible if he missed the way of life through inadvertence or defective knowledge. Yet even then the path was plain, and if a man missed it he had but himself and his own folly to blame. But how much more plain and sure is everything made for us! Our Lord has not only declared the way, but He is the Way; He has not only given us a commandment to keep, but He has Himself kept it, and offers to the believing soul the powers of an inward life, by which the yoke of obedience becomes easy, and the burden of service is made light. He has become "the end of the law to every one that believeth." He has made His offer of Himself not only general, but universal, so that no human being can say that he is excluded, or murmur that he is not able to "keep his soul." His word is gone out into all the world, and259 while they who have not heard it, being without a law are yet a law unto themselves, and are responsible by virtue of that self-witness which God has given everywhere in Nature, in Society, and in the conscience of man, how can we sufficiently emphasize our own responsibility, to whom God has spoken in the latter days by His own Son! Surely "whoso despiseth the word bringeth destruction on himself."514514   Prov. xiii. 13.

If even in that old and darker dispensation the light was so clear that it was chargeable to a man's own folly when he disobeyed,—and "judgments were prepared for scorners, and stripes for the backs of fools,"515515   Prov. xix. 29.—what must come upon us who have the clearer light if we wilfully and foolishly disobey? The counsel of the Lord stands sure: "There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord."516516   Prov. xxi. 30. No authority of wise men, no sneers of wits, no devices of the clever, can in the least avail to set aside His mighty ordinance or to excuse us for disregarding it. "The horse is prepared against the day of battle: but victory is of the Lord."517517   Prov. xxi. 31. There can be no evasion, no escape. He Himself, by His own invincible power, will bring home to the hearts of the rebellious the evil of their rebellion, and will send the cruel messenger against them.518518   Prov. xvii. 11.

Does it not behove us to remember and to consider? to remember our offences, to consider our guilt and the Lord's power? Here is a way of life marked out before you, and there is the way of death; here is the water held out to you, and there is the fire; and you260 may choose. The way of life is in the Gospel of God's dear Son; you know that its precepts are perfect, converting the soul, and that Christ Himself is holy, such an one as the earth never bore before or since; you know too that this Holy One came to give His life a ransom for many, that He invited all to come unto Him, and promised to all who came everlasting life. You know that He did give His life a ransom,—as the Good Shepherd He gave Himself for the sheep, and then took again the life which He laid down. You know that He ever liveth to make intercession for us, and that His saving power was not exercised for the last time years and years ago, but this very day, probably just at the moment that I am now speaking to you. The way is plain, and the choice is free; the truth shines, and you can open your eyes to it; the life is offered, and you can accept it. What pretext can you give for not choosing Christ, for not coming to the truth, for not accepting the life?

Is it not clear to you that if you refuse Him that speaketh, and your way is thus subverted,—as indeed it must be,—it is your own folly that is to blame? You fret against the Lord now, and you charge Him foolishly, but some day you will see clearly that this is all a blind and a subterfuge; you will admit that the choice was open to you, and you chose amiss; that life and death were offered to you, and you preferred death.

If any question might be entertained about those who have only the light of conscience to guide them, and have not heard of the direct relation of succour and support which God is ready to give to those who depend upon Him, there can be no doubt of the complete freedom of every human being, who hears the261 message of the Gospel, to accept it. You may put it aside, you may decline to accept it on the ground of disinclination, or because you consider the historical evidence insufficient, but you will be the first to admit that in doing so you exercise your discretion and consciously choose the course which you take.

Nay, leaving all metaphysical discussion about the freedom of the will, I put it to you simply, Can you not, if you choose, come to Christ now?

Oh, hear counsel and receive instruction: is not the Spirit pleading with you, counselling, teaching, warning you? Do not harden your heart, do not turn away. Attend to Christ now, admit Him now, that you may be wise in your latter end.519519   Prov. xix. 20.


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