LAST night I reminded you of the letter, or Epistle, to the Church of Thyatira, and we noticed particularly these two points:--Firstly, that she had done well, and increased more and more, and that her last works were more than her first; but yet, in spite of all this, we noticed, secondly, that in the midst of this flourishing Church of Thyatira there was a great danger, and a great warning was given her; in one word, the spirit of Jezebelism was in her. And we gathered that this historical allusion implied two things: (I) a forsaking the true God; and, following on that (2) a loss of moral law, and breaking up of the bonds of relationship in society. And, in conclusion, I asked you to remember that the foundation of this prosperous Church was, in all probability, due to the devotion of one single person, and that person a plain woman, simply doing her duty, whose heart the Lord had opened. And this should surely impress upon us all, this one great fact, that one woman, or one man, like Jonah, or like Lydia, may do much to stem the tide of unbelief now, and stop the separation from God, and the consequent confusion in morals.
But if this be so, that each one of us is to take part in this great work; if in England now this same note of progress and power is to be found as in Thyatira of old; and thanks be to God, if it is true that her last works are more than her first, and if in England, as in other parts of the world the wave of unbelief is strong, and the temptation to separate from God is close to us and among ourselves, surely there is sufficient indication that we need to take the warning given to the Church of Thyatira home to ourselves, lest the confusion of morals consequent upon a departure from the true God should come to us, a breaking up of all social relationships, and trampling under foot of the marriage laws.
And if all this be so, What is my duty? What can I do? If we are all to do something, it must be something which we can all understand. There must be some way of taking hold of it, of understanding it. Now I want to go over with you the very rudiments of our belief, that we may see that we clearly understand them, and may see how we are to take our part in fighting against unbelief amongst ourselves. Where, now, shall we begin? I will ask you to begin here as a starting point. We have all, have we not, the power of distinguishing right from wrong? We do not look at a man who is a liar in the same way as a man who tells the truth. We do not regard him in the same way. We do not trust him. And so with one who is a thief. We see a difference between a thief and an honest man. We can all see that there is a great difference!
Now, this is a great point to dwell upon and to cherish, that we know the difference between right and wrong--good from bad. We use these words, sometimes, in a kind of metaphor. We talk of a good horse, or a bad horse; but this is not the correct sense of the words. It is the sole possession of a moral being to know good from bad, right from wrong; it constitutes the difference between man and the brutes, and an inestimable difference it is.
It is a most precious gift, and if we take this for our starting point when we want to discover what is our part in the great work of stemming the tide of unbelief, we shall do well. And it is well to dwell upon it again and again. Do I know the difference between good and bad? Can I distinguish right from wrong?
Next, if we can distinguish between right and wrong, we feel a kind of pressure on the side of right, and a repulsion from the wrong-an attraction to right, and a repulsion from wrong! Now, what are you going to do? "Yes," you say, "I know that the one thing is right, and the other wrong." Well, do you feel as indifferent as you do when you see two things of different colours, one white and the other black? There is no attraction of necessity to the white or the black. It is not so in distinguishing right from wrong. There is, of necessity, an attraction to the right, and a repulsion from the wrong. And so we have arrived at the word responsibility. You do not feel just as indifferent as in the case of the two colours. When I say that is right, and that is wrong, you feel hampered, attracted, drawn. You may wish you had not been told, but now you can't get out of it. Now you see that one is right, and the other is wrong, and you feel responsibility, a pressure to do the right, and leave the wrong alone.
Yet, thirdly, when I have distinguished right from wrong, and while conscious of pressure from the side of right, I next discern my own freedom. I can do the right, but I need not do it, I don't feel obliged to do it. I can see the right, and sometimes it is very troublesome to me to see it, but I can't help seeing it, and moreover I know I can do it, and by God's help, I will do it. There are some cases when we are not responsible; when we can see what is right to be done, but we cannot do it. If we see an account in the papers of some terrible accident, like the chimney falling at Bradford some time ago, where a poor girl was crushed beneath a beam-if we went and looked at that poor girl lying there crushed under the beam, it would be terrible, terrible, and we couldn't help wishing with all our hearts that we could work miracles and get her out, but we can't do it! There is no responsibility connected with it. But if we see a child down in the street under the feet of a horse, the right thing to do is to go and pick it up--we are free to do it, and we do it! So we see, that bound up with our responsibility is a sense of freedom!
Then we have got thus far. We can distinguish right from wrong--we feel the attraction to right and the repulsion from wrong, and so come to acknowledge our responsibility; and yet, bound up with this, is a sense of freedom. If a boy has been behaving rudely in a room, and you take him by the back of the neck and put him the other side of the door, there is no moral action on the part of the boy. But if you go to him and say, "Now you have not been behaving well-the right thing for you to do is to go till you can behave better," then he is free to choose whether he will go or not. We feel attracted to the right, but we are not compelled to do it. What, then, does it come to? It brings us to my fourth word. A sense of duty. I ought. That is a great point to have reached! I know the difference between right and wrong, I feel the responsibility, I know I am free, but I feel I ought-it is my duty. That is a magnificent standpoint-when we come to acknowledge that it is our duty to do right, not in the abstract, but for me. And I think this is thoroughly a part of human nature. How often we hear people say, "How vexed I am with myself!" Why do you feel vexed? Because you have done something you feel you ought not to have done or left something undone that you ought to have done. Such words as vexation and remorse, and unworthy and base, and on the other hand amiable and good show that we can distinguish between right and wrong.
Brethren, I feel very thankful for this. Under the present strain of unbelief, this is one of the things which has come out with greater and increasing clearness, the sense of right and wrong. You may call it what you like-moral sense, or Divine reason, or by that old word conscience.
Look at those lectures which have lately been delivered in Italy, by Circi. He might well have said, What shall I lecture about? There are so many subjects--society, the exploration of Central Africa, the recent discoveries in Nineveh or in the East. There are all sorts of subjects. But there is one more important than all these--the individual--man's individual soul. What becomes of him?
If we arc to believe what Herzog has been saying in Germany, there is a great deal of indifference and a great deal of talk about unbelief, but in the main people do believe, at least as far as this.
Every man comes into the world with a sense of right and wrong, and as long as this is so we need not despair. He starts with this Divine gift within him-people come with this as a first element, an integral part of their being. It is the distinguishing mark of man's nature from brutes. Even in this crucible of unbelief, people do acknowledge that they know right from wrong, they still recognize their responsibility, yet they feel a sense of freedom, they acknowledge the word duty, and they do not altogether reject that old-fashioned word, conscience.
Now, fifthly, tell me, Why do we give our conscience such mysterious power? If it is only I who speaks, why am I bound to listen? Why may I not get rid of it, or hush it up? Why is it so powerful a voice? Well, I believe you may fairly look round the human race, in Italy, in Germany, or among the cultured in India, or even in Africa, you may look humanity in the face and say, Why do you give this mysterious power to conscience? And all these, in Italy, in Germany, in India, in Africa, would answer you : Because she does not speak from herself, she speaks from another. You cannot get rid of it. She does not speak of herself, but of another. She brings us to a bar, before a judge. There is something awful about her-something which makes you afraid to say you don't care a rap for conscience! Well, you may say what you like; you don't feel it! Suppose a man made a great dash, and by it made a great fortune, not honestly-we sometimes hear of such things. All his life through while he is enjoying his money, and it does bring great enjoyment, there is a feeling of misery within, a skeleton in the cupboard, a cancer eating away the inner life! Money may command much-not friends, I will not say friends, but companions, and luxury, and splendour, and music, and all sorts of-I do not like to say pleasure, but attractions. It can command all this-horses and hunters; but suppose one day, returning from his hunting, he meets a poor woodman with a faggot on his back, will it not come into his head that the burden that poor man is carrying is lighter, oh, far lighter, than the burden he has borne all through life, a wounded conscience? I have seen it so again and again. I would rather carry any burden, oh yes, and do hard work, any work, or bear any loss, or sickness, than carry that heaviest of all burdens, a wounded conscience! It is this which makes the smile fade from the faces of so many young people-it makes the back bend, it makes them old before their time. If you will but keep right and true, and be brave about following your conscience, you may have this, or that bodily trouble, but, thank God, you can always live in perpetual spring, and always keep a light heart. You will be far more really young, and will be more able to enter into the amusements of the young, than many a younger person, who, under the colour of agnosticism, or some such word, has followed the path of pleasure against the light of conscience. Look at the faces of so many young people nowadays; what a crushed down expression they have! Resolve now, and here; yes, make this resolve to yourself in your innermost being, that you will not go against your conscience. You may call her what you like. She does not speak of herself. This is what awes us, and makes us afraid to go against her. She seems to warn each one of us. "You had better take care. You can go against me if you like--but you had better take care before you enter on the downward course. Your life will be cankered-your home will become a prison house--you will become suspicious, and fancy every one is looking at you, instead of being always light-hearted, like a lark springing up towards heaven. I am only conscience; you can go against me if you please; but take care! Whence has conscience this wondrous power? The two most wonderful things which God has created are the starry firmament above, and the moral law within. . . .
It is marvellous, the power of conscience-and yet the perfect freedom to do, or not to do, as we like best!
Now see where I have led you. To the recognition of some Being Who is the source of conscience. She points to something above herself--that is, to God--to God. That is where you have been led. Pardon the simple way in which I do it. If we all want to take our part in putting a stop to this Jezebelism and unbelief, it must be by something we can do. What we want to do is simply this--our duty--our duty. The word duty is a practical shield and defence for the belief in God. Let me say that again-the word duty is a practical shield and defence for our belief in God-because duty implies that we can distinguish between right and wrong-that we feel a pressure on the side of what we ought to do--that we acknowledge responsibility, yet feel our own freedom--that we are in subjection to the mysterious authority of conscience, who speaks, not from herself, but from God!
I have told you as far as I could what Kant says of this. There is a writer of the middle ages who speaks much in the same way, Dante. The greatest gift which God has given to man, and the one in all creation most conformable to His Own goodness, is what? The freedom of the will. This is what Dante says. It is just the same thing, precisely. The greatest thing which God has made in all creation is a man or a woman endowed with free-will. They are sovereigns and kings--they rule the earth, and they are priests, for they give praise to God. They rule--is it not so? And in our days more especially when scientific skill has discovered so much, and steam has brought the earth under obedience, and made her yield up her treasures for our good. We have got all these things, and we are priests as well. When all these things obey us, then we have to lead all to Him as a crown of glory, and enter the choir and praise Him Who made heaven and earth.
Dante says that of all His great gifts to us free-will is the greatest, or in the old language of our childhood, "God made man in His Own Image--in the image of God created He him." That's all. We are coming back to that, after having been scorched and burned in the crucible of unbelief, that's what we are coming back to--"God made man in His Own Image." And the centre of His Being is His goodness, and so we are to have our resemblance to that goodness, not by compulsion, but by our own choice. When we scorn the wrong, and love to do the right, then we become like God, we become divine. So we see that there is in man this power to distinguish right from wrong, and, according to the way he acts on this, and does his duty, he becomes great. Browning says that it is not what a man does only, but what he would do that exalts him. He may not be able to accomplish much--there may be many things against him--want of health, want of means, unavoidable circumstances--but the question is this--Does he mean to do his duty? Would he do his duty under all circumstances? This is what makes him reflect the Image of God, and sets him above all the rest of creation. And, brethren, what is it that our own poet says:
The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we need to ask,
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
What does Keble mean? Doing our duty in our own trivial round, never mind what it is, if it is what we ought to do! That's it--it will lead us on our road to God. Duty is divine, and if we do our duty we shall be doing our part to keep back Jezebelism and the practical atheism of the day. The devil is very sharp and clever, but in the end he is always caught in his own net; and if we are to come out of this severe strain of unbelief with a clearer knowledge of what we are, better able to distinguish between right and wrong, and more firmly set on a conscientious discharge of duty, society will be the better for it.
And oh, what brilliant, merry, merry men we should be, if we always did our duty as to God, and did everything we had to do because it is our duty! I want you, each of you, to see your responsibility in this matter. When you are doing your duty, no matter what it is-all your little duties--sharp, as for God, you are fighting for His cause. If you neglect them you are doing wrong, and are aiding and abetting atheism.
And, in conclusion, our own Divine Master has Himself given us our standard, our test for duty. Some may say, It is all very well, I can do so little, I have no great powers, I can't do much! What standard are you striving to reach? Not, surely, the standard of the world, but the standard we shall all be tried by, for it is the standard of the Judge Himself. And what is it? "She hath done what she could." That is all the standard the woman in the Gospel reached, and that is the standard the Lord accepted. "She hath done what she could." Well, our Blessed Lord looking down on each one of us might say, I know thy works, thy lack of opportunities, want of health, early disadvantages, being held back by family arrangements, but "She hath done what she could," not what you wanted to do, not what others have done. It may have been a trial to you to see others passing you, as you thought, in the race, in the world's judgment, not in Mine. "She hath done what she could!"
Let us go over it once more. This is something we can all grasp and understand. We can distinguish right from wrong; we admit our responsibility; we accept the word duty; we do not discard the old word conscience; we do not deny that she speaks from God, not of herself.
Well, then, go back to your homes, and do your duty, however trivial, as to God, and in His own time He will reward you, not according to your own standard, or the world's standard, but according to His own standard, "He hath, she hath, done what she could."