The Fact of Sin

No men really, few men even in appearance, care to be convicted of deliberate wrong-doing; even in his own eyes, before the tribunal of his own conscience, a man prefers to be found not guilty. Our most deliberate and barefaced misdeeds we would gladly clothe in at least a semblance of good. To secure this we make smooth excuses which we know will not bear examination; we frame convenient definitions of right and wrong to suit our particular case; we put the blame on others, or on our circumstances, or on our want of knowledge, for things entirely our own fault; we plead ignorance, weakness, inexperience; in a hundred ways we wriggle and writhe about to escape the pointing of the finger at us. This is true, even when the misdeed is known to ourselves alone. We argue with ourselves, we pretend to convince ourselves that we are not guilty, that we have even done a virtuous act, that if we really take all the facts into consideration the evidence is entirely in our favour. It is yet more true in regard to others. Even if we cannot quite convince ourselves of our simple innocence, or if we prefer it to be so called, of our straightforward manliness, others shall not be given the chance of doubting, others shall not be suffered to question our singleness of view. They shall see how we do not even suspect the possibility of an adverse judgment; they shall be overwhelmed by our utter certainty and genuineness; they shall be given no room for a reflection which shall redound to our discredit.

But if this is true in regard both to ourselves and to others, still more is it true in regard to God. If God is, we would stand well with Him; since God is, not to stand well with Him is the greatest evil. If God is, then His will must be considered; since God is, to go against that will is to do great wrong, for which, so common sense dictates, somewhere, somehow, I must pay the penalty. And yet I cannot deceive God. Others I can deceive, myself I can think I deceive, but God there is no deceiving. Before Him I cannot play a part; I cannot even conjure up excuses; I cannot frame a definition, an argument, a brief for the defence, which shall save my face if really I am guilty. How, then, can I escape? There is but one way. If I cannot deceive God, I can at least deceive myself in regard to God. I can throw doubt on the fact of God; I can eliminate God from my horizon; by so doing I can hope that my deeds may be judged without any reference to Him; judged on another scale, the scale, let us say, of human standards, or the scale of convention, or the scale of expediency, all of which agree to look at life with one eye covered, they may be easily condoned or justified. "This satisfaction or that," so I argue with myself, "my nature goads me on to seek. But the law of God says I may not have it. Now, if that law did not exist, what would remain to thwart me? If I could free myself from its authority, if I could justify myself in ignoring it, then I might have my way. The will is father to the thought. I will sift the authority of this law till I find questions that cannot be answered; I will examine the evidence of its Maker till I formulate problems that have no solution. Or I will justify myself on my own side, by discovering my own ignorance, by proclaiming my perplexity, so that I may doubt His being, or His sovereignty, or His interest in men, or something else about Him, it matters little what, so long as it shakes His authority over me. For doubting Him, I am further justified in doubting the law He is reputed to have made; and a doubtful law binds no one."

For how much unbelief, as has been said elsewhere, does this fine of argument account! How much unbelief depends, not on doubt of doctrine, not on actual ignorance, but on moral restlessness and resentment of restraint! How many unbelievers have first sinned, have first thrown away their innocence, and then have fled to unbelief, or have been goaded to it, as the one escape from the lashing of their conscience! While they were sinless they saw clearly enough, and understood, and could not doubt; having sinned they are blind, they are glad that they cannot see, they permit themselves to come to no conclusion, but bury, so they fondly hope, one grim fact beneath the toppled-down ruins of another. But it will not be buried, it will not even be slain. The serpent has been scotched, no more, and that only for a time. Soon it wriggles itself loose, and crawls to the summit of the ruins, and raises its hissing head, and man discovers that in spite of all his efforts, and of all his sacrifice of truth, "his sin is always before him."

Nor does it avail him any better to invent convenient subterfuges, however plausible and humane they may appear. He may claim that "he does no harm to anyone," and that therefore no one can blame him; he knows that this is not the whole matter, that sin includes more than his relations to his fellow-men, that a man can be a cad or a beast independently of any but himself, that at times injury to others may even become an act of noblest virtue. Or he may rise a little higher and declare that he does no more than live according to the dictates of humanity; he is still conscious that the dictates of humanity do but cover a very small area of life, that his moral horizon reaches far beyond the narrowed realm of human authority, that right and wrong are independent of creation itself, that far from being the dictate of humanity they rather are its dictators. Or he may go to the opposite extreme. He may ask, "What is truth?" and decline to wait for an answer. He may say that, after all, right and wrong in themselves are very doubtful; that they differ in different people; that they depend very much on individual point of view; that they matter very little in practice; that right more often comes to grief where evil prospers; that in this work-a-day world we must take things as we find them, and not be too fastidious; that, in the words of Scripture, "he has sinned, and what evil has befallen him?" that the important thing is not to be disgraced, but if that is secured little matters.

Or, lastly, he may give up the struggle. He may declare that to resist is impossible; for the serpent, while it hisses, also fascinates. But to yield is a species of despair, and despair is its own condemnation, as well as its own tormentor. It is the nearest point to hell that man in this life can reach. This plea, then, stands convicted out of its own words; no man is compelled to offend God, to sin perforce is a contradiction in terms. It avails nothing to say that sin is inevitable; that it is but the necessary consequence of human nature; that it is dictated by nature, enforced by nature, and that man is but the slave of himself. It is no defence to claim that every man at times is abnormal; that sin is but temporary insanity, to which every man is occasionally liable, and that the common sentence passed on the suicide should be passed on every sinner that has committed sin. It profits little to become defiant, to maintain that sin is not so much the doom of man as, rather, his characteristic feature; that man is then most a man when he sins; that great men are mostly great sinners; while those who have never sinned are puny, inexperienced, undeveloped.

Such, however veiled, is the language of despair, and despair that defends itself knows that it lies. If a man must sin, then he never sins; for sin is a free man's act. And yet it is also a slavery, the slavery of him that has found his belly's satisfaction in the husks the swine do eat; no wonder, then, that it lies to hide its shame. But the same has little to do with men, above all with men who wallow in the same trough. It points to another onlooker. If "my sin is always before me," it is because He is always before me from whom I cannot hide. Whichever way man turns he comes back to the same point; sin is sin, because God is God, and neither can be evaded. And why should they? To shirk the truth is the action of a coward, and must meet with a coward's reward; to accept it, with all its consequences, is alone worthy of a man. Accepting God, man must accept sin; true, but accepting God and sin, he also gives a nobler and a greater significance to all morality. Life is then no longer a mere course of law-girt duty, it is a course of heroic love. It is no longer the grudged service of a slave of nature; it is the willing service of a son. Being free, it is responsible; being responsible, it has the power to do wrong; but on that very account, and on that alone, it is the glorious thing it is. Let a man accept that responsibility as a man, keep it as a man, and he will receive a man's reward; let him reject it, let him serve himself, and he will meet with his desert, which is the wreck of his manhood. This is sin, and this is sin's wages; as Saint Paul says: "The wages of sin is death."