The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 17. On Obeying Christ
14 min read
14 min read
What is it to obey Christ? The question appears to be an extremely simple one; but it is possible to suppose that we are obeying Christ when we are really refusing Him any effective authority over our moral life.
There are, for example, many excellent people who read the four Gospels in order to ennoble their own conceptions of righteousness. They would say frankly, if they were asked, and without any suspicion that they were not acknowledging the great claims of Christ, “Conscience is our supreme authority, but the life and teaching of Christ educate conscience, make its vision keener, purify and exalt its ideal of perfection. We keep the commandments of Christ because we see for ourselves that they are lofty and good.” But this is not the same thing as obeying Christ.
For what is the essence of obedience. Take a case. If a man over whom you have no authority consults you about how a piece of work ought to be done, you do not complain that he is disobedient if he declines to follow your directions. If you do not convince him that your way is the best, you say that he is a dull man; if you convince him and he does the work in some other way which does not involve so much trouble, you say that he is a lazy man or a fool. There is no possibility either of obedience or of disobedience where there is no authority.
But suppose one of your own workmen, one of your own servants, asks you the same question, and you answer it — the case is altogether different. He may think that your way involves a waste of labour, a waste of time, a waste of expense. He may not be able to see that it is better than his own way; but he is not at liberty to refuse to follow your directions. It would be more satisfactory if he saw that your plan is better than his own; but whether he sees it or not he has to accept it. You are his master, and he has no choice.
If I keep Christ’s commandments only because I have come to see for myself that they are wise and good, I do not obey Him. If I recognise His authority, I shall keep His commandments before I recognise that they are either good or wise.
The conscience is instructed and developed by the writings of the great moral teachers, and by the lives of many good men; but no ethical treatise, no saintly biography, holds the same place in relation to the moral life as the four Gospels. Archdeacon Paley may teach me in what sense a promise is to be kept, and he may remind me of invaluable sedatives for soothing and quieting anger. I may act upon his teaching and be much the better for it; but I do not obey him, for he has no authority over me. He instructs my conscience, and I obey that. If we use Christ’s teaching and history simply to ennoble our own conceptions of righteousness, and if these remain the supreme authority, we are obeying conscience — not Christ.
Half a century ago many unwise persons thought that children ought always to be shown the reasons for everything that they were required to do. This pernicious theory has happily lost its temporary popularity. It is obvious that children who were brought up under its influence could never be disciplined to obedience. But the inevitable conditions of human life must have made it impossible to translate the theory into practice. There are many things that can hardly be explained to a baby in long clothes. Even a child of six will not find it easy to understand why it should be compelled to take offensive medicine, or why any limit should be placed upon its innocent pleasures in the vineries and strawberry beds. It is doubtful whether even a boy of nine or ten can be made to understand why he should learn the multiplication table or the Latin declensions. He has to do it first, and to discover the reasons afterwards.
The same principle holds in relation to morals. If a child is not disciplined to truthfulness, industry, kindness, before he can see for himself the obligations of any of these virtues, the chances are that he will never see that lying, indolence, cruelty, are hateful vices. Compel him to be industrious, and he will discover for himself the obligations of industry; make it hard for him to lie, and he will discover for himself the obligations of truthfulness; use authority to accustom him to kindness, and he will discover for himself the wickedness of cruelty. In morals, practice comes before theory.
And so, if we obey Christ, His commandments will soon shine in their own light. “He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” It is not by mere meditation that we come to see the real beauty and excellence of Christ’s commandments; we must obey them before we see how beautiful and noble they are. We must actually follow Christ if we desire to have “the light of life;” if we decline to follow Him till the “light” comes, we shall remain in darkness.
To insist that no commandment that Christ has given is binding till we ourselves are able to recognise its obligations is clearly and flagrantly inconsistent with the acknowledgment of His authority. There are some who make a nearer approach to obeying Him than this, and yet do not obey. Most men learn before they are thirty that conscience is developed very slowly. To discover duties when the time has gone by for discharging them is one of the saddest and, I suppose, one of the commonest experiences of human life. In early manhood we see that.: if our moral sense had been clearer and stronger in boyhood we should have avoided many follies and many sins. In middle life we look back with a sigh upon early manhood. Knowledge has come to us too late. Those who had the strongest claims upon our love, and whom we did not love, have passed away, and it is too late to atone for our coldness and neglect. We were unjust without knowing it; and those who suffered from our injustice, though living, are beyond our reach, and the harm we did them is irreparable. Wide areas of duty were altogether disregarded — disregarded, perhaps, through the very eagerness with which we gave our heart and strength to some of the great ends of life. And now we cannot go back; the years have gone by forever in which those desolate wastes might have been made fertile and beautiful.
Happy are those who are born into households enriched with the moral traditions of many generations of high and noble living! A single generation cannot learn for itself the great laws of life; and it is not enough, therefore, to be born of parents whose hearts are loyal to duty and to God. The chances are that much of their wisdom came too late to be of much service to their children. It is only the slowly accumulated moral wealth transmitted by a long line of honourable ancestry that can avail. The higher forms of morality, like the higher forms of civilization, are the fruit of centuries of labour and meditation, of adventurous genius, of patient, unambitious, inglorious toil. As the tradition passes from parent to child the moral ideal becomes richer, loftier, more complete; every new generation is saved from some great mistake committed by its predecessor and recognises from the first some duty which its predecessor had to discover for itself.
Few of us are the heirs of this blessed inheritance. In the moral order we belong to new families; we have had to make our own way; we have no pedigree. Or some near ancestor wasted the family estate; what had been accumulated before him was suddenly dissipated and lost, and his children were brought to ruin. We begin life with only a rudi- mentary knowledge of how we ought to live, and we learn nothing early enough to put it into practice.
This experience leads many men to confess that since Christ knows very much more about righteousness than they know, it is a duty to trust His larger knowledge and to follow His guidance, even when He leads them into paths which they would not have chosen for themselves. They accept His judgments on all moral questions against their own.
Christ says, “Love your enemies,” “Resist not him that is evil.” The duty is not self-evident. It is a man’s natural impulse when he is struck to strike back, and to strike as hard as he can. The hot resentment is not only natural, it seems the kindling fire of a manly virtue. But Christ condemns it, and those who trust His judgment against their own try to quench the passion and to discipline themselves to the patient endurance of injury.
They also accept His judgment rather than their own of the gravity of certain moral offences. They can see for themselves that there is a want of graciousness and moral dignity in flinging about scornful, contemptuous, bitter words; but if in a moment of heat such words escape them, they think that the words have, after all, not much harm in them. But Christ says that they are very serious, and that by uttering them a man may incur the gravest guilt ” It was said to them of old time. Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But / say unto you, that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say. Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire.” Those who have discovered how slowly conscience develops may be led by this discovery to trust Christ’s moral estimates rather than their own, and to watch more anxiously against the heats of passion and against bitter and contemptuous words.
This is a great advance on the position of those who recognise no authority in Christ’s precepts until they can see for themselves the evil of what they forbid, the righteousness of what they command. It is a great advance, but it is not enough. For this is nothing more than faith in the larger moral wisdom of Christ; it is not a recognition of His moral authority; and where there is no recognition of authority there can be no obedience.
A trust very similar to that which has been just described — the same in kind — may be wisely reposed in our fellow-men. It sometimes happens that a young manufacturer, merchant, or professional man finds himself in a position in which it is hard to reconcile his personal interests with the claims of others. He cannot measure these claims with any accuracy; still less can he determine how he should satisfy them. There are three or four courses open to him: one of them he promptly dismisses as involving quite unnecessary sacrifice; he is still perplexed about the others. He consults an older man than himself, a man of large experience, in whose judgment he has perfect faith. His friend tells him that he is bound to take the course which he has dismissed from his mind; it is the hardest, but the only right one. The young man cannot see why. The line of conduct on which his friend insists is legitimate, but he is not persuaded that it is obligatory. Still his friend maintains that it is the only right course; and. the young man says, “I cannot see it, but I will trust your judgment rather than my own. If you are sure this is what I ought to do, I will do it.” That is a great proof of confidence but it is not obedience. The younger man has faith in his friend’s perception of what is morally right in complicated business questions, but if his friend asserted any authority over him he would at once resent it.
Christ does not come to us asking only for our confidence, as one who has a larger knowledge of moral duty than we have; He comes asserting authority and insisting on obedience. I do not know how to put it except by saying that He speaks to us as an objective conscience — a conscience outside of us — with an authority to which we are bound to submit.
There is a light that lighteth every man; but it reaches us dim, broken, obscured. It shines more and more clearly as we are faithful to it, but even when we have been faithful for years we are troubled that the light is not steadier and stronger. That light is a revelation from heaven. It is a Divine word, translated very imperfectly into a human dialect which, at the best, has no resources for expressing accurately and fully the Divine meaning. Still it is Divine. It is a revelation of the eternal law of righteousness; and God’s will and the eternal law of righteousness are one. .Conscience touches God; God touches conscience. Whatever obedience I owe to the law which is revealed to conscience, I owe to God.
This moral supremacy, this identity with the eternal law of righteousness, is the ultimate prerogative, the incommunicable glory of Deity. That God is my Creator imposes on me many obligations; but if, though He is my Creator, He were not my God, His authority over me would not be unlimited. His goodness — incessant and infinite — imposes on me many obligations; but if, though He is infinitely good. He were not my God, I should be bound to be grateful to Him, but not to obey Him: my own conscience would still reveal the highest law, and this would determine the measure of my duty to Him. His power, in itself, gives Him absolutely no moral rights over me. It is not because He can punish me for not doing His will — it is not because He has actually menaced me with punishment for not doing His will — that I am bound to obey Him. The menace of punishment does not create a crime; if an action is not already wrong it is a crime to punish it.
He is God; and this means that He has an authority over me, absolutely unique and absolutely unlimited. Do you ask, ” Why must a man obey God } ” You can never have heard the voice of God if you ask that question. You may as well ask, “Why must a man obey conscience?” I must obey conscience because I ought; there is nothing more to be said. I must obey God because I ought; there is nothing more to be said.”
And in Christ God comes to me and claims my obedience. The ultimate prerogative, the incommunicable glory of God, is Christ’s. He is the Eternal Law of Righteousness incarnate. He does not counsel; He commands. When I discover who He is, I have no choice but to obey Him.
This position is challenged. It is contended that conscience must always retain its sovereignty, and that even in Christ’s presence conscience remains supreme. In support of this contention it is alleged that Christ Himself appeals to conscience to recognise His claims. Miracles the most stupendous can never compel religious faith or moral submission; for miracles, in themselves, are simply displays of power: conscience must recognise the moral supremacy of Christ before Christ can command either our religious reverence or our moral submission. If conscience has to form a judgment on the moral claims of Christ as a whole, conscience must be competent to form a judgment on the details of His teaching, on His separate moral precepts; and only as conscience recognises their moral obligation do they become obligatory. Conscience after all is supreme.
It is true that conscience must determine whether or not the claims of Christ to moral authority are valid; but when conscience has once discovered that He is the living, personal revelation of the eternal law of righteousness, conscience has recognised its Master and Lord. Henceforth conscience itself insists that the commands of Christ must be obeyed.
“But am I, in any particular, to obey Christ against the dictates of my own conscience?” Wait and see whether the conflict arises. It may happen, indeed, that some of Christ’s precepts impose duties which conscience has not discovered for itself, and does not recognise as intrinsically obligatory even when they are commanded. The explanation of this is to be found in what has been already said of the slow development of conscience. The jurisdiction of conscience is august; but conscience is not omniscient — even in its actual decisions it is not infallible. Left to itself, it often discovers duties only when it is too late to discharge them. But Christ enables us to anticipate experience. He does not command what conscience condemns; but in the early years of the Christian life it is very commonly found that He commands many duties which as yet conscience does not enforce.
These claims of Christ to personal authority over the moral life provoke not only speculative criticism but resentment. There are men of high integrity and generous temperament to whom they are intolerable. It is one thing to submit to an abstract law which conscience discovers for itself — in this submission there is no humiliation; it is quite another thing to submit to the government of a Person.
Nor is it because the submission is claimed by one who has “been made flesh” that the claim is resisted. There are, it is to be feared, many persons who suppose that they believe in God, but who refuse Him all authority over conduct. They would vehemently resent the charge of atheism, but they regard God as nothing more than a metaphysical hypothesis to account for the existence of the universe. In support of this position they may appeal to the Christian apologists of the eighteenth century, some of whom seem to have learnt their theology from Aristotle rather than from Christ; but they are in open conflict both with the Jewish and- the Christian revelation.
The Book of Genesis begins, no doubt, with a wonderful celebration of God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth, of the sun, the moon, the stars, and of all living things; but it is impossible that this can record the first revelation of God to the human race. God first revealed Himself in His immediate relations to living men, and when men began to know Him for themselves He led them on to the discovery that He whom they knew was the Creator of all things. Both in the New Testament and in the Old, God’s present and direct relations to men take precedence of all questions concerning the great First Cause.
But these relations are to many men intolerable. While God is nothing more than the Origin of all things the personal life is free; as soon as He claims authority the freedom seems lost. The claim is met with angry resistance. It is thrust aside, out of sight. To be ruled by a Law this can be borne; to be ruled by a Person is to be reduced to the condition of a slave.
But those to whom the great discovery of God in Christ has come, know that in His service there is perfect freedom. The recognition of His personal supremacy over life brings with it courage, elastic vigour, high hope, and a sense of great security and peace. The rule of Law — not of the personal God — is the real tyranny. The law can command; it can do nothing more. It is inflexible, and to those who are conscious of moral failure it is stern and implacable. It has no pity for our weakness, no tears for our defeats, no compassion for our follies, no forgiveness for our sins. It does not share our hopes. It does not rejoice in our triumphs. It leaves the awful loneliness of the soul in the highest provinces of life unrelieved. It can receive no confidences, show no sympathy. ‘ It lays upon us heavy burdens, and gives no strength to bear them. It raises questions which perplex us and answers none of them.. When Christ becomes the Lord of conduct everything is changed. He stands by us in every conflict; gives strength as well as defines duty; rejoices more than we rejoice ourselves in our victories; grieves more than we grieve ourselves in our reverses. Henceforth we are never alone, either in the unexciting and monotonous duties of common days, or in those hours of peril in which, but for His presence and support, our hearts would fail and our strength faint.
Christ becomes our comrade, faithful and generous; but yet He is our Ruler and we are under the government of a higher Will than our own. Close observers may discover the wonderful difference that this makes in the character of a man whose morality, in the ordinary sense of the word, has undergone no change as the result of his submission to Christ’s authority. The difference is hard to put into words, but it is as if the man were always in the presence of one greater than himself; and this is the actual explanation of his new temper and spirit. There is no servility in him, but arrogance and wilfulness are now impossible. There is a new dignity in his moral bearing, but it is not a dignity which comes from self- assertion; it is a dignity that comes from his relationship to the greatness of another. No such results follow belief in a God who is nothing more than a metaphysical hypothesis to account for the origin of the universe. In men who have such a belief it may be perfectly clear that their will has never done homage to a higher will; and that whatever discipline they may have received from education and from the experience of life, the central forces of their nature are unsubdued and untamed. They have no relations to a nature higher than their own. They have no God.
We have to obey God in Christ. But when the real secret of the Christian revelation is mastered, the obedience assumes a unique character. The Will by which we are ruled is the will of another who is yet not another. The fountains of our life are in Him.
We are one with Him as the branch is one with the vine. He is our higher self, our truer self. The Will we obey is a force which acts, not from without, but from within. It inspires as well as governs, impels as well as commands. This wonderful relation to Christ, and this alone, renders it possible to obey Him. Not until we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us are we able to keep His commandments.