Deuteronomy xxviii.15. It shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee.
Many good people are pained by the Commination Service which we have just heard read. They dislike to listen to it. They cannot say 'Amen' to its awful words. It seems to them to curse men; and their conscience forbids them to join in curses. To imprecate evil on any living being seems to them unchristian, barbarous, a relic of dark ages and dark superstitions.
But does the Commination Service curse men? Are these good people (who are certainly right in their horror of cursing) right in the accusations which they bring against it? Or have they fallen into a mistake as to the meaning of the service, owing, it may be supposed, to that carelessness about the exact use of words, that want of accurate and critical habits of mind, which is but too common among religious people at the present day?
I cannot but think that they mistake, when they say that the Commination Service curses men. For to curse a man, is to pray and wish that God may become angry with him, and may vent his anger on the man by punishing him. But I find no such prayer and wish in any word of the Commination Service. Its form is not, 'Cursed be he that doeth such and such things,' but 'Cursed is he that doeth them.'
Does this seem to you a small difference? A fine-drawn question of words? Is it, then, a small difference whether I say to my fellow- man, I hope and pray that you may be stricken with disease, or whether I say, You are stricken with disease, whether you know it or not. I warn you of it, and I warn you to go to the physician? For so great, and no less, is the difference.
And if any one shall say, that it is very probable that the authors of the Liturgy were not conscious of this distinction; but that they meant by cursing what priests in most ages have meant by it; I must answer, that it is dealing them most hard and unfair measure, to take for granted that they were as careless about words as we are; that they were (like some of us) so ignorant of grammar as not to know the difference between the indicative and the imperative mood; and to assume this, in order to make them say exactly what they do not say, and to impute to them a ferocity of which no hint is given in their Commination Service.
But some will say, Granted that the authors of the Commination Service did not wish evil to sinners -- granted that they did not long to pray, with bell, book, and candle, that they might be tormented for ever in Gehenna -- granted that they did not desire to burn their bodies on earth; those words are still dark and unchristian. They could only be written by men who believed that God hates sinners, that his will is to destroy them on earth, and torture them for ever after death.
We may impute, alas! what motives and thoughts we choose, in the face of our Lord's own words, Judge not, and ye shall not be judged. But we shall not be fair and honest in imputing, unless we first settle what these men meant, in the words which they have actually written. What did they mean by 'cursed' is the question. And that we can only answer by the context of the Commination Service. And that again we can only answer by seeing what it means in the Bible, which the Reformers profess to follow in all their writings.
Now, what does the Bible mean by a curse, and cursing? -- For we are bound to believe, in all fairness, that the Reformers meant the same, and neither more nor less. The text, I think, tells us plainly enough. We know that its words came true. We know that the Jews did perish out of their native land, as the Author of this book foretold, in consequence of doing that against which Moses warned them. We know also that they did not perish by any miraculous intervention of Providence: but simply as any other nation would have perished; by profligacy, internal weakness, civil war, and, at last, by foreign conquest.
We know that their destruction was the natural consequence of their own folly. Why are we to suppose that the prophet meant anything but that? He foretells the result. Why are we to suppose that he did not foresee the means by which that result would happen? Why are we, in the name of all justice, to impute to him an expectation of miraculous interferences, about which he says no word? The curse which he foretold was the natural consequence of the sins of the nation. Why are we not to believe that he considered it as such? Why are we not to believe that the Bible meaning of a curse, is simply the natural ill-consequence of men's own ill-actions? I believe that if you will apply the same rule to other places of Scripture, you will have reason to reverence the letter and the Spirit of Scripture more and more, and will free your minds from many a superstitious and magical fancy, which will prevent you alike from understanding the Bible and the Commination Service.
The Book of Deuteronomy, like the rest of Moses' laws, says nothing whatever about the life to come. It says, that sin is to be punished, and virtue rewarded, in this life; and the Commination Service, when it quotes the Book of Deuteronomy, means so, so I presume, likewise. Indeed, if we look at the very remarkable, and most invaluable address which the Commination Service contains, we shall find its author saying the same thing, in the very passages which are to some minds most offensive.
For even in this life the door of mercy may be shut, and we may cry in vain for mercy, when it is the time for justice. This is not merely a doctrine: it is a fact; a common, patent fact. Men do wrong, and escape, again and again, the just punishment of their deeds; but how often there are cases in which a man does not escape; when he is filled with the fruit of his own devices, and left to the misery which he has earned; when the covetous and dishonest man ruins himself past all recovery; when the profligate is left in a shameful old age, with worn-out body and defiled mind, to rot into an unhonoured grave; when the hypocrite who has tampered with his conscience is left without any conscience at all.
They have chosen the curse, and the curse is come upon them to the uttermost. So it is. Is the Commination service uncharitable, is the preacher uncharitable, when they tell men so? No more so, than the physician is uncharitable, when he says, -- 'If you go on misusing thus your lungs, or your digestion, you will ruin them past all cure.' Is God to be blamed because this is a fact? Why then because the other is a fact likewise?
Now if this be, as I believe, the doctrine of the commination service; if this be, as I believe, the message of Ash-Wednesday, it is one which is quite free from superstition or cruelty: but it is a message more disagreeable, and more terrible too, than any magical imprecations of harm to the sinner could bring. More disagreeable. For which is more galling to human pride, to be told, -- Sin is certainly a clever, and politic, and successful trade, as far as this world is concerned. It is only in the next world, or in the case of rare and peculiar visitations and judgments in this world, that it will harm you? Or to be told, -- Sin is no more clever, politic, or successful here, than hereafter. The wrong-doing which looks to you so prudent is folly. You, man of the world as you may think yourself, are simply, as often as you do wrong, blind, ignorant, suicidal. You are your own curse; your acts are their own curse. The injury to your own character and spirit, the injury to your fellow-creatures, which will again re-act on you, -- these are the curses of God, which you will feel some day too heavy to be borne. And which is more terrible? To tell a man, that God will judge and curse him by unexpected afflictions, or at least by casting him into Gehenna in the world to come: or to tell him, 'You are judged already. The curse is on you already?'
The first threat he may get rid of, by denying the fact; by saying that God does not generally interfere to punish bad men in this life; that he does not strike them dead, swallow them up; and he may even quote Scripture on his side, and call on Solomon to bear witness how as dieth the fool, so dieth wise man; and that there is one event to the righteous and the wicked.
As for the fear of Gehenna, again, after he dies: that is too dim and distant; too unlike anything which he has seen in this life (now that the tortures and Autos da fe of the middle age have disappeared) to frighten him very severely, except in rare moments, when his imagination is highly excited. And even then, he can -- in practice he does -- look forward to 'making his peace with God' as it is called, at last, and fulfilling Baalam's wish of dying the death of the righteous, after living the life of the wicked. He knows well, too, that when that day comes, he can find -- alas! that it should be so -- priests and preachers in plenty, of some communion or other, who will give him his viaticum, and bid him depart in peace to that God, who has said that there is no peace to the wicked.
But terrible, truly terrible and heart searching for the wrongdoer is the message -- God does not curse thee: thou hast cursed thyself. God will not go out of his way to punish thee: thou hast gone out of his way, and thereby thou art punishing thyself, just as, by abusing thy body, thou bringest a curse upon it; so by abusing thy soul. God does not break his laws to punish drunkenness or gluttony. The laws themselves, the laws of nature, the beneficent laws of life, nutrition, growth, and health, they punish thee; and kill by the very same means by which they make alive. And so with thy soul, thy character, thy humanity. God does not break his laws to punish its sins. The laws themselves punish; every fresh wrong deed, and wrong thought, and wrong desire of thine sets thee more and more out of tune with those immutable and eternal laws of the Moral Universe, which have their root in the absolute and necessary character of God himself. All things that he has ordained; the laws of the human body, the laws of the human soul, the laws of society, the laws of all heaven and earth are arrayed against thee; for thou hast arrayed thyself against them. They have not excommunicated thee: thou hast, single-handed, excommunicated thyself. In thine own self-will, thou hast set thyself to try thy strength against God and his whole universe. Dost thou fancy that he needs to interfere with the working of that universe, to punish such a worm as thee? No more than the great mill engine need stop, and the overseer of it interfere with the machinery, if the drunken or careless workman should entangle himself among the wheels. The wheels move on, doing their duty, spinning cloth for the use of man: but the workman who should have worked with them, is entangled among them. He is out of his place; and slowly, but irresistibly, they are grinding him to powder, as the whole universe is grinding thee. Heart-searching, indeed, is such a message; for it will come home, not merely to that very rare character, the absolutely wicked man, the ideal sinner, at whom the preacher too often aims ideal arrows, which vanish in the air: not to him merely will it come home, but to ourselves, to us average human beings, inconsistent, half-formed, struggling lamely and confusedly between good and evil. Oh let us take home with us to-day this belief, the only belief in this matter possible in an age of science, which is daily revealing more and more that God is a God, not of disorder, but of order. Let us take home, I say, the awful belief, that every wrong act of ours does of itself sow the seeds of its own punishment; and that those seeds will assuredly bear fruit, now, here in this life. Let us believe that God's judgments, though they will culminate, no doubt, hereafter in one great day, and "one divine far-off event, to which the whole creation moves," are yet about our path and about our bed, now, here, in this life. Let us believe, that if we are to prepare to meet our God, we must do it now, here in this life, yea and all day long; for he is not far off from any one of us, seeing that in him we live, and move, and have our being; and can never go from his presence, never flee from his spirit. Let us believe that God's good laws, and God's good order, are in themselves and of themselves, the curse and punishment of every sin of ours; and that Ash-Wednesday, returning year after year, whether we be glad or sorry, good or evil, bears witness to that most awful and yet most blessed fact.
My friends, this is the preacher's Ash-Wednesday's message: but, thanks be to God, it is not all. It is written -- 'If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss: Oh Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with thee; therefore shalt thou be feared.'
It is written -- 'On whomsoever this stone shall fall, it shall grind him to powder:' but it is written too -- 'Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken;' and again, 'The broken and the contrite heart, O God, thou shall not despise.' There is such a thing as pardon; pardon full and free, for the sake of the precious blood of Christ. Lent may be a time of awe and of shame: but it is not a time of despair. Meanwhile remember this; that God has set before you blessing and cursing, and that you may turn your life and God's whole universe, as you will, either into that blessing or into that curse.