By Horace Bushnell
OBLIGATION A PRIVILEGE.
WHEN the eastern traveler takes shelter from the scorching heat of noon, or halts for the night, in some inn or caravansary, which is, for the time, the house of his pilgrimage, he takes the sackbut or the lyre and sooths his rest with a song-a song it may be of war, romance, or love. But the poet of Israel finds his theme, we perceive, in the statutes of Jehovah--Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage. These have been my pastime, with these I have refreshed my resting hours by the way, and cheered myself onward through the wearisome journey and across the scorching deserts of life. Not songs of old tradition, not ballads of war, or wine, or love, have supported me, but I have sung of God's commandments, and these have been the solace of my weary hours, the comfort of my rest. This 119th Psalm, which is, in every verse, an ode or hymn in praise of God's law,--sufficiently illustrates his meaning.
Multitudes of men, it is evident as it need be, have a very different conception of this matter. Divine law, divine obligation, responsibility in any form, authority under any conditions, they feel to be a real annoyance to life. They want their own will and way. Why must they be hampered by these constant restrictions? Why must they be shortened in their pleasures, crippled in their ambition, held back from all their strongest impulses; just those by which they might otherwise show their vigor and make a brave and manly figure of their life. But in stead of being allowed any such generous freedom, they are tethered, they fancy, tamed, subjected to continual scruples of fear and twinges of conviction, confused, weakened, let down in their confidence, and all the best comfort of their life is taken away. Could they only be rid of this annoyance, life would be a comparatively easy and fair experience.
In this controversy you have taken up with the Psalmist, he is very plainly right, and you as plainly wrong; as I shall now undertake to show, and as you, considering that God's law is upon you and can by no means be escaped, ought most gladly to hear and discover. His doctrine, removing the poetry of the form, is this,--
That obligation to God is our privilege.
Some of you will fancy, it may be, at the outset, that the pilgrimage he speaks of is made by the statutes; that the restrictions of obligations are so hard and close, as to cut off, in fact, all the true pleasures of life, and reduce it to a pilgrimage in its dryness; But this pilgrimage is made by no sense of restriction. Every man, even the most licentious and reckless is a pilgrim; the atheist is a pilgrim; such are only a more unhappy class of pilgrims, a reluctant class who are driven across the deserts, cheerfully traversed by others, and by the fountains where others quench their thirst. There is a perfect harmony between obligation to God and all the sources of pleasure and happiness God has provided, so that there is no real collision between the statutes over us and the conditions round us. It is only false pleasures that are denied us, those that would brutalize the mind, or mar the health of the body, or somehow violate the happiness of fellow beings round us. Consider the long run of life and take in all the interests of it, and you will find that what we call obligation to God, not only does not infringe upon your pleasures, but actually commands you on, to the greatest and highest enjoyments of which you are capable.
There is another objection or false impression that needs to be noticed; viz., that the very enforcements of penalty and terror added to God's law, to compel an acceptance of it or obedience to it, are a kind of concession that it is not a privilege, but a restriction or severity rather, which can not otherwise be carried. Is it then a fair inference, that human laws are severe and hard restrictions, and no true privilege, or blessing, because they are duly enforced by additions of penalty? It is only to malefactors and felons that they are so; and for these only, considered as being enforced by terrors, they are made. They are restrictions to the lawless and disobedient, never to the good. On the contrary, a right minded, loyal people, will value their laws and cherish them as the safeguard even of their liberty. Just so also, the righteous. man will have God's statutes for his songs, in all the course of his pilgrimage.
Dismissing now these common impressions, let us go on to inquire a little more definitely, how it would be with us, if we existed under no terms of obligation; for if we are to settle it fairly, whether obligation is a privilege or not. this manifestly is the mode in which the question should be stated. The true alternative between obligation and no obligation supposes, on the negative side, that we are not even to have the sense of obligation, or of moral distinctions; for the sense of obligation is the same thing as being obliged, or put in responsibility.
In such a case, our external condition must obviously be as different as possible from what it is now.
In the first place, there could, of course, be no such thing as criminal law for the defense of property, reputation and life; because the moral distinctions in which criminal law is grounded, are all wanting. The laws against theft and murder, for example, suppose the fact that these are understood already and blamed as being wrongs--violations, that is, of moral obligation. And there is no conceivable way of defining these crimes, and bringing them to judgment, except by reference to notions, or distinctions already admitted. Murder, for example, can not be defined as a mere killing, or in any external way; for no external sign will hold without exception, Hence the law is obliged to define it as a killing with malice aforethought--to go into the heart, that is, and distinguish it there, as being done with a consciously criminal intent. The defenses of civil society, therefore, must all be wanting, where there is no recognized obligation to God. We are so far reduced to the condition of the quadruped races. Having, as they, no moral and religious ideas, we can not legislate. Civil society is, in fact, impossible, and all that is genial and peaceful, under the benign protection of the state, is a good no longer attainable. If a man's property is plundered, he knows it only as a loss, not as a crime. If his children are murdered or sold into slavery, he may be angry as a bear robbed of her whelps, but he has no conception of a wrong in what lie suffers. There is nothing left us in these low possibilities, bat to herd, as animals do, and take from each other what we must; to gore and tear and devour; to fly, to hide, to quiver with terror, the weak before the strong, and so live on as we best can; for to invent a criminal law without even the notion of a crime, and to phrase it in language that any tribunal could interpret, when the idea of crime has not yet arrived, is manifestly impossible.
Again, what we call society, as far as there is any element of dignity or blessing in it, depends on these moral obligations. Without these it would be intercourse without friendship, truth, charity, or mercy. All that is warm and trustful and dear in society, rests in the keeping of these moral bonds.. Extinguish moral ideas and laws and these lovely virtues also die; for their life is upheld by the sense of duty and right. Where there is no law there is no sin, or guilt--as little is there any virtue. Of course there is nothing to praise, or confide in. Truth is not conceived. Friendship and love are things of convenience, determinable also by convenience. Chastity, without the moral idea, is a name as honorable as hunger, and as worthy to be kept. Purity and truth are accidents. Domestic faith and the tender affections that ennoble and bless the homes, are as reliable as the other caprices of unregulated impulse and passion. Without moral obligations, therefore, binding us to God, society is discontinued. Nothing that deserves the name is possible. Life, in fact, is wrong with. out a sense of wrong; society a proximity of distrust and fear, and the passions, unrestrained by duty, a hell of general torment, without any sense of blame to explain it.
But these are matters external to which I refer, just to call up some faint conception of the immense revolution it makes in our human existence, only to remove this one element of obligation. Let us enter now the spiritual nature itself, and see how much is there depending on this great privilege of obligation to God.
This claim of God's authority, this bond of duty laid upon us, is virtually the throne of God erected in the soul. It is sovereign, of course, unaccommodating therefore, and may be felt as a sore annoyance. When violated, it will scorch the bosom ever with pangs of remorse that are the most fiery and implacable of all mental sufferings. But of this, there is no need; all such pains are avoidable by due obedience. And then obligation to God becomes the spring instead of the most dignified, fullest, healthiest joys any where attainable. The self-approving consciousness, the consciousness of good--what can raise one to a loftier pitch of confidence and blessing. It is with these obligations to God, just as it is with the physical laws. These latter, violated by neglect, excess, or obstinacy, are our most relentless enemies and persecutors; respected and deferred to, they become our most faithful friends and helpers. Did any one ever judge, on this account, that they are only hindrances and restraints on our happiness which were better to be discontinued? Loosen then the grand attractions, and let the huge bulks of heaven fly as they will. Make the stones soluble, at times, and the waters combustible, without any change of conditions; let congelation be sometimes by fire, and liquefaction by frost; let the water-fall sometimes mount upward into the air, and the smoke plunge downward on the ground. Abolish all the stable restrictions of law, and let nature loose, to go such way, or after such gait, as she pleases; and, by that time, we shall find that her uses are gone, and that all our magnificent liberty in them is taken away. The powers, which before consented to serve us, have become our enemies, and we are lost in a hell of physical anarchy that suffers none of the uses of life. Just so it would be, if we could exterminate and strip out of our way these constraints of obligation to God. We should find that even the release we covet is, in fact, the bitterest and sorest frustration of our desired liberty.
Thus how much, for example, does it signify, as regards your comfort, that this one matter, a matter so profoundly central too, in your experiences and views of life, is fixed. Opinions, sentiments, hopes, fears, popularities, and to these also you may add all the honors and gifts of fortune, are in a fluxile, shifting state. There is no fixed element in any one of them. You live in them as you do in the weather. Even the courses of your mind, and the shifting phases you pass are a kind of internal weather that never settles, or becomes fixed. But in the sacred fact of obligation you touch the immutable and lay hold, as it were, of the eternities. At the very center of your being, there is a fixed element, and that of a kind or degree essentially sovereign. And in that fact every thing pertaining to your existence is changed. You are no more afloat or a-sea, in the endless phases and variabilities just referred to, but a very large class of your judgments and views of life and acknowledged principles are immovably settled. A standard is set up in your thought, by which a great part of your questions are determined, and about which your otherwise random thoughts may settle into order and law Few men ever conceive what they owe to obligation here, as the mere bond of order and mental conservation. Doubtless obligation violated, is the minister of pain, but to be without obligation, is a pain more bitter and distract ing; for it is much to know that you have a compass in the ship, even if you do not use it. Sent forth into life to choose every thing by mere interest and will, to be played with always by your passions and your fancies, and to frame your judgments apart from any fixed point or standard of judgment, life would soon become a distressful puzzle to you, which you could not bear. You would make and unmake, till you lost all stability and all confidence in your own thoughts. Your confusion itself would be insupportable. You would even go mad in the struggle; you would cry aloud and lift your dismal prayer to accident, in fault of any other divinity, for something fixed. Give me fate, give me something established, though it be a continent of fire! I can not live in these bottomless sands!
How good and sublime a gift, in this view, is the gift of law. It comes down smiling from the skies and enters into souls, as the beginning and throne of wisdom. Or using a different figure, we may say that man comes into being bringing his law with him; a law as definite and stable as that of the firmament; one that shall go with him, when consentingly accepted, and mark out the path of his pilgrimage, binding all his otherwise random exercises of desire, fancy and free will, to an orbit of goodness and truth. Every thing within him now is under a determinating rule. His soul is held in a harmonious balance of powers, like the heavenly worlds. Reason, feeling, passion, fancy, all work in together under the great conserving law of obligation to God, and the soul is kept in recollection, as a self-understanding nature. Who can think of man, wedded in this manner to the stability and eternity of God, without uniting a sense even of grandeur and sublimity, with the bond of obligation by which ne is th-u set fast and centralized in the immutable.
Consider, again, the truly fraternal relation between our obligations to God and what we call our liberty. Instead of restraining our liberty, they only show us, in fact, how to use our liberty, and how to air it, if I may so speak, in great and heroic actions. How insipid and foolish a thing were life, if there were nothing laid upon us to do. What is it, on the other hand, but the zest and glory of life, that something good and great, something really worthy to be done is laid upon us. It is not self-indulgence allowed, but victory achieved, that can make a fit happiness for man. Therefore we are set down here amid changes, perils, wrongs and miseries, where to save ourselves and serve our kind, all manner of great works are to be done. Besides, we practically admit the arrangement, much oftener than we think. Tell any young man, for example, who is just converted to Christ, of some great sacrifice he is called to make; as in preaching Christ to men, or going to preach him to the heathen; and that call, set forth as a sacrifice of all things, will work upon him more powerfully, by a hundred times, than it would, if you undertook to soften it by showing what respect he would gain, how comfortable he would be, and how much easier in this than in any other calling of life. We do not want any such caresses in the name of duty. To let go self-indulgence and try something stronger, is a call that draws us always, when our heart is up for duty; nay, even nature loves heroic impulse and oftentimes prefers the difficult.
It is well, therefore,--all the better that we are put upon the doing of what is not always agreeable to the flesh. And when God lays upon us the duties of self-command and self-sacrifice, when he calls us to act and to suffer heroically, how could he more effectually dignify or ennoble our liberty? Now we have our object and our errand, and we know that we can meet our losses, come as they will. Before every man and in all his duties there is something like a victory to be gained and he can say, as the soldier of duty;--Strike me my enemy, beat upon me O ye hail! Mine it is to fulfill God's statutes, and therein I make you my servants.
Obligation to God also, imparts zest to life, by giving to our actions a higher import and, when they are right, a more consciously elevated spirit. The most serene, the most truly godlike enjoyment open to man, is, that which he receives in the testimony that he pleases God and the moral self-approbation of his own mind. When he regards his life as having a moral quality, over and above what may be called its secular and economic import; as having to do with the holy and true and good, and as being, in that highest view, a worthy and upright life; then he feels a joy which, if it be human, partakes also of the divine. It is a kind of joy too that connects in his mind with thoughts of his own personal perfection, and this makes it even a sublime thing to live. In the mere prudential life of man as an earthly creature, in his cares, doings, plans and pleasures, there is no respect to any results of quality in the person, but only to what he may get, or suffer, or be, in this life. The idea of personal perfection enters only with that of obligation to God. There dawns the thought of a divine quality--the moral, the good, the holy; and his soul rises out of a life in the dust, to look about for those angelic prospects, which are suited to the perfect glory of a perfect mind. Now, too, enters the great thought of eternity.. Obligation is a word that opens eternity; for the idea itself is immutable, and therefore, it must needs suggest and prove an immutable state. Now you become to yourself quite another and different creature, a denizen of eternity. Breathing, digestion, growth, a fine show and a titled name,--none of these have much to do with the real import of life. You are living on the verge of great perils, meditating perfection, after the style of God, and in your every thought of duty coupling the thought also of immutable good and glory. If you. are a politician, a tradesman, a man of toil, or of letters, you are yet in none of these a mere life-time creature, but, in all, you are doing battle for eternity, and receiving the discipline of an angel. Ennobled by such a thought, how is the soul armed against evil, made superior to passion, and assisted to act a worthy part in life's scenes. Now you find a power in the very sublimity of your trial. You surmount your narrow infirmities, you exercise yourself easily in great virtues, you rise into a lofty and glorious serenity of spirit, all because the inspiring presence of eternity fills your life.
In this article of obligation to God, you are set also in immediate relation to God himself; and, in a relation so high, every thing in you and about you changes its import. The world is no more a mere physical frame--it exists rather as a theatre of religion. God is in it, every where, training his creature unto himself. He is clearly seen by the things that are made. The objects of science take a moral import. Human history becomes Divine history, the history of Providence. The soul's King is here on every side looking in upon it, encouraging to duty, and smiling upon what is rightly done. The intellect pierces through the shell of the senses, and discerns, everywhere, God. The reason is encircled by mysteries vast and holy. Imagination soars into her own appropriate realm of spirit and divinity, and all the faculties we have, are bathed in joy, and transfigured in the Creator's light. Set thus in a personal relation to God, every thing changes its aspect and its meaning.
How different thus, one from the other, is the world of Voltaire, and the world of Milton. They look, if you please, upon the same sun and consider the light together. They walk the same shore of the same ocean, they meditate of its vastness and listen to the chorus of its waters. They feel the gentleness of the dew, and the majesty of the storm. They ask what is the meaning of man's history, what is birth, life, death; but how different all, are the things they look upon and the thoughts they cherish. One discovers only the clay world and its material beauties, flashes into shallow brilliancy and, weaving a song of surfaces, empties himself of all that he has felt or seen. But the other, back of all and through all visible things, has seen spirit and divinity. God is there, giving out himself to his children, and all the furniture of life, its objects, scenes and relations, take a religious meaning. A radiant glow and warmth pervade the world. The meanings are inexhaustible. Nothing is wearisome or dull, or mean; for nothing can be that is dignified by God's presence and ordered by his care to serve a religious use.
It is also a great fact, as regards a due impression of obligation to God, and of what is conferred in it, that it raises and tones the spiritual emotions of obedience and, into a key of sublimity, which is the completeness of their joy. For ye are complete in him, says our apostle, well knowing that it is not what we are in ourselves that makes our completeness, but that our measure of being is full, only when we come unto God as an object and unite ourselves to the good and great emotions of God. This brings all high affinities and affections into play; for, without God, as an object for the soul to admire, love, and worship, it were only an incomplete nature, an instrument of music without a medium of sound. True, the cowardly spirit of guilt finds no such happiness in being related to God, and would even shun the thought of any such relation. Therefore some will even argue against religious obligation, because it introduces fear, and fear, they say, is a base and uncomfortable passion. Rather say that the guilt is base, by which God is offended, and confidence changed to fear. Neither forget that one thing is baser for the guilty even than fear, and that is not to fear. Besides, it is a part of he blessing and greatness of obligation that life is thus made critical, and that obedience is thus intensified in its joy, by great and fearful emotions. The more critical, therefore, life is, without shaking our courage, the closer are we to sublimity of feeling; for in all sublimity there is an element of fear. And so the greatness of God, the infinitude of his nature, the majesty of his word and will, the purity, justice, and severe perfection of his character,--all these bring a sense of fear to the mind, and, precisely on this account, God, as an object, will raise every good mind to a perpetual sublimity of feeling, and in that mar ner fill out the measure of its possible joy; for joy is never fall, save when the soul quivers with awe, and the beatitude itself rises to a pitch of fearfulness. And thus it is that obligation to God is precisely that which is needed to make our good complete; for this only sets our mind before an object that can sufficiently move it. Before Him, all the deep and powerful emotions that lie in the vicinity of fear are waked into life; every cord of feeling is pitched to its highest key or capacity, and the soul quivers eternally in the sacred awe of God and his commandments; thrilled as by the sound of many waters, or the roll of some anthem that stirs the framework of the worlds.
On this subject, too, experimental proofs may be cited, such as ought to leave no doubt and even no defect of impression. Would that I could refer you each to his own experience; which I can not, because, by the supposition, I am speaking to those that have had no such experience And yet there have been many who, without any specially religious habit, have discovered still this truth, in its regulative and otherwise beneficent influence on their life. A few years before his death, the great statesman of New England, having a large party of friends dining with him at Marshfield, was called on by one of the party, as they became seated at the table, to specify what one thing he had met with in his life which had done most for him, or contributed most effectually to the success of his personal history. After a moment, he replied,--"The most fruitful and elevating influence I have ever seemed to meet has been my impression of obligation to God." Precisely in what manner the benefit was supposed to accrue I am not informed; probably, however, as an influence that raised the pitch of his mind, gave balance and clearness to his judgments, and set him on a moral footing in his ideas and principles, such as certified his consciousness as a speaker, and added insight and energy to his words Whatever may have been the particular benefits of which he spoke, the scene, as described by one present, was one most impressive in its dignity. He dropped the knife, as if turned to some better hospitality, and went on for many minutes in a discourse on his theme, unfolding it with wonderful beauty and freshness. The guests were taken by surprise, and sat listening with intense wonder at the exposition he was making, and still more at the subdued, yet lifted, manner, by which his feeling was attested,--agreeing generally, as they fell into little groups afterward, that he probably never spoke with a finer eloquence.
But there are higher and holier witnesses and a great cloud of them, whose testimony ought to be more convincing. Thus, if you will but open the word of God's truth and listen to the songs that break out there, under God's statutes; if you will behold the good of past ages bending over God's law, as the spring of their sweetest enjoyments, crying each,--O, how love I thy law; if you will observe, too, what enlargement and freedom of soul they find in their obedience, and how they look upon the mere natural life of the flesh as bondage in comparison; if you will see how they disarm all their trials and dangers by this same obedience; how they come away to God from the scorching sands of their pilgrimage, as to the shadow of a great rock, and refresh their fainting spirits by singing the statutes of the Lord; if you will see what a character of courage, and patience, and self-sacrifice they receive; how all great sentiments, such as carry their own dignity and blessing with them, spring up in the rugged trials of duty and obedience to God; then, last of all, if you will dare to break over the confines of mortality ascending to look on, as spectator, in that world of the glorified, where the law of God makes full illustration of its import in the high experiences it nourishes and the benign society it organizes, you will, by that time get, I am sure, an impression of the bliss, and greatness, and glory of obligation to God, such as will profoundly instruct you. What seems to you now to be a most unwelcome constraint, or even an annoyance to your peace, you will thus find reason, after all, to believe is only the best and dearest privilege vouchsafed you.
Arresting my argument here, to what, in conclusion, shall I more fitly draw you than to that which is, in truth, the point established, viz., the fact that it is only religion, the great bond of love and duty to God, that makes our existence valuable or even tolerable. Without this, to live were only to graze. We could not guess why we exist, or care to exist longer. If responsibility to God is felt as a constraint, if it makes you uneasy and restive, better this than to find no real import in any thing. If you chafe, it is still against the throne of order, and there is some sense of meaning in that. If God's will is heavy on you, the protection it extends is not. If the circle of your motion is restricted, it is only that the goodness of Jehovah is drawing itself more closely round you. If you tremble, it is not because of the cold. If still you sigh over the emptiness of your experience, it might be even more empty; for you do, at least, know that every thing in life is now become great and momentous. You can not make it seem either futile or insignificant. If you are only a transgressor, still the liveliest thoughts and the mot thrilling truths that ever visit your mind are such as come from the throne of duty. Religion religion!-it is the light of the world, the sun of its warmth, the zest of all its works. Without this, the beauties of the world are but splendid gewgaws, the stars of heaven glittering orbs of ice, and, what is yet far worse and colder, the trials of existence profitless and unadulterated miseries.
How convincing, how appalling a proof then is it, of some dire disorder and depravation in mankind, that when obligation to God is the spring of all that is dearest, noblest in thought, and most exalted in experience, we are yet compelled to urge it on them, by so many entreaties, and even to force it on their fears, by God's threatened penalties. What does it mean, this strange, suicidal aversion to God's statutes; that which ought to be our song, endurable only as we are held to it by terrors and penalties of fire? Nay, worse, if possible, you shall even hear, not seldom, the men that say they love God's statutes, and who therefore ought to be singing on their way, complaining of their dearth and dryness, and the necessary vanity of their experience. Let these latter see that the vanity they complain of is the cheat of their own self-devotion, and the littleness of their own empty heart. Let them pray God to enlarge their heart, and then they will run the way of God's commandments with true lightness and freedom. All this moping ends, when the fire of duty kindles. As to the other and larger class, who are living, confessedly, in no terms of obligation to God, let them see, first of all, what they gain by it; how the load of life's burden chafes them; how they are crushed, crippled, wearied, confounded, when they try to get their songs out of this world and the dust itself of their pilgrimage; then go to God, and set their life on the footing of religion, or duty to God which if they do, it shall be all gladness and peace; for the rhythm of all God's works and worlds chimes with his eternal law of duty.
Nothing is more certain or clear, than that human souls are made for law, and so for the abode of God. Without law therefore, without God, they must even freeze and die. Hence, even Christ himself, must needs establish and sanctify the law; for the deliverance and liberty he comes to bring are still to be sought only in obedience. Henceforth duty is the brother of liberty, and both rejoice in the common motherhood of law. And just here, my friends, is the secret of a great part of your misery and of the darkness that envelops your life. Without obligation you have no light, save what little may prick through your eyelids. Only he that keeps God's commandments walks in the light. The moment you can make a very simple discovery, viz., that obligation to God is your privilege and is not imposed as a burden, your experience will teach you many things,--that duty is liberty, that repentance is a release from sorrow, that sacrifice is gain, that humility is dignity, that the truth from which you hide is a healing element that bathes your disordered life, and that even the penalties and terrors of God are the artillery only of protection to his realm.
Such and no other is the glad ministry of religion. Say not, when we come to you tendering its gifts, as we do today, that you are not ready, that you are not sufficiently racked by remorse and guilty conviction, that you have spent, as yet, no sorrowing days or sleepless nights,--what can these do for you? God wants none of these; he only wants you to accept him as your privilege. When he calls you to repentance and new obedience, this is what he means; that you quit your madness, cease to gore yourself by your sins, come to your right mind, and accept, as a privilege, his good, eternal law. Giving thus your life to duty, let it, from this time forth, suffuse alike your trials and enjoyments with its own pure gladness, and let the self-approving dignity and greatness of a right mind be gilded--visibly and consciously gilded--by the smile of God. And, as the good and great society of the blessed is to be settled ill this glorious harmony of law, and the statutes of the Lord are to be the song of their consolidated joy and rest, sing them also here; and, in all life's changes, in the dark days and the bright, in sorrow and patience and wrong, in successes and hopes and consummated labors,--everywhere adhere to this, and have it as the strength of your days, that your obligations to God are the best and highest privilege he gives you.