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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : LECTURE XVII. 1 CORINTHIANS ii. 12.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE XVII. 1 CORINTHIANS ii. 12.

1 CORINTHIANS ii.12.

We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God.

And, therefore, he goes on to say, our language is different from that of others, and not always understood by them; the natural man receiveth not the things of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. That is, they are discerned only by a faculty which he has not, namely, by the Spirit; and, therefore, as beings devoid of reason cannot understand the truths of science, or of man's wisdom, for they are without the faculty which can discern them; so beings devoid of God's Spirit cannot understand the truths of God.

Now, in order to turn this passage to our profit, we need not consider those who are wholly without God's Spirit, or inquire whether, indeed, there be any such; it is not that there are two broadly marked divisions of all men, those who have not the Spirit of God at all, and those who have it abundantly: if it were so, the separation of the great day of judgment would be begun already, nor would it require, in order to effect it rightly, the wisdom of Him who trieth the very hearts and reins. No doubt there will be at last but two divisions of us all, the saved and the lost; but now the divisions are infinite; so much so that the great body of us offer much matter for hope as well as for fear. We cannot say, that they are without the Spirit of God; yet neither can we say that they are led by the Spirit, so as to be God's true servants. We cannot say, that the things of God's are absolutely to them as foolishness; yet certainly, we cannot say either, that they are to them as the divinest wisdom.

And here we return to the subject on which I was speaking last Sunday. It is because we are not led by the Spirit of God, but have within us much of the spirit of the world, that our judgments of right and wrong are so faulty; and that this faultiness is particularly seen in our faint sense of our relations to God. These relations seem continually foolishness to us, because they are spiritually discerned, and we have so little of God's Spirit to enable us to discern them. And our blindness here affects our whole souls; we have, in consequence of it, a much fainter perception even of those truths which reason can discern by herself; or, at any rate, if we do not doubt them, they have over us much less influence.

Now we will first see how much of natural reason, and even of the Spirit of God, does exist in our common judgments; for it is fair to see and to allow what there is of right in our language and sentiments, as well as to note what is wrong. Reason influences thus much, that we not only commend good generally, and blame evil; but even, in particular cases, we commend, I think, each separate virtue, and we blame each separate vice. I never heard of justice, truth, kindness, self-denial, &c., being other than approved of in themselves; or injustice, falsehood, malice, and selfishness being other than condemned. And the Spirit of God influences at least thus much, that we shrink from direct blasphemy and profaneness; we cannot but respect those whom we believe to be living sincerely in the fear of God; and further, if we thought our death near, we should desire to hear of God, and to depart from this life under his favour. No doubt, all such feelings, so far as they go, are the work of God's Spirit: whatever is good and right in our minds towards God, that proceeds not from the spirit of the world, but from the Spirit of God.

Where, then, is the great defect which yet continually makes our practical judgments quite wrong; which makes us, in fact, so often countenance and support evil, and discountenance and discourage good? First, it is owing to the spirit of carelessness. One of the most emphatic terms by which a good man is expressed in the language of the Greek philosophers, is that of [Greek: opdouiaos], |one who is in earnest.| To be in earnest is, indeed, with, most of us, the same as to be good; it is not that we love evil, but that we are indifferent both to it and to good. Now, many of us are very seldom in earnest. By this I mean, that the highest part of our minds, and that which judges of the highest things, is generally slumbering or but half awake. We may go through, a very busy day, and yet not be, in this true sense, in earnest at all; our best faculties may, as it were, be all the while sleeping or playing. It is notorious how much this is so in the common intercourse of society in the world. Light anecdotes; playful remarks; discussions, it may be, about the affairs of the neighbourhood, or, in some companies, on questions of science or party politics; all these may be often heard; but we may talk on all these brilliantly and well, and yet our best nature may not once be called to exert itself. So again, in mere routine business, it is the same: the body may toil; the pen move swiftly; the thoughts act in the particular matter before them vigorously; and yet we our proper selves, beings understanding and choosing between good and evil, have never bestirred ourselves at all. It has been but a skirmishing at the outposts; not a sword had been drawn in the main battle. Take younger persons, and the same thing is the case even more palpably. Here there is less of business in the common sense of the term; the mind is almost always unbraced and resting. We pass through the good and evil of our daily life, and our proper self scarcely ever is aroused to notice either the one or the other.

But the worst of it is, that this carelessness is not altogether accidental: it is a carelessness which we do not wish to break. So long as it lasts, we manage to get the activity and interest of life, without a sense of its responsibility. We like exceedingly to lay the reins, as it were, upon the neck of our inclinations, to go where they take us, and to ask no questions whether we are in the right road or no. Inclination is never slumbering: this gives us excitement enough to save us from weariness, without the effort of awakening our conscience too. Therefore society, expressing in its rules the feelings of its individual members, prescribes exactly such a style of conversation as may keep in exercise all other parts of our nature except that one which should be sovereign of all, and whose exercise is employed on things eternal.

Not being, then, properly in earnest, -- that is, our conscience and our choice of moral good and evil being in a state of repose, -- our language is happily contrived so as that it shall contain nothing to startle our sleeping conscience, if her ears catch any of its sounds. We still commend good and dispraise evil, both in the general and in the particular. But as good and evil are mixed in every man, and in various proportions, he who commends, the little good of a bad man, saying nothing of his evil, -- or he who condemns the little evil of a good man, saying nothing of his good, -- leads us evidently to a false practical conclusion; he leads us to like the bad man and to dislike the good. Again, the lesser good becomes an evil if it keeps out a greater good; and, in the same way, the lesser evil becomes a good. If we have no thought of comparing good things together, if our sovereign nature be asleep, then we shall most estimate the good to which we are most inclined; and where we find this we shall praise it, not observing that it is taking up the place of a greater good which the case requires, and, therefore, that it is in fact an evil. So that our moral judgments may lead practically to great evil: we may join with bad men and despise good; we may approve of qualities which, are, in fact, ruining a man; and despise others which, in the particular case, are virtues; without ever in plain words condemning virtue or approving vice.

But, farther, this habit of never being in earnest greatly lowers the strength of our feelings even towards the good which we praise and towards the evil which we condemn. It was an admirable definition of that which excites laughter, that it was that which is out of rule, that which is amiss, that which is unsightly, (these three ideas, and other similar ones, are alike contained in the single Greek word [Greek: aischron],) provided that it was unaccompanied by pain. This definition accounts for the otherwise extraordinary fact, that there is something in moral evil which, in some instances, affects the mind ludicrously. That is to say, if moral evil affects us with no pain; if we see in it nothing, so to speak, but its irregularity, its strange contrast with what is beautiful, its jarring with the harmony of the system around us; then it does acquire that character which is well defined as being ridiculous. Thus it is notorious that trifling follies, and even gross vices, are often so represented in works of fiction as to be exceedingly ludicrous. It is enough, as an instance of what I mean, to name the vice of drunkenness. Get rid for the moment of the notions of vice or sin which, accompany it, and which give moral pain; get rid also of those points in it which awaken physical disgust; retain merely the notion of the incoherent language, and the strange capricious gait of intoxication; and we have then an image merely ridiculous, as much, so as the rambling talk and absurd gestures of the old buffoons.

Here, then, we have the secret of vice becoming laughable; and of things which are really wicked, disgusting, hateful, being expressed by names purely ludicrous. Where no great physical pain or distress is occasioned by what is evil, our sense of its ludicrousness will be exactly in proportion to the faintness of our sense of moral evil; or, in other words, to our want of being in earnest. The evil that does not seriously pain or inconvenience man, is very apt to be regarded with feelings approaching to laughter, if we have no sense of pain at the notion of its being an offence against God.

Thus, then, we have seen how, from the want of being in earnest, from the habitual slumber of conscience, or that sovereign part of us which looks upon our whole state with reference to its highest interests, and passes judgment upon all our actions, -- how, from the practical absence of these, we may get to follow evil persons, and be indifferent to the good; to admire qualities which, from usurping the place of better ones, are actually ruinous; and, finally, to regard all common evil not so much with deep abhorrence, as with a disposition to laugh at it. And thus the practical judgment and influence of the society around us may be fatally evil; while the society all the time shall contain, even in its very perversion, various elements of truth and of good.

I have kept to general language, to general views, perhaps too much; but all the time my mind has been fixed on the particular application of this, which lies scarcely beneath the surface, but which I cannot well bear more fully to unveil. But whoever has attended to what I have been saying, will be able, I should trust, to make the application, for himself, to those points in our society which most need correction. He will be able to understand how it is that the influence of the place is not better, while it undoubtedly contains so much of good; how the public opinion of a Christian school may yet be, in many respects, very unchristian. If he has attended at all to what I have said about our so rarely being in earnest, he will see something of the mischief of some of those publications, of those books, of that tone of conversation, which, I suppose, are here, as elsewhere, in fashion. Utterly impossible is it to lay down a rule for others in such matters: to say this book is too light, or this is an excess of light reading, or this laugh was too unrestrained, or that tone of trifling too perpetual. But, in these things, we should all judge ourselves; and remember that you are so little under outward restraint, your choice of reading is so free, your intercourse with one another so wholly uncontrolled, that, enjoying thus the full liberty of more advanced years, you incur also their responsibility. There is, doubtless, an excess of light reading, both in kind and in quantity; there is such a thing as a tone of conversation and manner too entirely, and too frequently, trifling. And you must be quite aware that we are placed here for something else than to indulge such a temper as this. Cheerfulness and thoughtlessness have no necessary connexion; the lightest spirits, which are indeed one of the greatest of earthly blessings, often play around the most earnest thought and the tenderest affection, and with far more grace than when they are united with the shallowness and hardness of him who is, in the sight of God, a fool. It were a strange notion, that we could never be merry without intoxication, yet not stranger than to think that mirth is the companion only of folly or of sin. But, setting God in Christ before us, then the conscience is awake; then we are in earnest; then we measure things rightly; then we feel them strongly; then we love those that are good, and shun those that are evil; then we learn that sin is no matter of laughter, that it ill deserves to be clothed under a ludicrous name; for that thing which we laugh at, that which we so miscall, is indeed the cause of infinite evil; for that Christ died; for that there are some who die that death which lasts for ever.

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