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Monday, April 3, 2017

FEAR OF DIVINE JUSTICE by Bishop Conroy, 1891

 FEAR OF DIVINE JUSTICE by Bishop Conroy, 1891
"For because sentence is not speedily pronounced against the evil, the children of men commit evils without any fear."--ECCLES. viii. II.

In that wonderful dialogue in the Book of Job, wherein God condescends to justify His own conduct before His creature, the Almighty explains the want of foresight and the recklessness of consequences apparent in some of the brute creation, by saying that He had deprived them of reason, and that neither did He give them understanding. 
 
 
Only to man did He vouchsafe this gift of reason and understanding, and only in the children of men, therefore, may we expect to find the faculty of comparing one thing with another, of tracing the relation of cause and effect, of forecasting the consequences of present actions, and of estimating their present actions according to the consequences that are to follow them. Elevated by the possession of reason above the level of the rest of creation, man gazes down upon the vast network of cause and effect that girdles and keeps together the universe; and it is at once the title and the privilege of his sovereignty that he can follow out its various threads, as they bind together in various relations being with being, and action with action.

Ask of the metaphysician, and he will tell you that the highest function of the mind is nothing higher than this faculty of comparison of relations. Inquire from the philosopher, and you will find that he reserves his praise for that system which teaches us to arrive at general laws by a calm and patient study of particular cases. Listen to the views of a great statesman, and you will find them valuable because they give correctly the bearings of one public act upon another. We should expect that to happen which we really find by experience, that for the reasoning man no act stands by itself, but that it leans on some other, or is the result of some other, or has in itself the virtue to produce some other. But to this rule is it not strange that there should be an exception? And is it not stranger still that this exception should occur in the matter which, of all others, by its transcendent importance demanded the strictest and most careful attention: I mean the commission of mortal sin. The children of men, says the text I have quoted for you, commit evils without any fear. And why?

Because they ignore the connection between sin and the punishment of sin; because they separate the crime from its penalty; because they make sin stand by itself, and then draw a curtain between it and the vengeance that follows after it, deliberately banishing that fear which would stir the veil. They teach themselves to think of sin without thinking of its punishment; they say to themselves, "I have sinned, and what harm has befallen me?" And so they go on losing that holy fear which is the beginning of wisdom, until at length they drink in iniquity like water. And how does this come to pass, my brethren? If we analyze the passion of fear we shall find that two distinct ideas go to form it--the apprehension of evil, and the persuasion that such danger threatens ourselves. To destroy fear of God's punishment for sin we must teach ourselves either to believe that there is no such thing, or at least we must have no apprehension of its being likely to overtake us.

Now, the Catholic who sins without any fear does not, my brethren, abandon his faith in the existence of punishment for sin. For a man in such a state of sin has no terrors; he feels no fear in offending God; and, beloved brethren, the man who feels no fear in offending God, the man for whom sin is amere pastime, a thing of nothing, that man does not, at least consciously, believe that there is no punishment for sin. How could he? A God who does not punish evil is a God who shows Himself to be indifferent to evil, and a God who shows Himself indifferent to evil is a God who is regardless of the truth; for what is sin but a lie which falsely proclaims the creature to be more than the Creator, and a God regardless of the truth is no God at all. No! they admit that sin is to be punished. How, then, do they kill this salutary fear? Because they do not see God baring His arm for immediate vengeance after sin, because they do not see the punishment tread close on the sin, they persuade themselves that they have nothing to apprehend, that they may continue to drink in iniquity like water; and so without fear the wicked children of men commit evils against the Most High God.

If the murderer's arm should fall powerless before his victim's blood was yet dry upon it; if the blasphemer was stricken dumb before the sound of his evil words had died away; if a foul leprosy should suddenly fall upon the man who should be guilty of those abominations which the Apostle says should be unnamed among us, the sinner could not think of sin as separate from its punishment. But after his sin he finds himself as sound as before; the sun is made to rise as bright for the sinner as for the just; the rains of heaven fertilize the earth for him as well as for the saint ; the world's beauty is as fair to his eye as to that of the holiest; in a word, he says: "I have sinned, and what am I the worse for it?" This is, indeed, a delusion, a most fatal delusion, but one for which there is no excuse.

Holy Job exclaims: "O that a man might so be judged with God, as the son of man is judged with his companion!" (Job xvi. 22). If this privilege, which Job sighed for in vain, were granted to such a man as the one we are just considering; if against God's accusation he were allowed to enter a defense of his state of mind, as one man does when engaged in a lawsuit with another, think you, my brethren, that he could find any pretext which could serve to excuse him? To form an accurate judgment on this point, recall to mind the decision given in similar cases in Holy Scripture. "Behold, among His saints none is unchangeable, and the heavens are not pure in His sight. How much more is man abominable, and unprofitable, who drinketh iniquity like water" (Job xv. I5, 16). "Now they have no excuse for their sin," says our Lord, of the world;--and why? "Because I have come and spoken to them." "They are inexcusable," says St. Paul of the pagan philosophers. And why? Because the things that are made testified and showed forth that divinity which they denied. That is to say, according to God's views, the more numerous the witnesses and the clearer their testimony to any truth, the more inexcusable he who refuses to believe it.

If, then, the pagan philosophers were without excuse because they closed their ears to the testimony of earth and sky, of night and day, of the starry firmament, as they mutely witness to the existence of God, how much more sins the bad Catholic who hardens his heart against the cloud of witnesses that give evidence of the immediate vengeance taken by God on sinners!--I say a cloud of witnesses, my brethren, for it is a most remarkable fact that God has given examples of speedy vengeance on sin in every class of reasonable beings, in every dispensation with which He has been pleased to visit man, in every class of society, in every age, in every kind of sin, in every country, in every profession, in every state of life. Do you want a witness to God's speedy vengeance from the very sunlight of the world's history? Before the blood of Abel was yet dried upon the earth its cry had drawn from the lips of God a deadly curse on the murderer Cain. And Cain himself lifts up his voice: "Behold Thou dost cast me out this day, this very day of my sin, from the face of the earth."

In the patriarchal age the iniquities of a corrupt world rose up before God in the days of Noah, and in the days of Noah the Deluge bears witnesses as numerous as are the corpses of young and old that are dashed among the waves of its shoreless sea; among pagan populations the unbelieving men of Sodom are struck blind in the very hour of their iniquity, and their city becomes a prey to the flames; in the Jewish dispensation, Core, Dathan, and Abiron, the blasphemers and Sabbath-breakers, are stoned without the camp. In the New Testament, Ananias lies to the Holy Ghost, and immediately falls dead to the ground; Sapphira lies, and the feet of them who have buried her husband are at the door to carry her away. Herod is arrayed in king's apparel, and sitting in the judgment-seat, and the people make exclamation, saying: "It is the voice of a god, not of a man" (Acts xii.). And forthwith an angel of the Lord struck him, because he had not given the honor to God, and being eaten up with worms he gave up the ghost.

One such example in each of these dispensations was enough to inspire fear into the men of that time; how is he to be excused who is deaf to their cumulative testimony? Is it not madness to imagine that God will deliberately depart in his case from the law which He followed in the beginning, in the days of the patriarchs, under the law of Moses, in the early days of the Christian Church? We do not dread a repetition of the Deluge, because God has promised that it should not be, and has attested the memory of this promise by the bow that spans the heavens. But is there any promise, any rainbow of hope that He will not punish at once, immediately, irresistibly, the sins we may be guilty of? He has left us no loophole of excuse for so thinking. Do we flatter ourselves that our sins are not such as theirs were, who were punished so promptly? But what kind of sin has He left not punished with instant chastisement: in Adam a simple disobedience, in Cain a deed of blood, in Sodom a sin of lust, in David a sin of vanity, in Aman a sin of words, and in His angels a sin of thought. Do we flatter ourselves that our position will in some measure secure us; --but what station in society has He left without an example? Are we as high as the angels?--and yet He crushed the angels in an instant. Are we as low as the Sodomites?--and yet He slew them immediately. Are we in a position of worldly greatness? Herod was so great that he was called a god, and yet he was struck down. Are we rich?--so was Herod; are we poor?--so were Ananias and Sapphira; are we old?--so was Heli; are we young?--so was Cain.

In view of these terrible judgments of God, how can the sinner persuade himself that his punishment is only in the long future? How can the soul now stained with sin flatter itself that it will have time to enjoy sin now, and leisure to repent hereafter? How can a Catholic surrender his heart to temptation, with the idea that the punishment is so remote? Not so did David: “Confige timore tua carnes meas"; and why? "A judiciis enim tuis timui." Then, there can be no excuse for such a frame of mind; it is unreasonable, inexcusable. That men should sin at all is inexcusable; but that they should perpetrate evils without any fear, because they refuse to think of the punishment of sin is most inexcusable. But here it may be said that my argument has been one-sided, and therefore not to be trusted. No doubt it will be urged, God has in all ages and in all circumstances given many and terrible proofs of His prompt justice; but in relating the history of such examples we should not exclude the many instances of patient endurance, and of long-suffering with sinners which He has exhibited. And perhaps the words of the apostle may be quoted against us, "Despisest thou the riches of His goodness, and patience, and long-suffering? Knowest thou not that the benignity of God leads thee to penance?" (Rom. ii. 4). And do not the very words of the text suppose that at least now and then the interval between the sin and its punishment is not of the shortest, that sentence is not speedily pronounced against evil?

I know, my brethren, that God is long-suffering with sinners, and that He waiteth patiently to have mercy on them. If I were cruel enough to deny it, the history of our own lives would rise in witness against me. Yes, my brethren, it is true and I admit it, we sin, and yet the arrows of the divine punishments of which David speaks do not reach us. But why?--Is it because those arrows have not been aimed at us? Is it because having been aimed they have not flown? Is it because having been aimed and having flown they have not known how to hit the guilty breast? No; for none of these reasons; but because, between avenging heaven and sinful earth, the sinner and his judge, uprose the pure and holy figure of Jesus Christ, baring His breast so as to intercept the shaft in its flight toward us, receiving the bruises that were to punish our iniquities, and mangled with the wounds that were to avenge our sins. We are in peace because He took upon Himself the chastisement which was to bring us peace; in one word, my brethren, we have escaped thus long from the punishment of our sins, only because, as Isaias says, Jesus Christ on the cross hath borne the sins of many, and hath prayed for the transgressors. And is it upon long-suffering such as this, which Mercy has purchased from Justice at so fearful a price as the Blood of the Son of God, that you would reckon in order to be able to sin without any fear? Oh, the unspeakable meanness, the incredible selfishness of the man who says to himself, "I will sin without fear, because another has undertaken to bear the first brunt of the punishment; I will sin without fear, because Christ has prayed for pardon for me, because He has died to obtain for me time for repentance." "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Such a one, my brethren, would efface these tender and loving words from the millions of hearts in which they are inspired, and would substitute in their stead words so blasphemous, so hideous, that I can hardly bear to repeat them. "Father," he would force the dying lips of Jesus to utter, "Father, these men know that I am dying for them; they know that this crown of thorns, these cruel nails, these cruel wounds, are the marks of punishment due to their sins; they know that Thy justice will be appeased by my sufferings: they know that Thy right hand is disarmed by my death, and for this reason do they sin without any fear, do Thou, therefore, Father, forgive them, because, knowing all this, they nevertheless sin against Thee. Father, forgive them, because they know not what they do!"

The delay of punishment, therefore, because it is a proof of love, and because through it God endeavors to win the sinner to justice, should not destroy fear in his heart. Nor, my brethren, have you any right to think that such delay is a delay of love; it is in itself the most terrible sign of God's wrath. There is a long-suffering on the part of God, which, the apostle tells us, is intended for penance: but there is a long-suffering which, the same apostle declares, is intended to show wrath. God, willing to show His wrath, and make known His power, did what?--did He judge the nations, did He fill up ruin, did He crush the heads of His foes? No, but He did what was far more terrible, "He endured with much patience vessels of wrath fitted for destruction."

"God has been patient with you in your sins," I would say to the man whom this very patience makes courageous, "but has He shown you a patience of love, or a patience of vengeance? Am I to congratulate you as being the object of the unspeakable love of God, or am I to weep over you as the victim of His most deadly vengeance?" This is a question of the greatest importance to you, and it is a question you can answer in some measure for yourselves. As light differs from darkness, as day from night, so does the patience born of mercy differ in its effects from the patience born of the wrath of God. The Magdalen was waited for and she came not as yet; He still waited for her and she laid aside her sin, and grace superabounded where sin had abounded before. The philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome were waited for, and they came not; God ordered them, and they came not; and then He left them to the desire of their own hearts, to a life filled with all iniquity, and malice, and fornication, and avarice, and wickedness, while they gilded over all these with the name of wisdom, of good common sense; for professing to be wise, they became fools.

In which of these two ways does God's patience affect your life? Is yours the life of a Christian who, crying out to God from the depths, keeps up a daily, steady warfare against the sins and temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil; or do you live only to gratify all the desires of your own hearts, forgetful of the evil past? Do you, like Magdalen, draw near to Jesus Christ, to look for the forgiveness you feel you do not deserve, or do you keep away weeks and months, and perhaps years from the sacraments of the Catholic Church, where you may find Him and His grace? Do you give the reasonable service of love and obedience to the faith and the practices of the Church, or do you form the judgment which the world passes on the supernatural, becoming fools when you profess to be most wise? These are questions, this an investigation I have neither the power nor the will to pursue further: but if you find that your life is similar to that of the philosopher, must you not fear that the patience God is certain to show you is the patience of vengeance? Must you not doubt that while you become fearless at what you think delays punishment, that supposed delay was itself punishment of the most terrible order?--and is it possible that any one can close his heart against the fear of God for such a delay of punishment?

This, then, my brethren, is the case I make: the Holy Scripture complains that men sin without any fear, and that they are without fear because they do not see sentence immediately pronounced upon evil. Now, no man, in view of the numberless instances of prompt vengeance, can with any security believe for a moment that God will not punish him at once; and if he have any apparent reason to think that God is waiting for him in mercy, he is surely not warranted by such reason to exclude fear from his heart, especially as he cannot be certain that the very delay of punishment is not in itself a most terrible punishment. What, then, are we to do? We are to identify in our minds the thought of sin and of its punishment, we are not to think of sin without thinking of its penalty, we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Should our memory recall the thoughts of the past, we are to think of it as having entailed on us a punishment which penance only can remove; should sin present itself in the present or future, let us remember that, however seductive its beauty, it has infallibly, inseparably connected with it the avenging punishment of God.

Yet our fear must not be a grossly servile fear: it must not be that cowardly fear which checks only the hand from the evil deed which the heart continues to desire; but that rational fear, which while it checks the hand from doing, teaches the heart not to lose itself in guilty desires. "Bonus est," says St. Augustine, "iste timor utilis est." Nor, my brethren, are you to rest at this: you are to love God as well as to fear Him. God calls for your love, for a deep, tender, personal, supreme love. Perhaps as yet this love for God is but a tender, fragile seedling springing up in your hearts; if so, then let fear be its prop and its support, and when your love has grown to ripeness, fear shall fall away and leave your love alone. You shall be alone with God; for God is love, and loving Him and loved by Him, you will taste forever the unspeakable sweetness of the saying of St. John, "Perfect charity casteth out fear."