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ON CONVERSION AND CHANGES OF CHARACTER ROMANS VII. - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
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ON CONVERSION AND CHANGES OF CHARACTER
Thus have we the image of the lifelong struggle gathered up in a single instant. In describing it we pass beyond the consciousness of the individual into a world of abstractions; we loosen the thread by which the spiritual faculties are held together, and view as objects what can, strictly speaking, have no existence, except in relation to the subject. The divided members of the soul are ideal, the combat between them is ideal, so also is the victory. What is real that corresponds to this is not a momentary, but a continuous conflict, which we feel rather than know—which has its different aspects of hope and fear, triumph and despair, the action and reaction of the Spirit of God in the depths of the human soul, awakening the sense of sin and conveying the assurance of forgiveness.
The language in which we describe this conflict is very different from that of the Apostle. Our circumstances are so changed that we are hardly able to view it in its simplest elements. Christianity is now the established religion of the civilized portion of mankind. In our own country it has become part of the law of the land; it speaks with authority, it is embodied in a Church, it is supported by almost universal opinion, and fortified by wealth and prescription. Those who know least of its spiritual life do not deny its greatness as a power in the world. Analogous to this relation in which it stands to our history and social state, is the relation in which it stands also to the minds of individuals. We are brought up in it, and unconsciously receive it as the habit of our thoughts and the condition of our life. It is without us, and we are within its circle; we do not become Christians, we are so from our birth. Even in those who suppose themselves to have passed through some sudden and violent change, and to have tasted once for all of the heavenly gift, the change is hardly ever in the form or substance of their belief, but in its quickening power; they feel not a new creed, but a new spirit within them. So that we might truly say of Christianity, that it is ‘the daughter of time;’ it hangs to the past, not only because the first century is the era of its birth, but because each successive century strengthens its form and adds to its external force, and entwines it with more numerous links in our social state. Not only may we say, that it is part and parcel of the law of the land, but part and parcel of the character of each one, which even the worst of men cannot wholly shake off.
But if with ourselves the influence of Christianity is almost always gradual and imperceptible, with the first believers it was almost always sudden. There was no interval which separated the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost, from the baptism of the three thousand. The eunuch of Candace paused for a brief space on a journey, and was then baptized into the name of Christ, which a few hours previously he had not so much as heard. There was no period of probation like that which, a century or two later, was appropriated to the instruction of the Catechumens. It was an impulse, an inspiration passing from the lips of one to a chosen few, and communicated by them to the ear and soul of listening multitudes. As the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we hear the sound thereof; as the lightning shineth from the one end of the heaven to the other; so suddenly, fitfully, simultaneously, new thoughts come into their minds, not to one only, but to many, to whole cities almost at once. They were pricked with the sense of sin; they were melted with the love of Christ; their spiritual nature ‘came again like the flesh of a little child.’ And some, like St. Paul, became the very opposite of their former selves; from scoffers, believers; from persecutors, preachers; the thing that they were was so strange to them, that they could no longer look calmly on the earthly scene, which they hardly seemed to touch, which was already lighted up with the wrath and mercy of God. There were those among them who ‘saw visions and dreamed dreams,’ who were ‘caught up,’ like St. Paul, ‘into the third heaven,’ or, like the twelve, ‘spake with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ And sometimes, as in the Thessalonian Church, the ecstasy of conversion led to strange and wild opinions, such as the daily expectation of Christ’s coming. The ‘round world’ itself began to reel before them, as they thought of the things that were shortly to come to pass.
But however sudden were the conversions of the earliest believers, however wonderful the circumstances which attended them, they were not for that reason the less lasting or sincere. Though many preached ‘Christ of contention,’ though ‘Demas forsook the Apostle,’ there were few who, having once taken up the cross, turned back from ‘the love of this present world.’ They might waver between Paul and Peter, between the circumcision and the uncircumcision; they might give ear to the strange and bewitching heresies of the East; but there is no trace that many returned to ‘those that were no gods,’ or put off Christ; the impression of the truth that they had received was everlasting on their minds. Even sins of fornication and uncleanness, which from the Apostle’s frequent warnings against them we must suppose to have lingered, as a sort of remnant of heathenism in the early Church, did not wholly destroy their inward relation to God and Christ. Though ‘their last state might be worse than the first,’ they could never return again to live the life of all men after having tasted ‘the heavenly gift and the powers of the world to come.’
Such was the nature of conversion among the early Christians, the new birth of which by spiritual descent we are ourselves the offspring. Is there anything in history like it? anything in our own lives which may help us to understand it? That which the Scripture describes from within, we are for a while going to look at from a different point of view, not with reference to the power of God, but to those secondary causes through which He works—the laws which experience shows that He himself imposes on the operations of His Spirit. Such an inquiry is not a mere idle speculation; it is not far from the practical question, ‘How we are to become better.’ Imperfect as any attempt to analyze our spiritual life must ever be, the changes which we ourselves experience or observe in others, compared with those greater and more sudden changes which took place in the age of the Apostle, will throw light upon each other.
In the sudden conversions of the early Christians we observe three things which either tend to discredit, or do not accompany, the working of a similar power among ourselves.—First, that conversion was marked by ecstatic and unusual phenomena; secondly, that, though sudden, it was permanent; thirdly, that it fell upon whole multitudes at once.
When we consider what is implied in such expressions as ‘not many wise, not many learned’ were called to the knowledge of the truth, we can scarcely avoid feeling that there must have been much in the early Church which would have been distasteful to us as men of education; much that must have worn the appearance of excitement and enthusiasm. Is the mean conventicle, looking almost like a private house, a better image of that first assembly of Christians which met in the ‘large upper room,’ or the Catholic church arrayed in all the glories of Christian art? Neither of them is altogether like in spirit perhaps, but in externals the first. Is the dignified hierarchy that occupy the seats around the altar, more like the multitudes of first believers, or the lowly crowd that kneel upon the pavement? If we try to embody in the mind’s eye the forms of the first teachers, and still more of their followers, we cannot help reading the true lesson, however great may be the illusions of poetry or of art. Not St. Paul standing on Mars’ hill in the fullness of manly strength, as we have him in the cartoon of Raphael, is the true image; but such a one as he himself would glory in, whose bodily presence was weak and speech feeble, who had an infirmity in his flesh, and bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus.
And when we look at this picture, ‘full in the face,’ however we might by nature be inclined to turn aside from it, or veil its details in general language, we cannot deny that many things that accompany the religion of the uneducated now, must then also have accompanied the Gospel preached to the poor. There must have been, humanly speaking, spiritual delusions where men lived so exclusively in the spiritual world; there were scenes which we know took place such as St. Paul says would make the unbeliever think that they were mad. The best and holiest persons among the poor and ignorant are not entirely free from superstition, according to the notions of the educated; at best they are apt to speak of religion in a manner not quite suited to our taste; they sing with a loud and excited voice; they imagine themselves to receive Divine oracles, even about the humblest cares of life. Is not this, in externals at least, very like the appearance which the first disciples must have presented, who obeyed the Apostle’s injunction, ‘Is any sad? let him pray; is any merry? let him sing psalms’? Could our nerves have borne to witness the speaking with tongues, or the administration of Baptism, or the love feasts as they probably existed in the early Church?
This difference between the feelings and habits of the first Christians and ourselves, must be borne in mind in relation to the subject of conversion. For as sudden changes are more likely to be met with amongst the poor and uneducated in the present day, it certainly throws light on the subject of the first conversions, that to the poor and uneducated the Gospel was first preached. And yet these sudden changes were as real, nay, more real than any gradual changes which take place among ourselves. The Stoic or Epicurean philosopher who had come into an assembly of believers speaking with tongues, would have remarked, that among the vulgar religious extravagances were usually short-lived. But it was not so. There was more there than he had eyes to see, or than was dreamed of in a philosophy like his. Not only was there the superficial appearance of poverty and meanness and enthusiasm, from a nearer view of which we are apt to shrink, but underneath this, brighter from its very obscurity, purer from the meanness of the raiment in which it was apparelled, was the life hidden with Christ and God. There, and there only, was the power which made a man humble instead of proud, self-denying instead of self-seeking, spiritual instead of carnal; which made him embrace, not only the brethren, but the whole human race in the arms of his love.
But it is a further difference between the power of the Gospel now and in the first ages, that it no longer converts whole multitudes at once. Perhaps this very individuality in its mode of working may not be without an advantage in awakening us to its higher truths and more entire spiritual freedom. Whether this be so or not; whether there be any spiritual law by which reason, in a measure, takes the place of faith, and the common religious impulse weakens as the power of reflection grows, we certainly observe a diminution in the collective force which religion exercises on the hearts of men. In our own days the preacher sees the seed which he has sown gradually spring up; first one, then another begins to lead a better life; then a change comes over the state of society, often from causes over which he has no control; he makes some steps forwards and a few backwards, and trusts far more, if he is wise, to the silent influence of religious education than to the power of preaching; and, perhaps, the result of a long life of ministerial labour is far less than that of a single discourse from the lips of the Apostles or their followers. Even in missions to the heathen the vital energies of Christianity cease to operate to any great extent, at least on the effete civilization of India and China; the limits of the kingdoms of light and darkness are nearly the same as heretofore. At any rate it cannot be said that Christianity has wrought any sudden amelioration of mankind by the immediate preaching of the word, since the conversion of the barbarians. Even within the Christian world there is a parallel retardation. The ebb and flow of reformation and counter-reformation have hardly changed the permanent landmarks. The age of spiritual crises is past. The growth of Christianity in modern times may be compared to the change of the body, when it has already arrived at its full stature. In one half-century so vast a progress was made, in a few centuries more the world itself seemed to ‘have gone after Him,’ and now for near a thousand years the voice of experience is repeating to us, ‘Hitherto shalt thou go, but no further.’
Looking at this remarkable phenomenon of the conversion of whole multitudes at once, not from its Divine but from its human aspect (that is, with reference to that provision that God himself has made in human nature for the execution of His will), the first cause to which we are naturally led to attribute it is the power of sympathy. Why it is that men ever act together is a mystery of which our individual self-consciousness gives no account, any more than why we speak a common language, or form nations or societies, or merely in our physical nature are capable of taking diseases from one another. Nature and the Author of nature have made us thus dependent on each other both in body and soul. Whoever has seen human beings collected together in masses, and watched the movements that pass over them, like ‘the trees of the forest moving in the wind,’ will have no difficulty in imagining, if not in understanding, how the same voice might have found its way at the same instant to a thousand hearts, without our being able to say where the fire was first kindled, or by whom the inspiration was first caught. Such historical events as the Reformation, or the Crusades, or the French Revolution, are a sufficient evidence that a whole people, or almost, we may say, half a world, may be ‘drunk into one spirit,’ springing up, as it might seem, spontaneously in the breast of each, yet common to all. A parallel yet nearer is furnished by the history of the Jewish people, in whose sudden rebellion and restoration to God’s favour, we recognize literally the momentary workings of, what is to ourselves a figure of speech, a national conscience.
In ordinary cases we should truly say that there must have been some predisposing cause of a great political or religious revolution; some latent elements acting alike upon all, which, though long smouldering beneath, burst forth at last into a flame. Such a cause might be the misery of mankind, or the intense corruption of human society, which could not be quickened except it die, or the long-suppressed yearnings of the soul after something higher than it had hitherto known upon earth, or the reflected light of one religion or one movement of the human mind upon another. Such causes were actually at work, preparing the way for the diffusion of Christianity. The law itself was beginning to pass away in an altered world, the state of society was hollow, the chosen people were hopelessly under the Roman yoke. Good men refrained from the wild attempt of the Galilean Judas; yet the spirit which animated such attempts was slumbering in their bosoms. Looking back at their own past history, they could not but remember, even in an altered world, that there was One who ruled among the kingdoms of men, ‘beside whom there was no God.’ Were they to suppose that His arm was straitened to save? that He had forgotten His tender mercies to the house of David? that the aspirations of the prophets were vain? that the blood of the Maccabean heroes had sunk like water into the earth? This was a hard saying; who could bear it? It was long ere the nation, like the individual, put off the old man—that is, the temporal dispensation—and put on the new man—that is, the spiritual Israel. The very misery of the people seemed to forbid them to acquiesce in their present state. And with the miserable condition of the nation sprang up also the feeling, not only in individuals but in the race, that for their sins they were chastened, the feeling which their whole history seemed to deepen and increase. At last the scales fell from their eyes; the veil that was on the face of Moses was first transfigured before them, then removed; the thoughts of many hearts turned simultaneously to the Hope of Israel, ‘Him whom the law and the prophets foretold.’ As they listened to the preaching of the Apostles, they seemed to hear a truth both new and old; what many had thought, but none had uttered; which in its comfort and joyousness seemed to them new, and yet, from its familiarity and suitableness to their condition, not the less old.
Spiritual life, no less than natural life, is often the very opposite of the elements which seem to give birth to it. The preparation for the way of the Lord, which John the Baptist preached, did not consist in a direct reference to the Saviour. The words ‘He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire,’ and ‘He shall burn up the chaff with fire unquenchable,’ could have given the Jews no exact conception of Him who ‘did not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax.’ It was in another way that John prepared for Christ, by quickening the moral sense of the people, and sounding in their ears the voice ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Beyond this useful lesson, there was a kind of vacancy in the preaching of John. He himself, as ‘he was finishing his course,’ testified that his work was incomplete, and that he was not the Christ. The Jewish people were prepared by his preaching for the coming of Christ, just as an individual might be prepared to receive Him by the conviction of sin and the conscious need of forgiveness.
Except from the Gospel history and the writings of Josephus and Philo, we know but little of the tendencies of the Jewish mind in the time of our Lord. Yet we cannot doubt that the entrance of Christianity into the world was not sudden and abrupt; that is an illusion which arises in the mind from our slender acquaintance with contemporary opinions. Better and higher and holier as it was, it was not absolutely distinct from the teaching of the doctors of the law either in form or substance; it was not unconnected with, but gave life and truth to, the mystic fancies of Alexandrian philosophy. Even in the counsels of perfection of the Sermon on the Mount, there is probably nothing which might not be found, either in letter or spirit, in Philo or some other Jewish or Eastern writer. The peculiarity of the Gospel is, not that it teaches what is wholly new, but that it draws out of the treasure-house of the human heart things new and old, gathering together in one the dispersed fragments of the truth. The common people would not have ‘heard Him gladly,’ but for the truth of what He said. The heart was its own witness to it. The better nature of man, though but for a moment, responded to it, spoken as it was with authority, and not as the scribes; with simplicity, and not as the great teachers of the law; and sanctified by the life and actions of Him from whose lips it came, and ‘Who spake as never man spake.’
And yet, after reviewing the circumstances of the first preaching of the Gospel, there remains something which cannot be resolved into causes or antecedents; which eludes criticism, and can no more be explained in the world than the sudden changes of character in the individual. There are processes of life and organization about which we know nothing, and we seem to know that we shall never know anything. ‘That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die;’ but the mechanism of this new life is too complex and yet too simple for us to untwist its fibres. The figure which St. Paul applies to the resurrection of the body is true also of the renewal of the soul, especially in the first ages of which we know so little, and in which the Gospel seems to have acted with such far greater power than among ourselves.
Leaving further inquiry into the conversion of the first Christians at the point at which it hides itself from us in mystery, we have now to turn to a question hardly less mysterious, though seemingly more familiar to us, which may be regarded as a question either of moral philosophy or of theology—the nature of conversion and changes of character among ourselves. What traces are there of a spiritual power still acting upon the human heart? What is the inward nature, and what are the outward conditions of changes in human conduct? Is our life a gradual and insensible progress from infancy to age, from birth to death, governed by fixed laws; or is it a miracle and mystery of thirty, or fifty, or seventy years’ standing, consisting of so many isolated actions or portions knit together by no common principle?
Were we to consider mankind only from without, there could be no doubt of the answer which we should give to the last of these questions. The order of the world would scarcely even seem to be infringed by the free will of man. In morals, no less than in physics, everything would appear to proceed by regular law. Individuals have certain capacities, which grow with their growth and strengthen with their strength; and no one by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature. As the poet says—‘The boy is father to the man.’ The lives of the great majority have a sort of continuity: as we know them by the same look, walk, manner; so when we come to converse with them, we recognize the same character as formerly. They may be changed; but the change in general is such as we expect to find in them from youth to maturity, or from maturity to decay. There is something in them which is not changed, by which we perceive them to be the same. If they were weak, they remain so still; if they were sensitive, they remain so still; if they were selfish or passionate, such faults are seldom cured by increasing age or infirmities. And often the same nature puts on many veils and disguises; to the outward eye it may have, in some instances, almost disappeared; when we look beneath, it is still there.
The appearance of this sameness in human nature has led many to suppose that no real change ever takes place. Does a man from a drunkard become sober? from a knight errant become a devotee? from a sensualist a believer in Christ? or a woman from a life of pleasure pass to a romantic and devoted religion? It has been maintained that they are the same still; and that deeper similarities remain than the differences which are a part of their new profession. Those who make the remark would say, that such persons exhibit the same vanity, the same irritability, the same ambition; that sensualism still lurks under the disguise of refinement, or earthly and human passion transfuses itself into devotion.
This ‘practical fatalism,’ which says that human beings can be what they are and nothing else, has a certain degree of truth, or rather, of plausibility, from the circumstance that men seldom change wholly, and that the part of their nature which changes least is the weakness and infirmity that shows itself on the surface. Few, comparatively, ever change their outward manner, except from the mere result of altered circumstances; and hence, to a superficial observer, they appear to change less than is really the fact. Probably St. Paul never lost that trembling and feebleness, which was one of the trials of his life. Nor, in so far as the mind is dependent on the body, can we pretend to be wholly free agents. Who can say that his view of life and his power of action are unaffected by his bodily state? or who expects to find a firm and decided character in the nervous and sensitive frame? The commonest facts of daily life sufficiently prove the connexion of mind and body; the more we attend to it the closer it appears. Nor, indeed, can it be denied that external circumstances fix for most men the path of life. They are the inhabitants of a particular country; they have a certain position in the world; they rise to their occupations as the morning comes round; they seldom get beyond the circle of ideas in which they have been brought up. Fearfully and wonderfully as they are made, though each one in his bodily frame, and even more in his thoughts and feelings, is a miracle of complexity, they seem, as they meet in society, to reunite into a machine, and society itself is the great automaton of which they are the parts. It is harder and more conventional than the individuals which compose it; it exercises a kind of regulating force on the wayward fancies of their wills; it says to them in an unmistakable manner that ‘they shall not break their ranks.’ The laws of trade, the customs of social life, the instincts of human nature, act upon us with a power little less than that of physical necessity.
If from this external aspect of human things we turn inward, there seems to be no limit to the changes which we deem possible. We are no longer the same, but different every hour. No physical fact interposes itself as an obstacle to our thoughts any more than to our dreams. The world and its laws have nothing to do with our free determinations. At any moment we can begin a new life; in idea at least, no time is required for the change. One instant we may be proud, the next humble; one instant sinning, at the next repenting; one instant, like St. Paul, ready to persecute, at another to preach the Gospel; full of malice and hatred one hour, melting into tenderness the next. As we hear the words of the preacher, there is a voice within telling us, that ‘now, even now, is the day of salvation;’ and if certain clogs and hindrances of earth could only be removed, we are ready to pass immediately into another state. And, at times, it seems as though we had actually passed into rest, and had a foretaste of the heavenly gift. Something more than imagination enables us to fashion a divine pattern to which we conform for a little while. The ‘new man’ unto which we become transformed, is so pleasant to us that it banishes the thought of ‘the old.’ In youth especially, when we are ignorant of the compass of our own nature, such frames of mind are perpetually recurring; perhaps, not without attendant evils; certainly, also, for good.
But besides such feelings as these, which we know to be partly true, partly illusive, every one’s experience of himself appears to teach him, that he has gone through many changes and had many special providences vouchsafed to him; he says to himself that he has been led in a mysterious and peculiar way, not like the way of other men, and had feelings not common to others; he compares different times and places, and contrasts his own conduct here and there, now and then. In other men he remarks similarity of character; in himself he sees chiefly diversity. They seem to be the creatures of habit and circumstance; he alone is a free agent. The truth is, that he observes himself; he cannot equally observe them. He is not conscious of the inward struggles through which they have passed; he sees only the veil of flesh which conceals them from his view. He knows when he thinks about it, but he does not habitually remember, that, under that calm exterior, there is a like current of individual thoughts, feelings, interests, which have as great a charm and intensity for another as the workings of his own mind have for himself.
And yet it does not follow, that this inward fact is to be set aside as the result of egotism and illusion. It may be not merely the dreamy reflection of our life and actions in the mirror of self, but the subtle and delicate spring of the whole machine. To purify the feelings or to move the will, the internal sense may be as necessary to us as external observation is to regulate and sustain them. Even to the formula of the fatalist, that ‘freedom is the consciousness of necessity,’ it may be replied, that that very consciousness, as he terms it, is as essential as any other link in the chain in which ‘he binds fast the world.’ Human nature is beset by the contradiction, not of two rival theories, but of many apparently contradictory facts. If we cannot imagine how the world could go on without law and order in human actions, neither can we imagine how morality could subsist unless we clear a space around us for the freedom of the will.
But not in this place to get further into the meshes of the great question of freedom and necessity, let us rather turn aside for a moment to consider some practical aspects of the reflections which precede. Scripture and reason alike require that we should entirely turn to God, that we should obey the whole law. And hard as this may seem at first, there is a witness within us which pleads that it is possible. Our mind and moral nature are one; we cannot break ourselves into pieces in action any more than in thought. The whole man is in every part and in every act. This is not a mere mode of thought, but a truth of great practical importance. ‘Easier to change many things than one,’ is the common saying. Easier, we may add, in religion or morality, to change the whole than the part. Easier because more natural, more agreeable to the voice of conscience and the promises of Scripture. God himself deals with us as a whole; He does not forgive us in part any more than He requires us to serve Him in part. It may be true that, of the thousand hearers of the appeal of the preacher, not above one begins a new life. And some persons will imagine that it might be better to make an impression on them little by little, like the effect of the dropping of water upon stone. Not in this way is the Gospel written down on the fleshy tables of the heart. More true to our own experience of self, as well as to the words of Scripture, are such ideas as renovation, renewal, regeneration, taking up the cross and following Christ, dying with Christ that we may also live with Him.
Many a person will tease himself by counting minutes and providing small rules for his life, who would have found the task an easier and a nobler one, had he viewed it in its whole extent, and gone to God in a ‘large and liberal spirit,’ to offer up his life to Him. To have no arrière pensée in the service of God and virtue is the great source of peace and happiness. Make clean that which is within, and you have no need to purify that which is without. Take care of the little things of life, and the great ones will take care of themselves, is the maxim of the trader, which is sometimes, and with a certain degree of truth, applied to the service of God. But much more true is it in religion that we should take care of the great things, and the trifles of life will take care of themselves. ‘If thine eye be single, thy whole body will be full of light.’ Christianity is not acquired as an art by long practice; it does not carve and polish human nature with a graving tool; it makes the whole man; first pouring out his soul before God, and then ‘casting him in a mould.’ Its workings are not to be measured by time, even though among educated persons, and in modern times, sudden and momentary conversions can rarely occur.
For the doctrine of conversion the moralist substitutes the theory of habits. Good actions, he says, produce good habits; and the repetition of good actions makes them easier to perform, and ‘fortifies us indefinitely against temptation.’ There are bodily and mental habits—habits of reflection and habits of action. Practice gives skill or sleight of hand; constant attention, the faculty of abstraction; so the practice of virtue makes us virtuous, that of vice vicious. The more meat we eat, to use the illustration of Aristotle, in whom we find a cruder form of the same theory, the more we are able to eat meat; the more we wrestle, the more able we are to wrestle, and so forth. If a person has some duty to perform, say of common and trivial sort, to rise at a particular hour in the morning, to be at a particular place at such an hour, to conform to some rule about abstinence, we tell him that he will find the first occasion difficult, the second easy, and the difficulty is supposed to vanish by degrees until it wholly disappears. If a man has to march into a battle, or to perform a surgical operation, or to do anything else from which human nature shrinks, his nerves, we say, are gradually strengthened; his head, as was said of a famous soldier, clears up at the sound of the cannon; like the grave-digger in Hamlet, he has soon no ‘feeling of his occupation.’
From a consideration of such instances as these, the rule has been laid down, that, ‘as the passive impression weakens, the active habit strengthens.’ But is not this saying of a great man founded on a narrow and partial contemplation of human nature? For, in the first place, it leaves altogether out of sight the motives of human action; it is equally suited to the most rigid formalist and to a moral and spiritual being. Secondly, it takes no account of the limitation of the power of habits, which neither in mind nor body can be extended beyond a certain point; nor of the original capacity or peculiar character of individuals; nor of the different kinds of habits, nor of the degrees of strength and weakness in different minds; nor of the enormous difference between youth and age, childhood and manhood, in the capacity for acquiring habits. Old age does not move with accumulated force, either upwards or downwards; they are the lesser habits, not the great springs of life, that show themselves in it with increased power. Nor can the man who has neglected to form habits in youth, acquire them in mature life; like the body, the mind ceases to be capable of receiving a particular form. Lastly, such a description of human nature agrees with no man’s account of himself; whatever moralists may say, he knows himself to be a spiritual being. ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth,’ and he cannot ‘tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth.’
All that is true in the theory of habits seems to be implied in the notion of order or regularity. Even this is inadequate to give a conception of the structure of human beings. Order is the beginning, but freedom is the perfection of our moral nature. Men do not live at random, or act one instant without reference to their actions just before. And in youth especially, the very sameness of our occupations is a sort of stay and support to us, as in age it may be described as a kind of rest. But no one will say that the mere repetition of actions until they constitute a habit, gives any explanation of the higher and nobler forms of human virtue, or the finer moulds of character. Life cannot be explained as the working of a mere machine, still less can moral or spiritual life be reduced to merely mechanical laws.
But if, while acknowledging that a great proportion of mankind are the creatures of habit, and that a great part of our actions are nothing more than the result of habit, we go on to ask ourselves about the changes of our life, and fix our minds on the critical points, we are led to view human nature, not only in a wider and more generous spirit, but also in a way more accordant with the language of Scripture. We no longer measure ourselves by days or by weeks; we are conscious that at particular times we have undergone great revolutions or emotions; and then, again, have intervened periods, lasting perhaps for years, in which we have pursued the even current of our way. Our progress towards good may have been in idea an imperceptible and regular advance; in fact, we know it to have been otherwise. We have taken plunges in life; there are many eras noted in our existence. The greatest changes are those of which we are the least able to give an account, and which we feel the most disposed to refer to a superior power. That they were simply mysterious, like some utterly unknown natural phenomena, is our first thought about them. But although unable to fathom their true nature, we are capable of analyzing many of the circumstances which accompany them, and of observing the impulses out of which they arise.
Every man has the power of forming a resolution, or, without previous resolution, in any particular instance, acting as he will. As thoughts come into the mind one cannot tell how, so too motives spring up, without our being able to trace their origin. Why we suddenly see a thing in a new light, is often hard to explain; why we feel an action to be right or wrong which has previously seemed indifferent, is not less inexplicable. We fix the passing dream or sentiment in action, the thought is nothing, the deed may be everything. That day after day, to use a familiar instance, the drunkard will find abstinence easier, is probably untrue; but that from once abstaining he will gain a fresh experience, and receive a new strength and inward satisfaction, which may result in endless consequences, is what every one is aware of. It is not the sameness of what we do, but its novelty, which seems to have such a peculiar power over us; not the repetition of many blind actions, but the performance of a single conscious one, that is the birth to a new life. Indeed, the very sameness of actions is often accompanied with a sort of weariness, which makes men desirous of change.
Nor is it less true, that by the commission, not of many, but a single act of vice or crime, an inroad is made into our whole moral constitution, which is not proportionably increased by its repetition. The first act of theft, falsehood, or other immorality, is an event in the life of the perpetrator which he never forgets. It may often happen that no account can be given of it; that there is nothing in the education, nor in the antecedents of the person, that would lead us, or even himself, to suspect it. In the weaker sort of natures, especially, suggestions of evil spring up we cannot tell how. Human beings are the creatures of habit; but they are the creatures of impulse too; and from the greater variableness of the outward circumstances of life, and especially of particular periods of life, and the greater freedom of individuals, it may, perhaps, be found that human actions, though less liable to wide-spread or sudden changes, have also become more capricious, and less reducible to simple causes, than formerly.
Changes in character come more often in the form of feeling than of reason, from some new affection or attachment, or alienation of our former self, rather than from the slow growth of experience, or a deliberate sense of right and duty. The meeting with some particular person, the remembrance of some particular scene, the last words of a parent or friend, the reading of a sentence in a book, may call forth a world within us of the very existence of which we were previously unconscious. New interests arise such as we never before knew, and we can no longer lie grovelling in the mire, but must be up and doing; new affections seem to be drawn out, such as warm our inmost soul and make action and exertion a delight to us. Mere human love at first sight, as we say, has been known to change the whole character and produce an earthly effect, analogous to that heavenly love of Christ and the brethren, of which the New Testament speaks. Have we not seen the passionate become calm, the licentious pure, the weak strong, the scoffer devout? We may not venture to say with St. Paul, ‘This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.’ But such instances serve, at least, to quicken our sense of the depth and subtlety of human nature.
Of many of these changes no other reason can be given than that nature and the Author of nature have made men capable of them. There are others, again, which we seem to trace, not only to particular times, but to definite actions, from which they flow in the same manner that other effects follow from their causes. Among such causes none are more powerful than acts of self-sacrifice and devotion. A single deed of heroism makes a man a hero; it becomes a part of him, and, strengthened by the approbation and sympathy of his fellow-men, a sort of power which he gains over himself and them. Something like this is true of the lesser occasions of life no less than of the greatest; provided in either case the actions are not of such a kind that the performance of them is a violence to our nature. Many a one has stretched himself on the rack of asceticism, without on the whole raising his nature; often he has seemed to have gained in self-control only what he has lost in the kindlier affections, and by his very isolation to have wasted the opportunities which nature offered him of self-improvement. But no one with a heart open to human feelings, loving not man the less, but God more, sensitive to the happiness of this world, yet aiming at a higher—no man of such a nature ever made a great sacrifice, or performed a great act of self-denial, without impressing a change on his character, which lasted to his latest breath. No man ever took his besetting sin, it may be lust, or pride, or love of rank and position, and, as it were, cut it out by voluntarily placing himself where to gratify it was impossible, without sensibly receiving a new strength of character. In one day, almost in an hour, he may become an altered man; he may stand, as it were, on a different stage of moral and religious life; he may feel himself in new relations to an altered world.
Nor, in considering the effects of action, must the influence of impressions be lost sight of. Good resolutions are apt to have a bad name; they have come to be almost synonymous with the absence of good actions. As they get older, men deem it a kind of weakness to be guilty of making them; so often do they end in raising ‘pictures of virtue, or going over the theory of virtue in our minds.’ Yet this contrast between passive impression and active habit is hardly justified by our experience of ourselves or others. Valueless as they are in themselves, good resolutions are suggestive of great good; they are seldom wholly without effect on our conduct; in the weakest of men they are still the embryo of action. They may meet with a concurrence of circumstances in which they take root and grow, coinciding with some change of place, or of pursuits, or of companions, or of natural constitution, in which they acquire a peculiar power. They are the opportunities of virtue, if not virtue itself. At the worst they make us think; they give us an experience of ourselves; they prevent our passing our lives in total unconsciousness. A man may go on all his life making and not keeping them; miserable as such a state appears, he is perhaps not the worse, but something the better for them. The voice of the preacher is not lost, even if he succeed but for a few instants in awakening them.
A further cause of sudden changes in the moral constitution is the determination of the will by reason and knowledge. Suppose the case of a person living in a narrow circle of ideas, within the limits of his early education, perplexed by difficulties, yet never venturing beyond the wall of prejudices in which he has been brought up, or changing only into the false position of a rebellion against them. A new view of his relation to the world and to God is presented to him; such, for example, as in St. Paul’s day was the grand acknowledgement that God was ‘not the God of the Jews only;’ such as in our own age would be the clear vision of the truth and justice of God, high above the clouds of earth and time, and of His goodwill to man. Convinced of the reasonableness of the Gospel, it becomes to him at once a self-imposed law. No longer does the human heart rebel; no longer has he ‘to pose his understanding’ with that odd resolution of Tertullian—‘certum quia impossibile.’ He perceives that the perplexities of religion have been made, not by the appointment of God, but by the ingenuity of man.
Lastly. Among those influences, by the help of which the will of man learns to disengage itself from the power of habit, must not be omitted the influence of circumstances. If men are creatures of habit, much more are they creatures of circumstances. These two, nature without us, and ‘the second nature’ that is within, are the counterbalancing forces of our being. Between them (so we may figure to ourselves the working of the mind) the human will inserts itself, making the force of one a lever against the other, and seeming to rule both. We fall under the power of habit, and feel ourselves weak and powerless to shake off the almost physical influence which it exerts upon us. The enfeebled frame cannot rid itself of the malady; the palsied springs of action cannot be strengthened for good, nor fortified against evil. Transplanted into another soil, and in a different air, we renew our strength. In youth especially, the character seems to respond kindly to the influence of the external world. Providence has placed us in a state in which we have many aids in the battle with self; the greatest of these is change of circumstances.
We have wandered far from the subject of conversion in the early Church, into another sphere in which the words ‘grace, faith, the spirit,’ have disappeared, and notions of moral philosophy have taken their place. It is better, perhaps, that the attempt to analyze our spiritual nature should assume this abstract form. We feel that words cannot express the life hidden with Christ and God; we are afraid of declaring on the housetop, what may only be spoken in the closet. If the rites and ceremonies of the elder dispensation, which have so little in them of a spiritual character, became a figure of the true, much more may the moral world be regarded as a figure of the spiritual world of which religion speaks to us.
There is a view of the changes of the characters of men which begins where this ends, which reads human nature by a different light, and speaks of it as the seat of a great struggle between the powers of good and evil. It would be untrue to identify this view with that which has preceded, and scarcely less untrue to attempt to interweave the two in a system of ‘moral theology.’ No addition of theological terms will transfigure Aristotle’s Ethics into a ‘Summa Theologiae.’ When St. Paul says—‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord;’ he is not speaking the language of moral philosophy, but of religious feeling. He expresses what few have truly felt concentrated in a single instant, what many have deluded themselves into the belief of, what some have experienced accompanying them through life, what a great portion even of the better sort of mankind are wholly unconscious of. It seems as if Providence allowed us to regard the truths of religion and morality in many ways which are not wholly unconnected with each other, yet parallel rather than intersecting; providing for the varieties of human character, and not leaving those altogether without law, who are incapable in a world of sight of entering within the veil.
As we return to that ‘hidden life’ of which the Scripture speaks, our analysis of human nature seems to become more imperfect, less reducible to rule or measure, less capable of being described in a language which all men understand. What the believer recognizes as the record of his experience is apt to seem mystical to the rest of the world. We do not seek to thread the mazes of the human soul, or to draw forth to the light its hidden communion with its Maker, but only to present in general outline the power of religion among other causes of human action.
Directly, religious influences may be summed up under three heads:—The power of God; the love of Christ; the efficacy of prayer.
(1) So far as the influence of the first of these is capable of analysis, it consists in the practical sense that we are dependent beings, and that our souls are in the hands of God, who is acting through us, and ever present with us, in the trials of life and in the work of life. The believer is a minister who executes this work, hardly the partner in it; it is not his own, but God’s. He does it with the greatest care, as unto the Lord and not to men, yet is indifferent as to the result, knowing that all things, even through his imperfect agency, are working together for good. The attitude of his soul towards God is such as to produce the strongest effects on his power of action. It leaves his faculties clear and unimpassioned; it places him above accidents; it gives him courage and freedom. Trusting in God only, like the Psalmist, ‘he fears no enemy;’ he has no want. There is a sort of absoluteness in his position in the world, which can neither be made better nor worse; as St. Paul says, ‘All things are his, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come.’
In merely human things, the aid and sympathy of others increase our power to act: it is also the fact that we can work more effectually and think more truly, where the issue is not staked on the result of our thought and work. The confidence of success would be more than half the secret of success, did it not also lead to the relaxation of our efforts. But in the life of the believer, the sympathy, if such a figure of speech may be allowed, is not human but Divine; the confidence is not a confidence in ourselves, but in the power of God, which at once takes us out of ourselves and increases our obligation to exertion. The instances just mentioned have an analogy, though but a faint one, with that which we are considering. They are shadows of the support which we receive from the Infinite and Everlasting. As the philosopher said that his theory of fatalism was absolutely required to insure the repose necessary for moral action, it may be said, in a far higher sense, that the consciousness of a Divine Providence is necessary to enable a rational being to meet the present trials of life, and to look without fear on his future destiny.
(2) But yet more strongly is it felt that the love of Christ has this constraining power over souls, that here, if anywhere, we are unlocking the twisted chain of sympathy, and reaching the inmost mystery of human nature. The sight, once for all, of Christ crucified, recalling the thought of what, more than 1800 years ago, He suffered for us, has ravished the heart and melted the affections, and made the world seem new, and covered the earth itself with a fair vision, that is, a heavenly one. The strength of this feeling arises from its being directed towards a person, a real being, an individual like ourselves, who has actually endured all this for our sakes, who was above us, and yet became one of us and felt as we did, and was like ourselves a true man. The love which He felt towards us, we seek to return to Him; the unity which He has with the Divine nature, He communicates to us; His Father is our Father, His God our God. And as human love draws men onwards to make sacrifices, and to undergo sufferings for the good of others, Divine love also leads us to cast away the interests of this world, and rest only in the noblest object of love. And this love is not only a feeling or sentiment, or attachment, such as we may entertain towards a parent, a child, or a wife, in which, pure and disinterested as it may be, some shadow of earthly passion unavoidably mingles; it is also the highest exercise of the reason, which it seems to endow with the force of the affections, making us think and feel at once. And although it begins in gentleness, and tenderness, and weakness, and is often supposed to be more natural to women than men, yet it grows up also to ‘the fulness of the stature of the perfect man.’ The truest note of the depth and sincerity of our feelings towards our fellow creatures is a manly—that is, a self-controlled—temper: still more is this true of the love of the soul towards Christ and God.
Every one knows what it is to become like those whom we admire or esteem; the impress which a disciple may sometimes have received from his teacher, or the servant from his Lord. Such devotion to a particular person can rarely be thought to open our hearts to love others also; it often tends to weaken the force of individual character. But the love of Christ is the conducting medium to the love of all mankind; the image which He impresses upon us is the image not of any particular individual, but of the Son of Man. And this image, as we draw nearer to it, is transfigured into the image of the Son of God. As we become like Him, we see Him as He is; and see ourselves and all other things with true human sympathy. Lastly, we are sensible that more than all we feel towards Him, He feels towards us, and that it is He who is drawing us to Him, while we seem to be drawing to Him ourselves. This is a part of that mystery of which the Apostle speaks, ‘of the length, and depth, and breadth of the love of Christ,’ which passeth knowledge. Mere human love rests on instincts, the working of which we cannot explain, but which nevertheless touch the inmost springs of our being. So, too, we have spiritual instincts, acting towards higher objects, still more suddenly and wonderfully capturing our souls in an instant, and making us indifferent to all things else. Such instincts show themselves in the weak no less than in the strong; they seem to be not so much an original part of our nature as to fulfil our nature, and add to it, and draw it out, until they make us different beings to ourselves and others. It was the quaint fancy of a sentimentalist to ask whether any one who remembers the first sight of a beloved person, could doubt the existence of magic. We may ask another question, Can any one who has ever known the love of Christ, doubt the existence of a spiritual power?
(3) The instrument whereby, above all others, we realize the power of God, and the love of Christ, which carries us into their presence, and places us within the circle of a Divine yet personal influence, is prayer. Prayer is the summing up of the Christian life in a definite act, which is at once inward and outward, the power of which on the character, like that of any other act, is proportioned to its intensity. The imagination of doing rightly adds little to our strength; even the wish to do so is not necessarily accompanied by a change of heart and conduct. But in prayer we imagine, and wish, and perform all in one. Our imperfect resolutions are offered up to God; our weakness becomes strength, our words deeds. No other action is so mysterious; there is none in which we seem, in the same manner, to renounce ourselves that we may be one with God.
Of what nature that prayer is which is effectual to the obtaining of its requests is a question of the same kind as what constitutes a true faith. That prayer, we should reply, which is itself most of an act, which is most immediately followed by action, which is most truthful, manly, self-controlled, which seems to lead and direct, rather than to follow, our natural emotions. That prayer which is its own answer because it asks not for any temporal good, but for union with God. That prayer which begins with the confession, ‘We know not what to pray for as we ought;’ which can never by any possibility interfere with the laws of nature, because even in extremity of danger or suffering, it seeks only the fulfilment of His will. That prayer which acknowledges that our enemies, or those of a different faith, are equally with ourselves in the hands of God; in which we never unwittingly ask for our own good at the expense of others. That prayer in which faith is strong enough to submit to experience; in which the soul of man is nevertheless conscious not of any self-produced impression, but of a true communion with the Author and Maker of his being.
In prayer, as in all religion, there is something that it is impossible to describe, and that seems to be untrue the moment it is expressed in words. In the relations of man with God, it is vain to attempt to separate what belongs to the finite and what to the infinite. We can feel, but we cannot analyze it. We can lay down practical rules for it, but can give no adequate account of it. It is a mystery which we do not need to fathom. In all religion there is an element of which we are conscious—which is no mystery, which ought to be and is on a level with reason and experience. There is something besides, which, in those who give way to every vague spiritual emotion, may often fall below reason (for to them it becomes a merely physical state); which may also raise us above ourselves, until reason and feeling meet in one, and the life on earth even of the poor and ignorant answers to the description of the Apostle, ‘Having your conversation in heaven.’
This partial indistinctness of the subject of religion, even independently of mysticism or superstition, may become to intellectual minds a ground for doubting the truth of that which will not be altogether reduced to the rules of human knowledge, which seems to elude our grasp, and retires into the recesses of the soul the moment we ask for the demonstration of its existence. Against this natural suspicion let us set two observations: first, that if the Gospel had spoken to the reason only, and not to the feelings—if ‘the way to the blessed life’ had to be won by clearness of ideas, then it is impossible that ‘to the poor the Gospel should have been first preached.’ It would have begun at the other end of society, and probably remained, like Greek philosophy, the abstraction of educated men. Secondly, let us remark that even now, judged by its effects, the power of religion is of all powers the greatest. Knowledge itself is a weak instrument to stir the soul compared with religion; morality has no way to the heart of man; but the Gospel reaches the feelings and the intellect at once. In nations as well as individuals, in barbarous times as well as civilized, in the great crises of history especially, even in the latest ages, when the minds of men seem to wax cold, and all things remain the same as at the beginning, it has shown itself to be a reality without which human nature would cease to be what it is. Almost every one has had the witness of it in himself. No one, says Plato, ever passed from youth to age in unbelief of the gods, in heathen times. Hardly any educated person in a Christian land has passed from youth to age without some aspiration after a better life, some thought of the country to which he is going.
As a fact, it would be admitted by most, that, at some period of their lives, the thought of the world to come and of future judgement, the beauty and loveliness of the truths of the Gospel, the sense of the shortness of our days here, have wrought a more quickening and powerful effect than any moral truths or prudential maxims. Many a one would acknowledge that he has been carried whither he knew not; and had nobler thoughts, and felt higher aspirations, than the course of his ordinary life seemed to allow. These were the most important moments of his life for good or for evil; the critical points which have made him what he is, either as he used or neglected them. They came he knew not how, sometimes with some outward and apparent cause, at other times without—the result of affliction or sickness, or ‘the wind blowing where it listeth.’
And if such changes and such critical points should be found to occur in youth more often than in age, in the poor and ignorant rather than in the educated, in women more often than in men—if reason and reflection seem to weaken as they regulate the springs of human action, this very fact may lead us to consider that reason, and reflection, and education, and the experience of age, and the force of manly sense, are not the links which bind us to the communion of the body of Christ; that it is rather to those qualities which we have, or may have, in common with our fellow-men, that the Gospel is promised; and that it is with the weak, the poor, the babes in Christ—not with the strong-minded, the resolute, the consistent—that we shall sit down in the kingdom of heaven.