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PART SIXTH.
ON UNION WITH GOD IN HIS PROVIDENCES.



CHAPTER III.


ON THE STRICTNESS OF THE RETRIBUTIONS OF THE LAW OF PROVIDENCE.


Of the opinions which prevail on this subject. — Reference to physical laws. — Illustrations of the subject from civil and criminal laws.The providential law more inflexible in its results than other laws. — Illustrations of this truth. — Of violations of Providence when the motives are good.— Of the regulation of the affections.— Illustrations and remarks.

IN the last chapter reference was made to the inflexibility of the providential law. It is strict and inflexible both in its requirements and in its retributions. It has in itself a power of punishment, which evil-doers cannot escape.

This is a subject of so much importance, that we propose to examine it further, and more particularly, in this chapter; especially as the doctrine of a providential retribution, invariably inflicted, is not generally received. It does not appear to be the common opinion.

2. There seems to be good reason for saying, that common opinion, founded upon the general experience, assents to the strictness and inflexibility of the action of physical laws. If a man, for instance, thrusts his hand into the fire, we have no doubt that he will be burned. If he plunges himself into the depths of the ocean, we are confident that he will be drowned. If he throws himself down a rocky eminence, we naturally expect that he will be dashed to pieces. The result, secured by known and inflexible physical laws is considered certain.

It may be added, that common opinion attaches the same idea of strictness and inflexibility to the action of laws instituted by civil governments. If a man, contrary to the laws of the land, takes another's property, it is generally regarded as a matter of certainty that punishment will overtake him. If a man strikes another, the law, without-regard to his position in society, or even his penitence, strikes him in return. Fines, stripes, stocks, prisons, show how inflexible is the arm of civil and criminal justice.

But it does not appear to be the common opinion that the retributions of the providential law are equally strict, equally inflexible. The tendency is, partly because its modes of operation are less obvious to the senses, to look upon Providence as a lenient master, who generally defers punishment, who punishes slightly at most, and sometimes not at all. But this is a mistake. The providential law is as strict in its operation as the others, and even more so. It is possible, certainly, that natural laws may be suspended in their operation, and may fail. The penalty of the civil and criminal laws may sometimes be evaded. But the retributions of the providential law, (a law modified in its application by the incident of existing facts and events, but always founded on the principles of eternal right and wrong,) can never be annulled, can never be escaped.

3. If the providence of God has brought together a rich and a poor man, under such circumstances that it becomes the duty of the rich man to aid the poor, and he refuses to do it, it is impossible for him, in any way, except by sincere repentance, to escape the penalty of his wrong-doing. He will ask, perhaps, why he was bound to support or aid the poor man more than another? The answer is, it was not necessary that all should confer their benevolence at the same time; and the law of Providence, operating in connection with the existing facts in the case, made its selection, and the lot fell upon him. The fact that Providence had given him a particular location, involved also the assignment of a particular duty. In refusing to perform that duty, he has exposed himself to a penalty. When or where it will come, he cannot foresee; but its terrible advent is inevitable in its appointed time.

A man has a family, or is in some way connected with one. He is a father, brother, husband, or son. Perhaps he sustains all these important relations at once. He has a moral nature; and Providence which makes all these arrangements, has assigned and settled his position. Out of his moral nature and the position which is thus assigned him, is developed the obligation or law of specific duty. We properly denominate it, in this case, as in others, the providential law. As a father, brother, husband, or son, he has duties to perform, which would not be binding upon him if he were not placed in that particular situation. If he fails in those duties, whatever their nature, and whether the failure be more or less, he incurs a penalty, which may not be particularly noticed or felt at the time, but from which there is and can be no escape.

There is no apparent administration. There is nothing exterior, nothing seen. No judge is seated on the bench of justice. No audible sentence is pronounced. No prison doors are shut or opened. No sword is uplifted. And yet the blow falls, — reaching always the precise centre of its object, — the sharper for being invisible; as inflexibly certain in its movement and its results as the decrees of infinite wisdom.

4. We proceed now to a remark of no small importance The strictness of the providential law is such, that the penalty attending a violation of it will be experienced, whether the object which we had in view in our conduct be good or evil. In other words, God, as the administrator of Providence, will punish us for actions, originating in a good motive, if that motive has been exercised without a careful regard to the facts in the case.

If a father, for instance, from the impulse of benevolent parental feeling, gives a large amount of property to a son, who obviously has no capacity and no heart to manage it aright, he violates a providential law, by attempting to unite things which are incompatible, and the most painful results will sooner or later ensue. If a benevolent man has a poor but very vicious neighbor, and, without any suitable reflections upon the matter, bestows upon him liberal donations, he obviously does a wrong thing, although he may have meant it right. He thus sets himself, perhaps without any specific intentions of that nature, in opposition to the providential design; and is found in the ruinous situation of one who is fighting against God. God knows what is best. He sees that, to the vicious man, who expends his wealth upon his lusts, poverty, yea,
extreme poverty, is the best riches.

6. It should never be forgotten, that a good motive, however kindly and highly it may be appreciated, does not constitute a right action in the strict sense of the term, unless the action can be spoken of and regarded as right in the circumstances actually existing. It is a very important principle, therefore, especially in its connection with the higher forms of religious experience, that we ought with care to watch over even our good desires, and to bring them under a strict regulation. Our good desires, our good intentions, will not save ourselves or others from evil, if we contemplate and carry into effect objects which are
out of the divine order.

The instances which have already been given, help to illustrate the subject. Very many others will readily occur. A monarch, for instance, in the largeness of his heart, proposes the immediate and entire liberation of his people, notwithstanding they are obviously unprepared for it. But in thus doing an act, which, under other circumstances, would be highly commendable, he only places in the nation's hand a sword to be plunged into its own vitals. His good intentions will not shield him from responsibility. Subjecting his benevolence to the dictates of deliberation and wisdom, he should have first made his gift, not to freedom, but to the
preparation for freedom.

7. And these remarks will apply, not to one merely, but to all the purest and holiest affections of our nature. Such affections are always good and commendable in themselves; but in the manner and degree of their exercise, they are necessarily subjected to the law of time, place, and object. It is certainly commendable and right, at all times and under all circumstances, to entertain feelings of kindness and compassion for those who suffer. But it is not commendable and right, at all times and under all circumstances, to attempt to
relieve that suffering. And the reason is, that God, in his wise providence, has seen fit to impose suffering. Suffering, therefore, has its own, its appropriate work to do. And mere human pity cannot interfere with these providential intentions, without committing great error, and without experiencing a retribution on itself.

8. We may, perhaps, deduce an illustration of the strictness of the law of Providence from the law of nature. We all know that if our action — that of the husbandman, for instance — does not conform to the law of physical nature, it has no reward, but is the occasion of loss. Accordingly, we never exhibit the folly of scattering our wheat and corn on the frozen clods of autumn and on the snowbanks of winter, because we know that it is entirely useless, and worse than useless, to anticipate, as we should thus do, the preparations of nature. Whatever we may do, we shall always find, if we would do it with any good results, that God must go first, and strike the first blow. Our business is, both in connection with the works of nature, and in morals and religion, to act
concurrently, to follow him, and, without running before him, to strive to be co-workers with him. It is with this great practical religious principle in view, that the Saviour says, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." It is this principle, also, which is the foundation of the important remark of the apostle in his epistle to the Romans, " Let not, then, your good be evil spoken of." [Rom. 14: 16.]

9. We return therefore, to the great truth, which we wish to be left deeply impressed upon the mind; namely, that we can neither do good nor evil, irrespective of the law of Providence, without incurring guilt, and without experiencing a painful retribution. And this retribution, although it may scarcely be noticed at first, and although it may be delayed for a long time, is as certain and irresistible, with the single exception of cases of timely repentance, as the existence of God himself.

Even the man who stands in the divine order, and is a co-worker with God, is not, in the present state of things, exempt from trouble. Perhaps it is for this very thing God has placed him where he is; namely, that sorrow, in its various forms, that rebuke, and evil-speaking, and loss of earthly goods, and other temporal evils, may come upon him, and, in the fire of their consuming contact, destroy the dross that still adheres to his soul. But standing, as he does, with God before him as his guide, and therefore in the way of God's appointment, he will in the end come off victorious. But, for him who stands out of the divine order, and who opposes the weak shield of human strength to God's irreversible arrangements, there is no help. The chariot wheels of the Almighty will pass over him and grind him to powder.