SIN UNTO DEATH.
"There is a sin to death." --- 1 John v. 17.
The Church has ever spoken of seven deadly sins. Here is the ugly catalogue. Pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, hatred, sloth. Many of us pray often "from fornication and all other deadly sin, Good Lord deliver us." This language rightly understood is sound and true; yet, without careful thought, the term may lead us into two errors.
On hearing of deadly sin we are apt instinctively to oppose it to venial. But we cannot define by any quantitative test what venial sin may be for any given soul. To do that we must know the complete history of each soul; and the complete genealogy, conception, birth, and autobiography of each sin. Men catch at the term venial because they love to minimise a thing so tremendous as sin. The world sides with the casuists whom it satirises; and speaks of a "white lie," of a foible, of an inaccuracy, when "the 'white lie' may be that of St. Peter, the foible that of David, and the inaccuracy that of Ananias!"
There is a second mistake into which we often fall in speaking of deadly sin. Our imagination nearly always assumes some one definite outward act; some single individual sin. This may partly be due to a[Pg 255] seemingly slight mistranslation in the text. It should not run "there is a sin," but "there is sin to" (i.e., in the direction of, towards) "death."
The text means something deeper and further-reaching than any single sin, deadly though it may be justly called.
The author of the fourth Gospel learned a whole mystic language from the life of Jesus. Death, in the great Master's vocabulary, was more than a single action. It was again wholly different from bodily death by the visitation of God. There are two realms for man's soul co-extensive with the universe and with itself. One which leads towards God is called Life; one which leads from Him is called Death. There is a radiant passage by which the soul is translated from the death which is death indeed, to the life which is life indeed. There is another passage by which we pass from life to death; i.e., fall back towards spiritual (which is not necessarily eternal) death.
There is then a general condition and contexture; there is an atmosphere and position of soul in which the true life flickers, and is on the way to death. One who visited an island on the coast of Scotland has told how he found in a valley open to the spray of the north-west ocean a clump of fir trees. For a time they grew well, until they became high enough to catch the prevalent blast. They were still standing, but had taken a fixed set, and were reddened as if singed by the breath of fire. The island glen might be "swept on starry nights by balms of spring;" the summer sun as it sank might touch the poor stems with a momentary radiance. The trees were still living, but only with that cortical vitality which is the tree's death in life. Their doom was evident; they could have but a[Pg 256] few more seasons. If the traveller cared some years hence to visit that islet set in stormy waters, he would find the firs blanched like a skeleton's bones. Nothing remained for them but the sure fall, and the fated rottenness.
The analogy indeed is not complete. The tree in such surroundings must die; it can make for itself no new condition of existence; it can hear no sweet question on the breeze that washes through the grove, "why will you die?" It cannot look upward --- as it is scourged by the driving spray, and tormented by the fierce wind --- and cry, "O God of my life, give me life." It has no will; it cannot transplant itself. But the human tree can root itself in a happier place. Some divine spring may clothe it with green again. As it was passing from life toward death, so by the grace of God in prayers and sacraments, through penitence and faith, it may pass from death to life.
The Church then is not wrong when she speaks of "deadly sin." The number seven is not merely a mystic fancy. But the seven "deadly sins" are seven attributes of the whole character; seven master-ideas; seven general conditions of a human soul alienated from God; seven forms of aversion from true life, and of reversion to true death. The style of St. John has often been called "senile;" it certainly has the oracular and sententious quietude of old age in its almost lapidary repose. Yet a terrible light sometimes leaps from its simple and stately lines. Are there not a hundred hearts among us who know that as years pass they are drifting further and further from Him who is the Life? Will they not allow that St. John was right when, looking round the range of the Church, he asserted that there is such a thing as "sin to death?"
It may be useful to take that one of the seven deadly sins which people are the most surprised to find in the list.
How and why is sloth deadly sin?
There is a distinction between sloth as vice and sloth as sin. The deadly sin of sloth often exists where the vice has no place. The sleepy music of Thomson's "Castle of Indolence" does not describe the slumber of the spiritual sluggard. Spiritual sloth is want of care and of love for all things in the spiritual order. Its conceptions are shallow and hasty. For it the Church is a department of the civil service; her worship and rites are submitted to, as one submits to a minor surgical operation. Prayer is the waste of a few minutes daily in concession to a sentiment which it might require trouble to eradicate. For the slothful Christian, saints are incorrigibly stupid; martyrs incorrigibly obstinate; clergymen incorrigibly professional; missionaries incorrigibly restless; sisterhoods incorrigibly tender; white lips that can just whisper Jesus incorrigibly awful. For the slothful, God, Christ, death, judgment have no real significance. The Atonement is a plank far away to be clutched by dying fingers in the article of death, that we may gurgle out "yes," when asked "are you happy"? Hell is an ugly word, Heaven a beautiful one which means a sky or an Utopia. Apathy in all spiritual thought, languor in every work of God, fear of injudicious and expensive zeal; secret dislike of those whose fervour puts us to shame, and a miserable adroitness in keeping out of their way; such are the signs of the spirit of sloth. And with this a long series of sins of omission --- "slumbering and sleeping while the Bridegroom tarries" --- "unprofitable servants."
We have said that the vice of sloth is generally distinct from the sin. There is, however, one day of the week on which the sin is apt to wear the drowsy features of the vice --- Sunday. If there is any day on which we might be supposed to do something towards the spiritual world it must be Sunday. Yet what have any of us done for God on any Sunday? Probably we can scarcely tell. We slept late, we lingered over our dressing, we never thought of Holy Communion; after Church (if we went there) we loitered with friends; we lounged in the Park; we whiled away an hour at lunch; we turned over a novel, with secret dislike of the benevolent arrangements which give the postman some rest. Such have been in the main our past Sundays. Such will be those which remain, more or fewer, till the arrival of a date written in a calendar which eye has not seen. The last evening of the closing year is called by an old poet, "the twilight of two years, nor past, nor next." What shall we call the last Sunday of our year of life?
Turn to the first chapter of St. Mark. Think of that day of our Lord's ministry which is recorded more fully than any other. What a day! First that teaching in the Synagogue, when men "were astonished," not at His volubility, but at His "doctrine," drawn from depths of thought. Then the awful meeting with the powers of the world unseen. Next the utterance of the words in the sick room which renovated the fevered frame. Afterwards an interval for the simple festival of home. And then we see the sin, the sorrow, the sufferings crowded at the door. A few hours more, while yet there is but the pale dawn before the meteor sunrise of Syria, He rises from sleep to plunge His wearied brow in the dews of prayer. And finally the[Pg 259] intrusion of others upon that sacred solitude, and the work of preaching, helping, pitying, healing closes in upon Him again with a circle which is of steel, because it is duty --- of delight, because it is love. O the divine monotony of one of those golden days of God upon earth! And yet we are offended because He who is the same for ever, sends from heaven that message with its terrible plainness --- "because you are lukewarm, I will spue you out of my mouth." We are angry that the Church classes sloth as deadly sin, when the Church's Master has said --- "you wicked and slothful servant."
From The Epistles Of St. John by WILLIAM ALEXANDER, D.D., D.C.L. Oxon., Hon. LL.D. Dublin, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row, MDCCCXCVI Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Epistles of John 2/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.