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Sermons on National Subjects, 13 - FIRST SERMON ON THE CHOLERA

By Charles Kingsley


      (Sunday Morning, September 27th, 1849.)

      God's judgments are from above, out of the sight of the wicked.-- PSALM X. 5.

      We have just been praying to God to remove from us the cholera, which we call a judgment of God, a chastisement; and God knows we have need enough to do so. But we can hardly expect God to withdraw His chastisement unless we correct the sins for which He chastised us, and therefore unless we find out what particular sins have brought the evil on us. For it is mere cant and hypocrisy, my friends, to tell God, in a general way, that we believe He is punishing us for our sins, and then to avoid carefully confessing any particular sin, and to get angry with anyone who tells us boldly WHICH sin God is punishing us for. But so goes the world. Everyone is ready to say, "Oh! yes, we are all great sinners, miserable sinners!" and then if you charge them with any particular sin, they bridle up and deny THAT sin fiercely enough, and all sins one by one, confessing themselves great sinners, and yet saying that they don't know what sins they have committed. No man really believes himself a sinner, no man really confesses his sins, but the man who can honestly put his finger on THIS sin or THAT sin which he has committed, and is not afraid to confess to God, "THIS sin and THAT sin have I done--THIS bad habit and THAT bad habit have I cherished within me." Therefore, I say, it is no use for us Englishmen to dream that we can flatter and persuade the great God of Heaven and earth into taking away the cholera from us, unless we find out and confess openly what we have done to bring on the cholera, and unless we repent and bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, by amending our habits on that point, and doing everything for the future which shall not bring on the cholera, but keep it off.

      Do not let us believe this time, my friends, in the pitiable, insincere way in which all England believed when the cholera was here sixteen years ago. When they saw human beings dying by thousands, they all got frightened, and proclaimed a Fast and confessed their sins and promised repentance in a general way. But did they repent of and confess those sins which had caused the cholera? Did they repent of and confess the covetousness, the tyranny, the carelessness, which in most great towns, and in too many villages also, forces the poor to lodge in undrained stifling hovels, unfit for hogs, amid vapours and smells which send forth on every breath the seeds of rickets and consumption, typhus and scarlet fever, and worse and last of all, the cholera? Did they repent of their sin in that? Not they. Did they repent of the carelessness and laziness and covetousness which sends meat and fish up to all our large towns in a half-putrid state; which fills every corner of London and the great cities with slaughter-houses, over-crowded graveyards, undrained sewers? Not they. To confess their sins in a general way cost them a few words; to confess and repent of the real particular sins in themselves, was a very different matter; to amend them would have touched vested interests, would have cost money, the Englishman's god; it would have required self-sacrifice of pocket, as well as of time. It would have required manful fighting against the prejudices, the ignorance, the self-conceit, the laziness, the covetousness of the wicked world. So they could not afford to repent and amend of all THAT. And when those great and good men, the Sanitary Commissioners, proved to all England fifteen years ago, that cholera always appeared where fever had appeared, and that both fever and cholera always cling exclusively to those places where there was bad food, bad air, crowded bedrooms, bad drainage and filth--that such were the laws of God and Nature, and always had been; they took no notice of it, because it was the poor rather than the rich who suffered from those causes. So the filth of our great cities was left to ferment in poisonous cesspools, foul ditches and marshes and muds, such as those now killing people by hundreds in the neighbourhood of Plymouth; for one house or sewer that was improved, a hundred more were left just as they were in the first cholera; as soon as the panic of superstitious fear was past, carelessness and indolence returned. Men went back, the covetous man to his covetousness, and the idler to his idleness. And behold! sixteen years are past, and the cholera is as bad as ever among us.

      But you will say, perhaps, it is presumptuous to say that Englishmen have brought the cholera on themselves, that it is God's judgment, and that we cannot explain His inscrutable Providence. Ah! my friends, that is a poor excuse and a common one, for leaving a great many sins as they are! When people do not wish to do God's will, it is a very pleasant thing to talk about God's will as something so very deep and unfathomable, that poor human beings cannot be expected to find it out. It is an old excuse, and a great favourite with Satan, I have no doubt. Why cannot people find out God's will?-- Because they do not LIKE to find it out, lest it should shame them and condemn them, and cost them pleasure or money--because their eyes are blinded with covetousness and selfishness, so that they cannot see God's will, even when they DO look for it, and then they go and cant about God's judgments; while those judgments, as the text says, are far above out of their mammon-blinded and prejudice-blinded sight. What do they mean by that word? Come now, my friends! let us face the question like men. What do you mean really when you call the cholera, or fever, or affliction at all, God's judgment? Do you merely mean that God is punishing you, you don't know for what, and you can't find out for what? but that all which He expects of you is to bear it patiently, and then go and do afterwards just what you did before? Dare anyone say that who believes that God is a God of justice, much less a God of love? What would you think of a father who punished his children, and then left them to find out as they could what they were punished for? And yet that is the way people talk of pestilence and of great afflictions, public and private. They are not ashamed to accuse God of a cruelty and an injustice which they would be ashamed to confess themselves! How can men, even religious men often, be so blasphemous? Mainly, I think, because they do not really believe in God at all, they only believe about Him--they believe that they ought to believe in Him. They have no living personal faith in God or Christ; they do not know God; they do not know God's character, and what to believe of Him, and what to expect of Him; or what they ought to say of Him; because they do not know, they have not studied, they have not loved the character of Christ, who is the express image and likeness of God. Therefore God's judgments are far away out of their sight; therefore they make themselves a God in their own image and after their own likeness, lazy, capricious, revengeful; therefore they are not afraid or ashamed to say that God sends pestilence into a country without showing that country why it is sent. But another great reason, I believe, why God's judgments in this and other matters are far above out of our sight, is the careless, insincere way of using words which we English have got into, even on the most holy and awful matters. I suppose there never was a nation in the world so diseased through and through with the spirit of cant, as we English are now: except perhaps the old Jews, at the time of our Lord's coming. You hear men talking as if they thought God did not understand English, because they cling superstitiously to the letter of the Bible in proportion as they lose its spirit. You hear men taking words into their mouths which might make angels weep and devils tremble, with a coolness and oily, smooth carelessness which shows you that they do not feel the force of what they are saying. You hear them using the words of Scripture, which are in themselves stricter and deeper than all the books of philosophy in the world, in such a loose unscriptural way, that they make them mean anything or nothing. They use the words like parrots, by rote, just because their forefathers used them before them. They will tell you that cholera is a judgment for our sins, "in a sense," but if you ask them for what sins, or in what sense, they fly off from that HOME question, and begin mumbling commonplaces about the inscrutable decrees of Providence, and so on. It is most sad, all this; and most fearful also.

      Therefore, I asked you, my friends, what is the meaning of that word judgment? In common talk, people use it rightly enough, but when they begin to talk of God's judgments, they speak as if it merely meant punishments. Now judgment and punishment are two things. When a judge gives judgment, he either acquits or condemns the accused person; he gives the case for the plaintiff, or for the defendant: the punishment of the guilty person, if he be guilty, is a separate thing, pronounced and inflicted afterwards. His judgment, I say, is his OPINION about the person's guilt, and even so God's judgments are the expression of His opinion about our guilt. But there is this difference between man and God in this matter--a human judge gives his opinion in words, God gives His in events: therefore there is no harm for a human judge when he has told a person why he must punish, to punish him in some way that has nothing to do with his crime--for instance, to send a man to prison because he steals, though it would be far better if criminals could be punished in kind, and if the man who stole could be forced either to make restitution, or work out the price of what he stole in hard labour. For this is God's plan--God always pays sinners back in kind, that He may not merely punish them, but CORRECT them; so that by the kind of their punishment, they may know the kind of their sin. God punishes us, as I have often told you, not by His caprice, but by His laws. He does not BREAK HIS LAWS to harm us; the laws themselves harm us, when we break them and get in their way. It is always so, you will find, with great national afflictions. I believe, when we know more of God and His laws, we shall find it true even in our smallest private sorrows. God is unchangeable; He does not lose His temper, as heathens and superstitious men fancy, to punish us. He does not change His order to punish us. WE break His order, and the order goes on in spite of us and crushes us: and so we get God's judgment, God's opinion of our breaking His laws. You will find it so almost always in history. If a nation is laid waste by war, it is generally their own fault. They have sinned against the law which God has appointed for nations. They have lost courage and prudence, and trust in God, and fellow- feeling and unity, and they have become cowardly and selfish and split up into parties, and so they are easily conquered by their own fault, as the Bible tells us the Jews were by the Chaldeans; and their ruin is God's judgment, God's opinion plainly expressed of what He thinks of them for having become cowardly and selfish, and factious and disinterested. So it is with famine again. Famines come by a nation's own fault--they are God's plainly spoken opinion of what HE thinks of breaking His laws of industry and thrift, by improvidence and bad farming. So when a nation becomes poor and bankrupt, it is its own fault; that nation has broken the laws of political economy which God has appointed for nations, and its ruin is God's judgment, God's plain-spoken opinion again of the sins of extravagance, idleness, and reckless speculation.

      So with pestilence and cholera. They come only because we break God's laws; as the wise poet well says:

      Voices from the depths OF NATURE borne
      Which vengeance on the guilty head proclaim.

      --"Of nature;" of the order and constitution which God has made for this world we live in, and which if we break them, though God in his mercy so orders the world that punishment comes but seldom even to our worst offences, yet surely do bring punishment sooner or later if broken, in the common course of nature. Yes, my friends, as surely and naturally as drunkenness punishes itself by a shaking hand and a bloated body, so does filth avenge itself by pestilence. Fever and cholera, as you would expect them to be, are the expression of God's judgment, God's opinion, God's handwriting on the wall against us for our sins of filth and laziness, foul air, foul food, foul drains, foul bedrooms. Where they are, there is cholera. Where they are not, there is none, and will be none, because they who do not break God's laws, God's laws will not break them. Oh! do not think me harsh, my friends; God knows it is no pleasant thing to have to speak bitter and upbraiding words; but when one travels about this noble land of England, and sees what a blessed place it might be, if we would only do God's will, and what a miserable place it is just because we will not do God's will, it is enough to make one's soul boil over with sorrow and indignation; and then when one considers that other men's faults are one's own fault too, that one has been adding to the heap of sins by one's own laziness, cowardice, ignorance, it is enough to break one's heart--to make one cry with St. Paul, "Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Ay, my friends, the state of things in England now is enough to drive an earnest man to despair, if one did not know that all our distresses, and this cholera, like the rest, are indeed GOD'S judgments; the judgments and expressed opinions, not of a capricious tyrant, but of a righteous and loving Father, who chastens us just because He loves us, and afflicts us only to teach us His will, which alone is life and happiness. Therefore we may believe that this very cholera is meant to be a blessing; that if we will take the lesson it brings, it will be a blessing to England. God grant that all ranks may take the lesson--that the rich may amend their idleness and neglect, and the poor amend their dirt and stupid ignorance; then our children will have cause to thank God for the cholera, if it teaches us that cleanliness is indeed next to holiness, if it teaches us, rich and poor, to make the workman's home what it ought to be. And believe me, my friends, that day will surely come; and these distresses, sad as they are for the time, are only helping to hasten it--the day when the words of the Hebrew prophets shall be fulfilled, where they speak of a state of comfort and prosperity, and civilisation, such as men had never reached in their time--how the wilderness shall blossom like the rose, and there shall be heaps of corn high on the mountain-tops, and the cities shall be green as grass on the earth, instead of being the smoky, stifling hot-beds of disease which they are now--and how from the city of God streams shall flow for the healing of the nations: strange words, those, and dim; too deep to be explained by any one meaning, or many meanings, such as our small minds can give them; but full of blessed cheering hope. For of whatever they speak, they speak at least of this--of a time when all sorrow and sighing shall be done away, when science and civilisation shall go hand in hand with godliness--when God shall indeed dwell in the hearts of men, and His kingdom shall be fulfilled among them, when "His ways shall be known upon earth at last, and His saving health among all nations"-- of a time when all shall know Him, from the least unto the greatest, and be indeed His children, doing no sin, because they will have given up themselves, their selfishness and cruelty and covetousness, and stupidity and laziness, to be changed and renewed into God's likeness. Then all these distresses and pestilences, which, as I have shown you, come from breaking the will of God, will have passed away like ugly dreams, and all the earth shall be blessed, because all the earth shall at last be fulfilling the words of the Lord's Prayer, and God's will shall be done on earth, even as it is done in heaven. Oh! my friends, have hope. Do you think Christ would have bid us pray for what would never happen? Would He have bid us all to pray that God's will might be done unless He had known surely that God's will would one day be done by men on earth below even as it is done in heaven?

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