Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"The Thing My God Doth Hate"

The thing my God doth hate
That I no more may do,
Thy creature, Lord, again create,
And all my soul renew:
My soul shall then, like Thine,
Abhor the thing unclean,
And, sanctified by love divine,
For ever cease from sin.

That blessed law of Thine,
Jesus, to me impart:
The Spirit's law of life divine,
O write it in my heart!
Implant it deep within,
Whence it may ne'er remove;
The law of liberty from sin,
The perfect law of love.

Thy nature be my law,
Thy spotless sanctity,
And sweetly every moment draw
My happy soul to Thee.
Soul of my soul remain!
Who didst for all fulfil,
In me, O Lord, fulfil again
Thy heavenly Father's will.

This is one of Charles Wesley's shorter and simpler hymns and, perhaps with reason, one of his lesser known ones. A fairly good part of the reason for its forgotten status is our habit of identifying songs by their first line. "The Thing My God Doth Hate" is not a very encouraging beginning. If you were going to get modern people to sing it, you would have to entirely recast it. And add a chorus. Because choruses make everything better. Seriously.

However, whether anyone ever sings it or not, there is something of value to be gained from this hymn. And that something of value is the solution to one of the primary problems of modern Christianity--also, coincidentally, one of the central ideas of Wesleyan theology.

Modern Christianity confronts a serious problem as it tries to win the world (I would say the "modern" world, but I don't think this is a specifically modern problem). Many people do not believe Christ can really do in His people what His people claim He can--but this is not the problem I mean. The problem is that so many people do not want it done, even if it could be done. It is not just that people do not believe in God or His gift, but that they do not want the gift. Christianity claims broadly to give men the power to be "good." But who wants to be good? The tagline for a children's video game put the modern attitude very well: "It's good to be bad." The promised virtues of Christianity seem repulsive and distasteful and even, to some, positively immoral. The world sees traditional Christian ideals of good and right as irksome, meaningless burdens--and Christians, being the obliging people they are, often agree. The proud man calls meekness 'lack of spirit.' The vengeful man calls forgiveness 'weakness.' The egoist calls charity 'bleeding-heart liberalism' or, sometimes, 'hard-nosed conservatism.' (It varies.) And for every such man, there will be some Christians who will echo his cry out of social sympathy. To all such people, the whole Christian claim to allow men to become good seems a mockery. To them, even if it were possible, it would be a continual frustration of natural inclination, a continual quashing of their ideals, a sort of insane hypocrisy in which one pretends to hate what they love and love what they hate. They feel--and some Christians seem to feel--that even if we pursue virtue as a necessity, we ought to be able to have a holiday of sin every once and a while. I was recently in a service where a preacher was illustrating the armor of God by dressing his young son in pieces of armor. The piece representing the Breastplate of Righteousness was an over-sized, heavy net of chain mail, rather two large for the boy--and when his father asked if he wanted to wear it, he replied with a firm no. And many people today, when offered the Breastplate of Righteousness, respond the same way.

This is the present state of affairs in the world and the church and there is only one answer to it. That answer begins with God: "Thy nature... Thy spotless sanctity." God's nature is the source and standard of all things. We can make up our own terms for virtue just like we made up the names of the numbers, but we cannot change what virtue is any more than we can stop 2 and 2 from equaling 4. God's nature is the only standard by which anything can be judged and which predates all judgments. We can chose to dislike it, but we cannot rationally call it wrong or bad--since it alone gives a standard by which to call anything wrong or bad.

If there is a God--if there is a transcendent standard by which all things and all standards are judged--then our tasks, as contingent creatures, is to submit to and align with that standard. We ought to hate "The thing my God doth hate... Abhor the thing unclean." To do otherwise nearly amounts to a contradiction in terms.

But that truth is that we often don't see it that way. Often the thing God requires--the thing which is, therefore, in the nature of things necessarily required--seems hard and repellant. I am not talking about moments when there is an honest question about what is the right thing. Nor do I mean those time when some other thing interferes to make our task difficult, as weariness makes it hard to perform an act of charity which, otherwise, we would delight in doing. That is a a different matter. What I mean is that often the very essence of what God says we should do is not what we want to do, and may seems, superficially, like something we ought not to do. For instance, a man whose friends or family have been grievously hurt by someone may feel that to forgive the wrong doer is a sort of betrayal to those hurt. Or, again, to do an act of charity to someone who doesn't deserve it may seem like a kind of impurity, a defiling of value. (Remember how the Priest and the Levite refused to help the injured man on the Jericho Road?) Even if we do the right thing under these circumstances, it may seem like a burden and we just wish for one minute God would turn His back so we could do what we really want.

There are two solutions to this attitude. One is intellectual and primarily involves reading the Bible and blog posts like this one. But the other side is the deeper and more fundamental side--and it is the side which this hymn speaks of. We naturally have some knowledge of and desire for virtue (=Preveneint Grace), but the natural man's knowledge is spotty and corrupted by his nature. The only solution is a whole, new start. "Thy creature, Lord, again create,/And all my soul renew." This is the promise of Christianity and, especially, of Wesleyan theology--that we can be remade like God; that we may be "sanctified by love divine." Mere conformity to the law, even when possible, would be misery. Paul makes this clear in Romans 7. Whether Paul speaks there of sinners or Christians is irrelevant--probably he means both--the point is simply that merely having a law of right and wrong is not enough to change us and make us obey the law and, certainly, not happy in obeying it. There is only one answer: "That blessed law of Thine,/Jesus, to me impart:/The Spirit's law of life divine,/O write it in my heart." Our only hope and duty is to be filled with and transformed into the image of God, so that we love what God loves and hates what God hates.

Many people have understood that man, as a transitory, contingent creature had a duty to align himself to transcendent, objective reality. But the message of Christianity is something more than that. We do not conform to reality by our own efforts nor does impersonal reality somehow coerce us. Our power is Jesus--"Soul of my soul." In His life and death He "didst for all fulfil"--learning obedience by what He suffered, doing the Father's will. If He is born in our hearts, then in "Thy heavenly Father's will" will be done, in us as it is in Heaven.

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