Whence knowest thou thy misery?
Out of the law of God.
What doth the law require of us?
Christ teaches us that briefly,, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. “
Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?
In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and the neighbor.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2
Misery. . . .
We plunge, as it were, from the ecstatic heights of an only, all inclusive comfort into the depths of abject misery. Our Book of Instruction spoke in Lord’s Day I of an only comfort in life and death, both for body and soul. With hearts indebted to our God we confessed that we possess that only comfort, since we are not “our own, but belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” He is the Savior of our souls, the Savior of our bodies, our Savior now, in the hour of death, and even into all eternity. The very thought floods our souls with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Now we speak not of the misery of a sin-cursed world which we see round about us, but our misery. Not our past misery, as some would like to think who speak of conversion as a complete deliverance from the power of sin. They say the converted sinner is now a saint to whom the very thought of sin is foreign, so that with a bit of effort he need never sin any more. But our fathers speak of our present misery, the misery we experience as believers in Christ Jesus who are still surrounded by an evil world, with sin still warring in their members. It is the misery which only the child of God can know and can confess. We are confronted with our misery; my misery, your misery, which created a daily tension in this body of sin and death.
The plunge from the blessedness of an only comfort into the depths of conscious misery, of which I spoke a moment ago, is actually not as great as one might imagine. In fact, we are still fully aware of that only, all-sufficient comfort, but we are focusing our attention on one aspect of it. Comfort implies misery, for even a child who has hurt himself will flee to mother for a comforting word or kiss. In the previous Lord’s Day we confessed just that when we said that our comfort consists in knowing how great our sins and miseries are, as well as knowing how we are delivered from our sins and miseries, and how we shall show true gratitude to God for such deliverance.
Our Catechism makes itself very bold here. It does not ask whether we are miserable, but rather assumes that we are. It does not ask whether we have learned to understand our misery, but again assumes that we do. It does not speak of the groaning of all humanity in that broad sense of the word, but speaks specifically of your and my experience of misery. We could readily lose ourselves in a discussion of all the world’s ills, considering the massive destruction of warfare with all its accompanying grief as experienced in the many war torn countries of the world. We could linger over the race problem, the woeful poverty in many lands, the crowded hospitals, the cries of anguish that arise in prisons and mental institutions, or the moanings of the dying in rest homes. We share that misery with the rest of humanity. But our misery reaches much deeper into our souls than the mere outward sufferings which are the result of sin in the world. We are concerned about the problem of sin itself, with its accompanying guilt and depravity. We cry out to God, “Against Thee have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight. Yea, I am conceived in sin, and born in iniquity.” Our Catechism is well aware of that anxious cry that arises from the soul of every true believer, and therefore it confronts us with the question: Whence knowest thou thy misery?” Where did you obtain your information? What is the constant source of your knowledge?
The Word of God. . . .
I may be anticipating a bit, but one can hardly refrain from expressing a pleasant surprise, that here already our fathers call our attention to the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. It is one of the outstanding features of our Catechism, that it refers so repeatedly to the Scriptures as the means whereby God bestows His grace upon us. In this Lord’s Day our Catechism points out that we draw the knowledge of our misery from the Word of God. In Lord’s Day 6 we are given to confess that we know the only Mediator, in Whom is the fulness of our salvation, from the holy gospel. Lord’s Day 7 speaks of the contents of our faith as including “all things promised to us in the gospel.” Lord’s Day 21 teaches us that it is by His Spirit and Word that the Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves His church. Lord’s Day 25 speaks of the preaching of the gospel as the chief means of grace. Lord’s Day 31 refers to the preaching of the holy gospel as the chief key of the kingdom of heaven. And Lord’s Day 33 speaks of the law of God as the rule of thankfulness, while Lord’s Day 45 implies that we are taught to pray by the Spirit through the means of the Scriptures.
Pardon this slight diversion. I realize that Lord’s Day 2 does not speak of the Word, but rather of the law of God. But it must become evident to us almost at once, that the mere ten commandments as given on tables of stone at Mount Sinai is not meant here. Our fathers give us a summary of those ten commandments, taken from the mouth of Jesus Himself, Who also tells us that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This can only mean all the Scriptures proclaim the law of God, which is rooted in the principle of love to God. By the law, that is, by the Holy Scriptures is the knowledge of sin.
“The woman Thou gavest me. . . .”
We are all aware that when Adam spoke these words immediately after the fall, he did this as a subterfuge. Although he had to admit that he was guilty of eating of the forbidden tree, he nevertheless could not refrain from looking askance. at Eve as the one who tempted him. It was “the woman Thou gavest to me that did tempt me, and I did eat.” Let it be, that Adam revealed his depraved nature by hiding behind this flimsy excuse, there is nevertheless truth in what he said. It was, after all, the woman that God gave him who presented him with the forbidden fruit and lured him to eat. This does tell us something about sin and the law.
Adam had received a most cherished gift from the Lord. Almost immediately after he stepped forth from the hand of the Creator into conscious life he realized that, although he was perfect, there was still a definite lack in his life. He became the more aware of this as he walked about the garden, gasping in wonder at its amazing splendor, taking special note of the animals who were all created in pairs, male and female. The animals had their mates, but Adam had none. Yet he had been created with a definite need for a mate, physically, psychologically, but also spiritually. Not another man would do; not another king over the earthly creation. He needed a wife, one who was in every way sufficiently like him to share his life with him, yet also sufficiently different, that she could be subject to him and a helper to him. He needed one whose very nature would cause her to lose herself in her husband, even as Adam found all the fulness of his life in God. This is true still today, women’s lib notwithstanding. God gave him Eve, taken from his rib, under his heart. She could share his life in intimate communion of nature and of love. In her Adam’s life was complete. Together they walked, and talked, and enjoyed each other’s fellowship of love, so that they needed each other, as a reflection of man’s need for covenant fellowship with God. And then, a short time after, the blow fell. Eve had gone her own way, to consort with the devil, with the result that the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life so completely, overpowered her that her hand went out to the luscious fruit of the forbidden tree. She ate and suddenly realized that the spiritual bond as the basis for her marriage was broken by her own sinful act. A breach was fallen between her and her sinless husband, making it impossible for them to live in intimate fellowship together any longer. The helper became the temptress, a tool of Satan to draw her husband away from God into the fellowship of sin and darkness. The woman God gave him became his downfall. The great joy in his life aided to bring him into abject misery.
The lesson to be learned is that God’s law is not a mere code of ethics which can be changed from time to time to suit our desires, or which can be broken with impunity. Traffic laws are often changed, and if not changed are still often broken without serious consequences, because the traffic officer did not happen to see it. God is the unchangeable God of heaven and earth. He is the living God, Whose holiness requires that He be loved, obeyed, and served. God’s law is the will of God concerning every one of His creatures. For example, God laid down certain laws that a farmer must recognize and keep. The farmer must sow his seed in the springtime if he expects to gather a crop in the autumn. The soil must be prepared to receive the seed; rain and sunshine must come at the proper time and in the right amount. God, Who controls the seasons, also controls the seed that is planted in the earth, and thus carries out His own law by bringing forth a harvest. Keeping God’s law is a matter of life; breaking it brings death. The fish swims at liberty in the water, but deprived of that liberty it soon dies. Also in regard to God’s moral law, the man who keeps it lives and walks at liberty, the soul that sins must die. God’s law for man, who is created in the image of God, is that he shall love the Lord his God with all his heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. We must love God as husband and wife, as parents and children, as boy friend and girlfriend, even in every relationship of life. The husband and father who provides for all the needs of his family out of the selfish motive of their temporal welfare not only makes himself guilty of sin, but becomes a bad influence for his family. The mother who fails to perform her household task in love to God, no matter how faithfully she serves her family, is still guilty of sin and influencing others to sin, even as “the woman thou gavest me.” There is not a phase of our lives that God’s law does not touch, always with the calling to be friend-servants of God.
Canst thou . . . ?
The very thought causes me to hang my head in shame. Do I keep all these things, applying God’s law of love to every phase of my life? The answer is obvious: my desires, my thoughts, my ambitions, my words, acts and deeds, even at their best, are sinful. In fact, I find this rebel in me, that when I see a “Wet Paint” sign I have an urge to touch it. God’s law arouses the lion of sin in me.
But that is not even the question: Do I? The question is: Can I keep God’s law? Can I keep it perfectly? That perfectly bothers me. I might venture the excuse: I try. The law of God shakes its head, as it were, in disapproval. My conscience argues with me, because of the wrong I do, and God’s law frowns on me. Canst thou keep God’s law perfectly? It is perfectly, or not at all, for one single transgression against any one of the commandments reveals my lack of love to God, like the unfaithful thought of a wife against her husband. I am evil, born in sin. God requires truth within.
When I place myself before the mirror of God’s law, I see myself as I really am, and am forced to cry out: “O wretched man! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” I am prone, that is, I am lying flat on my face, prone to evil, so that I only do evil continuously.
There is only one redeeming feature. That is, that this applies to me according to my sinful nature. By nature I am prone to all evil. The new man in Christ flees to the cross, to cling to the cross. God forbid that I should ever glory apart from that cross, in which is all my salvation.