“Depart from evil, and do good; and dwell forevermore.” – Psalm 37:27
These words set forth in briefest form the true order of spiritual growth and progress. The first thing for everyone to do in the work of his regeneration is to depart from evil. Then, and not till then, can he in any genuine sense do good. But the result of his departure from evil is that he is blessed with eternal happiness; in heaven he “dwells forevermore.”
Why is it that the shunning of evil must be the first step in a man’s progress toward heaven? It is because by nature he is inclined to evil. This is his inheritance from his ancestors of many generations. We all find ourselves disposed to be selfish rather than unselfish, and inclined to follow our own unbridled will rather than to listen to the wise counsel of others. Also we are inclined to be proud and self-confident and to ascribe to ourselves the merit of well-doing, rather than to be humble and to give to the Lord His proper place as the center and source of all goodness. We are not born into a state of actual evil or sin, but with tendencies to evil.
Accordingly we are subject to temptations, which we remember as among our first experiences. We want to do that which we should not do. Our thought is for self and for having our own way even though we do not have enough knowledge to enable us to see what is right or wrong, good or bad.
An important point, often overlooked, is that one’s life does not consist merely or mainly in his outward deeds. What he does is of little consequence as compared with what he thinks and feels. Under the pressure of public opinion or of restrictions imposed by law he may, for appearances’ sake, conduct himself with external propriety. Eager for the applause of men and for the influence he may gain over them, a man may even become conspicuous for benevolent deeds although he has no genuine love of others in his heart.
It is, of course, better to do good than to do evil, whatever the inward state may be. In such ways the Lord makes the evil serve uses. And also so far as evil is not allowed to break out in outward deeds, a step is taken toward the amendment of life, for both the will and the understanding do not consent to the evil. Yet it must not be forgotten that evil is not removed by merely cleansing the outside of the cup and platter. Our prayer should be, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” As long as we willfully cherish evil affections in our souls, the good that we do is not really good, for nothing but the external restraints that are brought to bear upon us keeps us from a life of open and avowed sinfulness.
For this reason we are commanded to shun evils. And they should be shunned not because they bring unpleasant consequences but because they are in themselves sinful and abominable. No merely natural motive will induce anyone to shun any sins except those which bring him into disfavor. But if he looks above this world and seeks to live not for time but for eternity, he will have regard to his internal as well as to his external life; he will know that his everlasting happiness depends on the way in which his heart and mind stand related to goodness and truth, or to the Lord, who is goodness and truth. This is the same thing as saying that evils must be shunned as sins against God. Whoever shuns them in this way really shuns them, and the good that he does is really good, for he does it not from himself but from the Lord. That is, he acts not from the desire of his unregenerate will, but from a humble regard for the will of Him whom he acknowledges as the source of all goodness and wisdom.
Shun evils because they are sins against God. Do good because it is of and from Him. These are the two fundamental principles that lie at the foundation of human order and happiness. They are applicable to all situations and circumstances in which we may find ourselves. They enter into every possible relationship between man and man. Obedience to them is genuine charity, and without them so-called charity is but vanity and emptiness. And the two are in reality but one, for so far as we shun evil as sin against the Lord we must desire to do good from Him: in proportion as we are emptied of self, the Divine life of love and peace must flow in to take its place.
It is a significant fact that most of the ten commandments are prohibitions. They do not tell us what we must do but what we must not do. “Thou shalt not.” There can be no accident in the use of this phraseology. The reason why the commandments assume the negative form of expression is that men are naturally inclined to commit the evils which are there forbidden, and that therefore the beginning of their progress toward heaven must be by shunning them in affection, thought, and deed. They must refrain not only from the outward acts forbidden but from the motives – anger, hatred, envy, lust, covetousness – which if unchecked would lead to murder, adultery, theft, and so on. The precepts concerning covetousness show in the very surface of the letter the necessity of guarding our hearts and minds against all envious and evil desires.
Far deeper meanings than these can be found in the ten commandments, but these must be obvious to everyone and will serve as an illustration of the fact that in obeying or disobeying them we obey or disobey the Lord. The commandments were given to establish a direct personal relationship between ourselves and the Lord. So they are called a covenant between God and man. It is a truth of universal experience that good and truth find their way into the mind just in the proportion that the opposing evils are cast out. And the sole fountain of goodness and truth is the Lord Himself. Thus He fulfills His part of the covenant by communicating to man, in response to his cooperative efforts, those influences which can alone fill his life with genuine and lasting happiness.
When we shun evils as sins against God, we do not ascribe goodness or merit to ourselves, for we shun evil as sin against Him when He is considered as embodying in Himself all that is opposed to evil. We cannot claim any goodness as our own, for He is goodness itself, nor any truth of our own, for He is truth itself. In Him likewise is all power. Whatever goodness, truth, or power manifests itself in us is therefore not our own, but His. He gives it to us as our own, but it is none the less His. The fact that we are created free and rational beings does not change the prior fact that He is the one source of life and of all that makes life desirable. The most that anyone can say is that by virtue of the strength which the Lord continually imparts, he is able to cooperate with Him in what He is ever doing for his salvation. But the work itself and the glory of it is the Lord’s.
The commandments were given for everyday life. Some say that they are impractical for the work-a-day world. But it is the violation of them that brings all the misery and suffering both individual and international.
In the home and family these laws hold. Impatience, discontent, envy, disregard of others’ comfort and pleasure and want of appreciation of their kindness – does not the removal of such impediments as these promote the happiness of a home?
We are apt to think that the bestowing of gifts and the exercise of the usual courtesies will show our affection and regard. But such external acts are as nothing in comparison to the endeavor to shun the evils to which we are inclined.
This should be a simple and obvious principle of life. He who would do good to others must begin by shunning evils in himself. As the Scriptures teach, it is idle to pretend to be the Lord’s disciple if we are unwilling to shun as sins the evils forbidden in His precepts.
This is the doctrine of life, and we should be grateful that we are able to know, understand, and apply it. It leads us into no strange paths, it lays upon us the burden of no extraordinary achievements, but it shows us how to live rightly, enabling us in the performance of our everyday duties to fill a useful place in the world. The Divine laws are no theoretical laws but are eternal laws which, if kept in acknowledgment of the Lord their Source, enable Him to come in to us and gift us with something of His glory, joy, and peace. That is why they were given.