“It has never been easy to obey our Lord’s commands.”

The terrible thing about the modern world is that disobedience of God’s commandments carries far more widespread consequences than it used to carry.

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“It has never been easy to obey our Lord’s commands.”

These simple, straightforward words jump off the page no matter where we read them. Although they would probably jump even higher off the page if they were to appear on the front page news, or the sports section, or the entertainment section, or the financial section, or the gourmet section, or the leisure section, or any of the advertisements. And yet everything we read only affirms the truth of those words, because by all accounts, what comes much easier is anger, pride, lust, avarice, gluttony, sloth, and envy. The world clearly is not geared toward keeping our Lord’s commands. It puts the Church in a rather contrarian position most of the time. But it is a collision we should welcome.

There is a lovely scene in the novel Vespers in Vienna (by the Scottish convert Bruce Marshall, a very Chestertonian writer whom I highly recommend). In post-World War II Austria, some English soldiers in charge of managing the peace, find themselves assigned to be housed in a convent. The colonel meets with the Mother Superior, with the intent of laying down the law, but of course, the nun turns the tables on him. She correctly reads his mental reservations about the value of cloistered women who have devoted their lives to prayer and who don’t seem to have any practical purpose in the world. She says to him:

“It has never been easy to obey our Lord’s commands.”

The words jumped off the page when I read them. Especially in light of what the nun goes on to say,

that even when Europe was largely Christian it was not easy to obey our Lord’s commands, but now it is even worse. As the we have drifted away from a Christian society, our supposedly enlarged understanding of things has made us more skeptical about God. We look through a telescope and somehow conclude that Christ did not die for our sins and did not rise from the dead. And so Materialism’s gift to the modern world is to make it more difficult to obey the Lord.

There are two motives, she says, for obeying the Lord: the first is love, the second is fear. In general, more people have obeyed because of the second than because of the first. Those who used to obey out of love, still do so, “but those who used to obey because of what they were afraid was going to happen to them in the next world if they didn’t, no longer do so, because the clever men have told them that the next world does not exist and that consequently after death there is neither reward of virtue nor chastisement of sin. You may not perhaps think that these things are very important but if you wish to save European civilisation, you will be foolish not to think so.

For the terrible thing about the modern world is that disobedience of God’s commandments carries far more widespread consequences than it used to carry. Lust of possession and of power, lying, thieving, stealing, there have always been in the world, but in the Middle Ages their range of effect was less widespread, because man had not yet learned to counsel their practice simultaneously to millions or to destroy simultaneously other millions who resisted their particular disobedience of God because they wished to carry out another themselves.”

In other words, better communication, more advanced technology, greater political power, and more wide-ranging cultural influences have not only lulled away the fear of God but have made the consequences of disobeying God much more extensive. And so, what is the more practical approach? If no one is doing the praying, no one obeying God out of love, no one pleading for his mercy on a world that has forgotten him, what hope is there? Why dig oneself out from under the rubble of war? Why even bury the burnt bodies? Why rebuild civilization?

The colonel realizes he has no answer. But the nun catches herself sermonizing and apologizes. She humbly wonders if perhaps it is her own fault, and that of all the priests and nuns who should be responsible for getting the rest of the world to listen to God and obey him more. “You see, we have such avery wonderful thing to say and we say it so badly.”

Bruce Marshall’s 1947 novel is prophetic. The materialist philosophy has continued to wreak havoc on the world, making it even easier to pursue the seven deadly sins rather to obey the commands of Christ. We do not consider the consequences of our actions and so the world is in a bigger mess than ever. Both figuratively and literally, both theoretically and practically, both culturally and politically, we sit on a pile of explosives, playing with matches. The solution to our problems, however, remains the same: Obey the commands of our Lord.

A generation before Bruce Marshall, G.K. Chesterton also saw that it was not easy. In fact, achieving this true ideal might even be impossible. Impossible, he says, but not insane. “It is rather sanity preached to a planet of lunatics.” 

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About Dale Ahlquist 50 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.