Near the end of A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More has been languishing in prison for months, held for his refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his refusal to swear assent to the Act of Supremacy, which effectively made Henry head of the Church in England. Cut off from his family for what seems like an eternity, he receives one final visit from his loved ones, yet under a sinister aspect: his daughter Margaret has promised to get him to change his mind and swear to the Act.
Being one of the most learned women in England, she brings various arguments against his position so as to secure his compliance, yet in each instance he (being a lawyer through and through) gets the better of the argument.
Out of desperation, and sensing that she will fail and he will go to the block, Margaret makes one final, if somewhat facile appeal: if he elects to go to his death in this manner, he elects to make himself a martyr and thus a hero. If the State were even half-good he would be lifted high for his virtue, rather than rotting in jail. It is not his fault that the State is rotten through and through; as such, God cannot expect him to hold fast on a principle which shouldn’t even be an issue if the world were better.
Thomas’ words in response are immediately profound:
If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that abhorrence, anger, pride, and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice, and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little – even at the risk of being heroes.
The observation that the wicked often seem to have an easier go of things is one not unique to 16th century England, but has been a problem for both religion and philosophy from the beginning. In the Psalms we note the Psalmist’s distress over how the wicked appear to prosper in what they do:
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?” (Psalm 73:2-11 NIV)
In the face of this, trying to be upright in one’s ways can seem a fool’s errand, for in the temporal order of things goodness does not always seem to bring the same return as wickedness. And even though we should know better than to expect a one-to-one correspondence between sin (or lack thereof) and suffering, yet we cannot help but judge the world and its circumstances by such a criterion; isn’t that, after all, the criterion for justice?
It is around this criterion that Job’s famous complaint revolves, for even though he will argue with his friends about whether or not he has sinned, he yet shares the same expectation of sin and suffering as they do. Yet instead of admitting to any sin to account for his inexplicable suffering, his method is instead to take the Psalmist’s words upon his lips:
Why do the wicked live,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their offspring are established in their presence,
and their descendants before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them. (Job 21:7-9)
In the face of such incongruous evidence, and faced with suffering of one’s own, there lies the temptation to throw up one’s hand and give up in the quest for goodness. After all:
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments. (Psalm 73:13-14)
In the modern world we face no less temptation, for we are always presented with the narrow road that leads to salvation and the broad road that leads to destruction. And we humans are fickle and lazy creatures, for our natural tendency is to seek the path of least resistance, morally or not. Our rationality can be both the source of great virtue and the scourge of our destruction, for we find it all to easy to rationalize what we want to do. Any justification will suffice, and far too often we will even recruit God to give cover to do what we want, even if we know it is wrong.
But as St. More’s line indicates, being good is not always easy. In fact, not only should we expect it to be hard, but we should also expect it to bring along its share of difficulties that are not faced by those who take a different path. Rectitude of will requires one to fight against the path of least resistance, for our appetites (which have disproportionate influence over us) by default will seek to fulfill themselves. It is the part of reason- the difficult part of reason in our fallen state- to order them justly and rightly.
In many cases this will not necessarily meet with opposition from the world. St. Peter, in fact, says this:
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? (1 Peter 3:13 NIV)
Of course, St. Peter knows the world as St. More does, and thus in another place he clarifies:
But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20-23 NIV)
This is profound on a number of levels. Firstly, he mentions that if we are eager to do good, who would wish to harm us? What benefit accrues to someone who would harm those who may in fact be benefiting them personally or society corporately by their goodness? Yet St. peter is not naive, and recognizes that evil, at bottom, is essentially irrationality, and thus one should fully expect the fury and wrath of the unjust as a matter of course. Jesus, after all, was himself without sin, as St. Peter mentions. The entire point of the Incarnation was for the incomparable benefit of humankind. Yet even in the face of such infinite benevolence and love an innocent and upright man was brutally put to death.
However, St. Peter’s second point is even more profound, and slightly scary. He mentions that Jesus, who had no sin, was put to death. He then naturally continues by noting that such a state of affairs is one to which all who believe are called. To be the holy and chosen people of God is to enter into the sufferings of Christ, to bear the mockery and scorn and bruisings that the world, acting like a petulant and spoiled child, will bring against this whole follow Christ. St. Peter is merely echoing the words of Jesus:
Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. (John 15:20-21 NIV)
To follow Christ, to do what is right- this is not an easy task, and requires, as St. More exclaims, that we must “stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes.” To do what is right will always be an uphill struggle for us, for not only do we live in a world which is not even close to being half-good, we also constantly face the inner disposition to take the easy way out, to walk the path of least resistance.
We find it far easier to rationalize our sins than to avoid them and choose to do what is right.
Indeed, there can seem little comfort in doing what is right, when to all appearances the wicked seem to have the better deal. The scriptural exhortation to endure suffering with joy and to even accept it at all stands in marked contrast to our natural predilections. What is needed, ultimately, is a change of appearances, or better yet, to see through appearances altogether and come into the clarity of reality. One the most striking exhortations to endure suffering is comes from the pen of the author of Hebrews who states:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Hebrews 12:4-6 NIV)
In some inexplicable way, when we suffer for doing right it is God’s way of disciplining us, of making us more and more into the sons he wishes us to be. From the world perspective which balks at the prosperity of the wicked this makes absolutely no sense; why would God discipline us for doing right? Why should we endure suffering to bring about a greater rectitude of the will?
But as the same author goes on to state, seen from a perspective that looks beyond appearances it has deeper meaning:
If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:8-11 NIV)
Discipline is painful because pain is the only thing that can shake us from our complacent and compel us to improve ourselves. In any area of our lives we must undergo pain to improve and develop, whether the natural pains we experience as our bodies grow or the calloused fingers in learning an instrument or the fatigue from the time spent in building a business. In fact, it is only the truly worthwhile things that we are willing to suffer pain for, and, as the author of Hebrews indicates, none of these things come close to comparing to the value of being a true son of God.
To experience suffering for doing what is right is unpleasant, but if we can see past the appearances and our worldly expectations, we are greeted with a startling revelation: God only disciplines those who loves and accepts as sons. To suffer for doing what is right, to whatever extent that might be, is in some way proof that we are accepted by God, the demonstration of a familial relationship. Jesus’ narrow path which is so difficult to walk is the only path on which we will actually walk with God.
The end result of discipline is that we can come to grips with the tugging of our appetites and the allure of the world and its ways and hold our heads up and stand fast a little. Any discipline is meant to eventually end in mastery, and this life is meant to be a training ground for virtue. Every day we are faced with another test, another chance to stand fast and hold our ground; yes, even at the risk of being heroes. But as with any discipline, the more one disciplines oneself, the more the discipline itself comes to be second nature. We were meant for virtue, and God’s chastisement of us is intended to bring us fully into who and what he created us to be.
Seen from that perspective, choosing to do what is right is in actuality the path of least resistance towards holiness, rather than kicking at the goads so as to indulge our own desires or to go along with the world. When we see the wicked prosper it can be a source of grief, but those who have chosen to stand fast a little and submit to God’s discipline and to choose to do what is right know that the world and its desires are passing away, whereas an abundance of righteousness that lasts forever is waiting ahead.
In the final exchange between Margaret and Thomas More, Margaret asks him if there is really any reason behind is decision, and if so, hasn’t God already asked him to do as much as he should, within reason? More replies:
Well, finally… it isn’t a matter of reason. Finally, it’s a matter of love.