And I set my face to the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes:
That is a good word about the young Hebrew, Daniel — it says so much. "I set my face to the Lord God." And that is the real question about life: which way are you facing; in which direction are you really looking and living? Righteousness, not a position, but a direction. Let me first make this distinction plain, and then you will see the importance of it. The common idea, then, of the difference between right and wrong is that right and wrong are two, separate territories as it were, and that there is a boundary line dividing them, like the frontier line between two countries, and that anywhere on the right side of that boundary line is right. Or, people figure particular sins as if they were separate provinces in the general territory of wrong, each sin with its own boundary line, on one side of which you are in sin — but that so long as you have not actually crossed that line into sin, you are all right. And a great deal of the moral discussion of the world has been spent on trying to map out these exact lines where the right ends and the wrong begins, the line up to which you may go without sinning. Well, that seems very plausible — and yet a glance into real life, and at some of the very commonest matters of right and wrong, is sufficient to show that at any rate there is a great deal of life in which it is quite impossible to draw any such distinct lines between right and wrong! Try to draw the line between industry and idleness, and to say exactly how industrious a man ought to be in order not to be counted an idler. But you cannot do it! Or, take selfishness. Who can lay down exactly how far I ought to consider myself, and mark the point at which selfishness begins; or how far I ought to do what I like, or how far give up to others? Why it cannot be done, if you were to argue about it for a year! Or, take such constantly present questions as that of right and wrong in eating and drinking, or any kind of indulgence. Is there any clear line to be drawn between what is temperate and what is intemperate? Certainly covetousness is a sin. But where exactly does it begin to be so? So it is, palpably, with regard to a great deal of right and wrong. But really, it is so even in things which at first sight look so clear and distinct in their moral outline that you are apt to say — that there can be no haziness or uncertainty in them. Take truth, for instance, or honesty. Truth is apt to look just as exact and precise as a mathematical figure — whether a thing is true or not true, whether you are telling the truth or not — it seems as if it ought to be possible to define that anyhow. And honesty! Is anyone going to say that honesty and dishonesty shade off into one another — why it seems like sapping the very clearest distinction of morality. And yet it is so. No exact line can be drawn in either matter. If you had been sheltering a fugitive slave in the old days of slavery, would truth make it your duty to answer the question if he was with you? Or, if you are bargaining about some goods you want to sell, does honesty require you to tell everything you know to their disadvantage, or is it enough if you answer truly every actual question that is asked you? Must truth be told to criminals when it will help them in a crime? And so I might go through every part of human conduct, and the more closely you look into it, the more you will find that there is no such thing as drawing any absolute line between right and wrong anywhere. But what does that mean? That, therefore, there is not any real difference between them, or that the distinction between them is imperceptible? Not for a moment. The difference between right and wrong is the most tremendous distinction in the world. No distinction of painful or pleasant can compare with it — only it is not of that sort There comes in the thought — and I think it is a helpful thought, that it is not a difference of place or position, but of direction. A single illustration gives it to you at once. It is simply like the difference between east and west. Is there any dividing line between east and west? No! Who can tell where the east stops and the west begins? No one; and yet does that mean that there is no difference between east and west, or that it is a hazy, obscure difference? Not at all. Simply it is this same difference not of two places, but of two directions. You cannot possibly draw a dividing line between east and west, but you can tell in a moment whether you are going east or west, or whether your face is set towards the east or towards the west. And so, though there never was a line drawn which could divide exactly right from wrong, you can tell in a moment whether you are living in the direction of right or in the direction of wrong. There, then, is thee true distinction — and now let us follow it out a little and see the importance of it. For it begins at the very beginning of life, and it lies at the root of all clear, strong righteousness. And, on the other hand, that idea that righteousness consists in not crossing some dividing line into wrong, is just the most treacherous and fertile source of wrong. As long as one fancies that sin only begins at some distinct line, one is tempted to go just as near that line as one can — while really the sin is begun, and going on all the time that one is facing that way! You can see how this works, from the cradle up. You mothers — you tell your little child, playing about you as you work, not to go out of the room. And it goes to the door — and it looks out — and if you speak it says, "I didn't go out." And then it puts one foot just on the threshold — very likely looking at you all the while — and then ventures it a little further, — and still, when you shake your head, it says, "I haven't gone out!" Do you know why it is so hard to teach children the true lesson — not merely to keep from crossing some actual line of wrong, but to keep from looking that way, or going that way at all? Because so many of those who want children to be taught that lesson have not learned it themselves! Men and women are constantly just like that little child. They do not intend to sin, or at least they feel they must not, and. they think they will not. But they will look towards it, and they will go to the very edge of it, and look over, and perhaps put one foot on the very threshold — and yet if conscience brings them up with a round turn, they try to justify themselves by saying that they have not actually crossed the line! That is how nine-tenths of the world's sinning comes! Young men, don't you know how this often works in a young man's life — this trying how near one can go to the edge of sin without actually going over the edge? A young fellow comes up from school, or from some country home, to take his place in the great world, and the false glamour of it by and by begins to get hold of him. But he does not mean to sin; he has grace enough to shrink from that. No — he won't sin, be says; but he begins to go with those who do; he hears them talk and brag of the pleasures they have; he half envies them the daring with which they sin — and he will go to places where it is all about — and still when conscience comes in, in quiet hours, he tries to take some poor comfort by making believe with himself that he has not actually sinned. Sinned? Why, his whole attitude is sin. His face and his heart are set towards sin all the time. And it is the same all through life. Just look up the record of any ten men who have got into jail, and. you will find that nine out of the ten were led the first stops of the way which brought them there by that mischievous idea that there was some dead-line of sin, which if they did not cross, they would be right. And not only is this the source of actual crime — and of what the world definitely labels sin — but also it is the source of all the poor, unworthy life that there is in the world. The people who are not exactly thieves — but who will take an advantage of you if they can; the people who oven while they are working have not their hearts really set to work, but are facing towards idleness and amusement; that character which in business is always "sailing rather close to the wind," and, still more common in the world, that kind of life which perhaps plumes itself on never breaking a commandment or doing anything wrong, and yet that has no real love of goodness, no genuine desire for goodness — that is the kind of life which keeps the world back, and keeps the church back, and keeps the tone of society low and mean. Friends, this is God's call to us. Not just to keep from certain forbidden things, or from crossing some actual line of sin — but to set our faces clear the other way — towards right, towards all the just, pure, kind, godly life. It is Christ and all His setting forth of life that have brought this out fully for us — no longer law, but love, no longer the mere keeping from a certain list of forbidden things, but, active, forward-looking service. That is the secret of effective life and of happy life to keep righteousness before us as the whole direction of our living. There is not a day, hardly an hour, but this principle — of righteousness being not a position, but a direction — comes in. It cuts right through the moral casuistry by which the steps of duty so easily get entangled, in discussing just how far this or that way may be pursued without some actual sin! Then does righteousness, in this thought of it, become not a drag, but a motive power, not a restraint, but an inspiration, not condemnation, but glory! I do not say that it is easy; there is no way of looking at it that can make righteousness easy. One may set one's face ever so earnestly in the right direction, and still the tempting passions will allure and the weak resolution will flag and stumble. The Roman moralist confessed that while he loved the better, he sometimes followed the worse — and even Paul himself says that though he delights in the law of God after the inward man, yet he finds another law in his members bringing him into captivity to sin and death. No! There is no grand moral victory even that way, even by facing the right way — and still, it is the only really onward way at all — and with the heart and face set really towards right and God, strength must keep growing — and the sense of a Divine help that will not give us up, and the upward way becomes not quite so hard; and even through clinging weakness and sin, to keep the heart still set towards the right is itself — no! not victory, but the promise of some final victory, the prophecy of how at last we may be lifted out of the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God!
(Brooke Herford, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: