MAD DOGS AND TEN-FOOT CHAINS
It’s often been said (and rightly but within definite limits!) that we can’t legislate morality. We can’t make people good by issuing laws. We might be able to stop criminals committing crimes by issuing laws (and by a police presence to enforce the laws) but we can’t turn them into people that don’t want to break the law simply by making more and more laws. There’s so much truth in that. In fact, it’s probably true that one of the markers of a society’s wickedness is the huge number of its laws. Laws in a very real sense are for the law-breakers (compare 1 Timothy 1:9). [Still, we sometimes make laws that are so unjust that they encourage law-breaking and we could with effort make laws that would encourage honor and shape characters of righteounsess.]
It’s clearly true that the man that longs to do evil and only keeps from it because he’s afraid of being punished is an evil man (compare Matthew 5:22,32). If we’re compelled to pass close to a mad and lunging dog that’s chained by a ten-foot chain to a stout post, it isn’t the dog’s disposition we’re thankful for. The savage animal straining at the chain is the same animal chained or unchained. We breathe a word of thanks for the chain and hurry on by.
It might be true that we all know people who act friendly toward us but we know (in various ways) that if it were not for prudence’s sake they’d gut us. We might even have been such people. Horrors—might even be such people. In any case, to cherish the evil is to be evil; and for all our politeness and surface smiles the seeds of corruption breed and multiply in the dark below.
There are good reasons to be thankful that fear and prudence keep us from immoral and criminal behavior. If nothing else, there are those that go happily on their way, not being brutalized, because there's a "ten-foot chain." And I know that if some of us weren’t restrained by realities external to us that we would do evil and that might lead to other evils and we might well plunge into an abyss from which there is no recovery. At least, if we are restrained we might at some point change and become good people whose restraints are in our hearts and gladly chosen.
Fear is no bad thing unless it has become a bad thing—morbid, paralysing or the sole motivation from which we act. Fear puts traffic lights at busy crossroads; fear puts lifeboats on ocean-going liners; fear builds hospitals, organizes fire-fighting teams and funds sensible and needed medical research. No bad thing fear. It's one of God’s gifts. But if that’s all there is to us, then we’re pretty poor human beings. Other gifts must be received with thanksgiving and cultivated if we’re to be morally mature people.
And those who would govern essentially by fear are poor leaders. I think I know some people whose central word is "punish". It doesn’t appear that they think much about transforming and inspiring—it’s all about "stopping" wrongdoing. But how can it be bad to want to stop wrongdoing? Oh, I don’t say that we shouldn’t want to stop wrongdoing, ours or someone else’s—we should. But it’s a very narrow view that sees our moral business centrally to be about "avoiding" or "stopping" evil and to choose "punishment" as the single weapon in our armory. Would we be happy, do you think, if we thought the children in our home responded only to some form of punishment? Would we not grow weary of heart in sending them to their room or depriving them of this or that? Would we be satisfied that he had "stopped" this or that wrong act? Would we not long for a way to transform their hearts so that the fear of or aversion to "punishment" would increasingly be a thing of the past and that they would behave in response to an inner something—something written on their hearts?
This much seems clear: any good thing that we have to constantly remind ourselves to do, any good behavior or attitude that we have to constantly practice or it will grow weak and die—that "virtue" is not mature. To do the right thing is good nut to will the right thing is better and to do the right thing characteristically without even consciously thinking about it is best. The "virtue" that has to be consciously watched and tended and fed, whatever else we are to say about it, is nothing to be smug about. "Self-control" is a good and needful thing [Galatians 5:23] but it is one of the lower level virtues. Under very pressing circumstances a self-controlled response may be nothing less than heroic but various impulses that must always be held in check let us know we haven't "arrived" as virtuous people. It's imperative that we don't allow ourselves to give up the struggle against evil desires and go with the current but it's also imperative for us to acknowledge the abiding presence of our susceptibility to the evil.
In more ways than one a man [or woman] mustn't think of himself more highly than he ought to think [Romans 12:3].