“As a demoralized people cannot do God’s work on earth, he finds fresh tribes to do it.”
Christian Karl Josias Bunsen, Hippolytus and His Age, vol. 4 (1852)
There is a deep and mysterious connection between morality and morale, as can be seen in the two meanings of the word demoralize. We say that a man is demoralized when he has relaxed or abandoned his moral discipline, and we also say that he is demoralized when he has sunk into a hopeless malaise and lost his will to live. This connection between libertinage and lassitude is, as I said, deep and mysterious, but it is an important part of what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “the wages of sin is death.”
To read this line aright, we must understand the full meaning of the word wage. Before the word meant payment, it meant a pledge or promise. When an employer hires a worker, he offers that worker a wage, which is to say a promise that he will give him some payment when the work is done. We see this root meaning of promise more clearly in the word wager, which is a promise to pay conditional on the outcome of an uncertain event.
So, we can read Paul’s line this way,
“The wager of sin is death.”
“I promise you death if you try me,” says the sin. “Candy from a baby,” says the man.
And the death that sin promises is a slow death of spiritual asphyxiation, a long agony of acedia that finds its only relief in the thrill of darker sins. That is the deep and mysterious connection. The more you sin, the sicker you feel; and the sicker you feel, the more you sin
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I took my epigraph from a commentary on Commodianus, a Christian writer in the Roman province of Africa around 250 A.D. The Romans were by that date a deeply demoralized people, debauched, despairing and doomed to be swept from the earth by barbarians who were even then crossing their borders. As this commentator says of Commodianus,
“His faith told him that moral decrepitude is an incurable evil in a nation, that as a demoralized people cannot do God’s work on earth, he finds fresh tribes to do it . . . . Commodianus believed that the Roman and Greek nations were doomed to perish, because they were deeply demoralized; and that the age predicted by Christ . . . was to . . . be brought on by a barbarous but honest race.”
These lines are certainly suggestive, but they do not perfectly capture the special promise of our times. We are, to be sure, a deeply demoralized people—debauched, despairing and doomed to be swept from the earth. But as there are no fresh tribes, it appears that we must be purged by a barbarous and dishonest race.