The nature of the retribution is best expressed in the words, "He that is unrighteous, let him yet more unrighteousness still; and he that is filthy, let hum be made yet more filthy still." There is nothing arbitrary about it. It is not the vengeance of an angry deity, but the quiet, unseen, inevitable, everlasting operation of a perfectly natural law; neither more nor less than the scientific necessity that every tree must bear fruit after its own kind. This cannot be too much insisted on, because even yet people will talk of the "wrath" of God; even yet anxious friends will exhort their loved ones when dying to "make their peace with God." But in retribution there is no element of divine wrath, and no amount of peace-making can avert one iota of fruit bearing "after its kind."
It is a well-known part of daily life that the thing we do the first time with difficulty is done the tenth or the hundredth time with ease, until at last the doing of it is second nature. The nervous system becomes the willing partner of the moral life, and little by little the chains of an acquired tendency are bound round the victim, and "he that is unrighteous" brings forth fruit after his kind by being "yet more unrighteous still."
This is true of the physical, the mental, and the moral life. The disused limb becomes the atrophied limb; the unused faculty means loss of that faculty; the rein given to the passions today means less controlling power tomorrow; the unkind thought, the harbored grudge, the resentment cherished, the dishonest action now, make sweetness, forgiveness, uprightness, increasingly difficult of attainment in days to come. We make the fight harder for ourselves and the conditions harder to grapple with and overcome. As, one by one, the cells of the physical organism die, they are replaced by new ones fashioned in accordance with the tenor of the mind and the habit of the life, so that in our flesh we reap the consequence of our thought. As, one by one, wrong choices are made, the evil thought or the evil action tend to become less volitional and more automatic, and our nervous system is no longer our servant but our tyrant. Thus we become bound in the chains of habit, and habit is only another name for character, and character may be only another name for retribution.
It is a terrible thought. None of the hells invented by theologic superstition is half so awful as this. It is the story of the might have been. To feel day by day the numbing impotence of disabilities of one's own creating; to writhe in the grasp of fetters of one's own forging; to stifle and choke in the fumes of one's own making; to realize—when, stripped of all the lies and sophistries with which we envelop ourselves, the soul stands face to face with the stern, merciless logic of facts—the scorn and loathing which we feel for the thing which is yet ourselves and from which there is no escape, which lies down with us at night and rises up with us in the morning; which is our own creation and from whose dread presence none can deliver us—could any retribution be more awful than this? The sting of it lies in the fact that it is no heaven-sent thunderbolt, but simply the natural outcome of causes which we have, carelessly or willfully, knowingly or ignorantly—it matters not which—set in operation.
Happily there is an obverse side to the law, and "he that is holy let him be made yet more holy still," is at once the reward and incentive of all our yearnings and travailings and efforts after righteousness.