When men are about to commit, or to sanction the commission of some injustice, it is not uncommon for them to express pity for the object either of that or some parallel proceeding, and to feel themselves, at the time, quite virtuous and moral, and immensely superior to those who express no pity at all. This is a kind of upholding of faith above works, and is very comfortable.Dickens conveyed his surgically precise grasp of human venality and vanity in characterizations that were often harsh but sometimes deeply affecting. I especially love Nicholas' narcissistic if harmless mother. In chapter 55, as she begins one of her exasperating, self-celebratory flights of free association, her son tries to keep reading his book. Finally, Dickens writes, "Nicholas snuffed the candles, put his hands in his pockets, and leaning back in his chair, assumed a look of patient suffering and melancholy resignation." Dickens was more astringent about misdeeds such as Madeline's greedy father's, especially if they were laced with pretensions of compassion.
Dickens' grace note about faith and works was an echo of Reformation struggles by Protestants against medieval Roman Catholic doctrines that seemed to teach that we could earn and buy our way into heaven. The author of of the New Testament letter of James proclaimed that faith in God without good deeds and works was dead [2:26].
As James and St. Paul (in Romans 6:1) both make clear, even in Jesus's time some had concluded they could do whatever they wanted as long as they had faith that they'd be forgiven, once they repented, at long last. For centuries, Reformation ideals propelled some Christians into lives of robust situational ethics. Even today, whenever we're tempted to compromise, neglect, mistreat, lash out, oppress, or isolate, we're been called to live Easter lives instead. But it's not always easy. Thinking we're justified in ungodly or unkind action or inaction is, as Dickens would say, very comfortable indeed.