Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Ripple Effect

“For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.”

There’s a new law in Alabama, and it has become the occasion for a great deal of sin. I can’t go anywhere without hearing about it or being provoked to talk about it. If you’re on Twitter you’ll already know that most of the sin is verbal, and the vast majority of it advocates for wrongdoing: “I had one, and I feel FINE about it! If you’re a good person, you’ll support it too.”

Relax, I’m not going to recycle badly overheated rhetoric. I have a more general point to make.

Taking Opportunity

Much of the sin in our lives is opportunistic. The apostle Paul says that in fleshly people, sinful passions are provoked by lawmaking. Wherever God or man draws a line and says, “No further than this!”, that’s precisely where fallen human beings want to stand, peering over into the darkness wondering what benefits and joys they are being denied by this new rule, and what might really happen if they take their curiosity just a bit further. In many cases, the evil they long to experiment with is something that may not even have occurred to them before they encountered law. Ask Eve.

The Greek word translated “occasion” or “opportunity” is aphormÄ“. Literally, it means a base of operations. Paul personifies sin, speaking as if sin were an active agent sneaking up on the unsuspecting. It’s a strong image, but we know what he means. It is our own hearts that do the sneaking, whether they are influenced by the world, the flesh or the devil himself.

All Kinds of Sinners

Now, there are all kinds of sins and all kinds of sinners. We know this because whenever an occasion for sin arises in some very specific area of temptation, we can observe a broad range of responses to the opportunity offered:
  1. Tempted, But God-Conscious. The best reason for not giving in to sin is that it displeases Someone you love. When we recognize Christ died to deliver us from the temptations to which we previously succumbed, and that having died with him and having been raised from death with him empowers us to say no to sin, we are in a very good place to reject evil and choose good, and are also less likely to stand in judgment over those who do not yet understand these things.
  2. Non-Reactive. I have a son who hasn’t the slightest interest in alcohol. This is not especially to his credit; it is simply a fact of life. He will probably never become a drunk, though he will surely find other things in life to tempt him. However, though my son is not endangered by the offer of a half dozen free pints, he may be morally endangered by the temptation to harshly pass judgment on those who are. Unable to feel the passions they feel in the presence of an occasion for sin, he may be inclined to think others especially evil or weak because they are struggling when he is not.
  3. Tempted, But In Check. Let’s stick with drunkenness. I think we’re all tired of abortion. Many people don’t give in when sin attacks, but not because they are particularly God-conscious. They may be legalists. They may be fearful of the consequences if they get caught. They may be obnoxious and holier-than-thou. They may be on a diet that excludes alcohol. It is commendable that they are not leaping at an occasion to make an embarrassing public display of themselves, but their resistance to sin does not come from a solid foundation. Remove the negative consequences, end the diet or do away with the law, and they would be happy to indulge.
  4. Failing, But God-Conscious. My Christian brother has fallen off the wagon again. He hates himself for it, begs for forgiveness and wonders sometimes if he was ever saved. He does this every time it happens, and it happens pretty regularly. His state is not a good one, but we are taught not to hold even a recurring problem against him, because he himself rejects it and knows it is evil. While he is not the greatest testimony, anyone who knows him realizes he is not advocating for sin. He is on the one hand a cautionary tale; on the other, he is a living testimony to the grace and forgiveness offered us in Christ.
  5. Sinning, But Secretive. An unsaved drunk may be deeply in the grip of sin, but he only drinks in bars across town or on business trips. People sometimes keep their sins secret because they are ashamed, or fear disappointing their families, or don’t want the responsibility of leading others astray. In their hearts they know they’d be better off if they could quit, but they can’t ever seem to get to that point. In addition to the sin itself, a secret sinner is often tempted to hypocrisy when discussing the very sin he is regularly committing in private. He is inclined to protest too much if only as a defense mechanism. (Of course there are also those who keep their sins secret not because they care for anyone else, but only because publicizing their indiscretions would end in jail time, firing or public disgrace. In our flagrantly sinful society these are increasingly rare, and we can give them no credit for their discretion.)
  6. Sinning, But Making Excuses. Now my sin is exposed, and the world knows. Admittedly it looks bad, but there are mitigating factors you should know about. So here come the excuses. We first see this in the Garden of Eden: “The serpent deceived me,” “The woman gave me fruit of the tree,” and so on. On the one hand, such a sinner still acknowledges the validity of the law, but his argument is that anyone in his position would have done the same because human nature is what it is. That’s dishonesty and moral cowardice.
  7. Advocating, But Ashamed. There are people who advocate for the rights of others to commit sins they themselves have also committed, but their primary motive is guilt they can’t shake. So rather than deny they crossed a line or try to explain why they did, they want to erase the line entirely. They keep telling you they have done nothing wrong because they are desperate to hear the sound of agreement. If they can’t elicit that from you, your silence will do just fine. They hope (usually in vain) that some kind of consensus in their favor will ease their conscience. You can tell these people because they are still fragile and tentative, but they are a very short distance from the final stage of decline, which is …
  8. Reprobation. The reprobate is a shameless advocate of sin. As Paul puts it, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” The reprobate is engaged in publicly promoting wickedness in hope that it will spread throughout society. He actively hates those who correctly label him a sinner, and the sin in one area of his life spreads to other areas of life as well.
An Occasion for Sin

So then, laws do not create sin, but they expose the true nature of unregenerate man, a nature even Christians must still learn to contend with.

You can see that when sin seizes an occasion to go to work on us, other people are invariably affected. The notion that there are sins which may be quietly committed between “two consenting adults” without causing harm to others is greatly mistaken. We are all webbed together in a network of family and societal relationships through which sin can easily spread in nine different directions.

The non-drinker may be tempted to pride, or to inordinately harsh criticism of someone who is unsuccessfully trying to quit. The person who resists temptation for inferior reasons may put his trust in the arm of flesh. “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” The secret sinner upholds the law outwardly but becomes a liar and hypocrite. “Do you suppose, O man — you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself — that you will escape the judgment of God?” The failing-but-God-conscious man may inadvertently lead others to believe they too can sin without negative consequences. Those who are emotionally crippled with shame spawn legions of enablers who just mean well and want them to feel better about themselves. The enablers mistake guilt for some sort of mental health condition, and themselves become complicit in promoting evil by excusing conduct that really requires repentance. Even the person who avoids sin for the right reasons often inspires hatred in the hearts of those who are enslaved, compounding their own sin. And of course reprobate advocacy not only leads other individuals but whole societies astray.

So, yeah, there’s a new law in Alabama. I like it, and I hope other states follow suit. But take care how you respond to it, and to those who are responding badly to it. Sin has a way of seizing every single opportunity we give it.

1 comment :

  1. 1. One important aspect of not sinning is that it is strongly correlated with having a sense of responsibility. A sense of responsibility in turn is installed by upbringing, by exposure to public and private teaching and example and even by being compelled to be responsible. This is where society is terribly failing it's youth and really everyone with really bad consequences. In my opinion if personal responsibility is continually allowed to deteriorate, so will the climate in society. Our public media, entertainment and information industry bears the greatest share of creating a valueless society by continually advertising and extolling irresponsible behavior as a desirable norm. Consequently I am constantly being burdened with the expense that irresponsibility engenders. I am taxed to pay for things like poor sexual norms and self centered behavior leading to immorality, abortions, abuse, destroyed families, drug treatment, gambling, medical problems, road rage, theft, etc., and all because of poor example, upbringing, attitudes, life styles, etc.. The entertainment and information industry is hugely at fault for promoting irresponsibility and our politicians and educational system is likewise to blame because they do nothing to address the root causes leading to irresponsibility in our young. As far as I am concerned there should be significant financial penalties for behavior that results in unwarranted expense to society. There would be fewer abortions if the young man and girl and their parents would be held financially responsible for bringing an unwanted child into the world until that child can support him/herself. Businesses and conglomerates of all types would be taxed and penalized if their brand of advertisement, entertainment, product, etc., results in contributing to a climate of irresponsible behavior that causes expense to society or individual's by way of requiring immediate or long term remediation. In short, unless we all agree that the next person should not have to pay for the damage caused by the uncaring and selfish actions that people are routinely capable of we should expect a greater and greater decline in societal norms. We are already at a point where murder of the innocent at an enormous scale has now been elevated to a right. I would not want to be the supreme Court Justice or the state governor having to face their creator on that one.
    But then, I have heard it said that the governor of New York has said he knows he will go to hell.