Every day the headlines record another personal tragedy in some prominent person’s life. This week, the police chief in Alexandria, Virginia, with nearly 20 years of exemplary service was forced to resign when his car crashed and a full two hours later, four sobriety tests revealed a blood alcohol content nearly twice the legal limit. His resignation, rendered with “a great deal of humility and remorse,” according to an article in the Washington Examiner, cost him “significant” benefits compared to what he would have received if he had worked another seven months to reach 20 years of service. The financial costs, though, are puny compared to the damage to his reputation and the devastation to his family.
David P. Baker, a handsome, distinguished-looking, prematurely grey-haired man, had achieved his dreams of the top slot in his chosen profession in his chosen city. Like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, and New Jersey Governor James McGreevey –– the list goes into the hundreds –– Baker threw away a life-time of achievement and well-earned respect for the “pleasure of sin for a season.”
But prominent persons aren’t the only ones who pay an exorbitant price for personal transgressions. All of us have acquaintances, friends or relatives –– maybe even we ourselves ––who are destroying their lives in all the myriad ways that the human person is capable of self-destruction: drug addiction, drunkenness, gambling and infidelity are only the most obvious and public ones.
The sophisticated ones among us claim that evil does not exist, that sin is an outdated, passé concept and the culture war is the figment of somebody’s imagination. Yet the real world, where you and I live, is a mural that displays all the appalling results of sin and evil. It is impossible to avoid seeing the “wages of sin” and the fallen nature of human beings. To those who look and listen, the evidence of the “seeds of ruin” is as apparent as are the “untimely victims.” Truly, as the Scriptures say, “the worm dieth not.”
In his Screwtape Letters, the Christian apologeticist C.S. Lewis writes about Wormwood, a novice devil who works assiduously and cleverly to keep his charge’s mind off “good” things and insidiously tempts them with the “bad” ones. Too many people today underestimate the inherent power of sin and wily temptations of the evil around us. Saint Paul describes sin as a master who has authority over his slaves. One has only to hear the ramblings of Governor Sanford as he describes his compulsion to visit his mistress in Argentina to understand the tyranny that evil holds over those who succumb to its allures, false promises and misrepresentations. Like the ever-present “forbidden fruit,” temptations lurk just under the consciousness inviting us to come near and mocking us when we try to resist. They invade our resolve like wormwood. Even the strongest among us are “cast down.”
As moderns have repudiated the concepts of sin and evil, we have denied an essential aspect of our human capacity for unruly passions. There is not a single emotion that does not hold within it the possibility of our downfall. Yet, we in our arrogance claim to need no boundaries. We set ourselves up as the final arbiters of what is good and beautiful, just and natural. Yet when the passions of anger, revenge, jealousy, hate, envy, malice, bitterness are unrestrained, destruction is inevitable and personal tragedy follows close behind. If these fail in causing death or personal and professional destruction, they win at producing wretchedness, misery and ruin.
As contemporary sophisticates have rejected faith, they have lost hope and have no place to turn for help with personal mastery. Without the anchor of a steadfast faith, human beings lose restraint, reject any control or limitation on their elemental passions and thus are easy prey to a wide variety of temptations. Lacking peace and joy in their lives, “they know not at what they [will] stumble.” The implication is that if a person’s life is not filled with contentment, they are inevitably headed for a fall; they will stumble on some emotion that enslaves them and leads to their destruction. Sin “binds even kings in chains and nobles with links of iron.” While the pleasures are transitory, the end result is devastation: “over them is spread a heavy night, an image of that darkness which shall afterwards receive them; but yet they are unto themselves more grievous than that darkness.”
The age-old wisdom tells us that there are no victims. Instead, we hold within ourselves the passions that can defeat and destroy us. Sin is the product of our own volition, but evil is an active force luring us to our destruction. The flood of events chronicled daily in the news demonstrates clearly that –– alone in a universe without God — no amount of education, success, money or fame are adequate to protect us from the myriad temptations with which evil lures us into sin and our destruction.
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