The Jesus And The Devil In Me
Several years ago, our Christ Presbyterian Church staff did a Myers-Briggs related exercise together. Part of the exercise included listing all of the well-known people who share our specific personalities. As an INFJ, I discovered that I share a personality with both Jesus and Gandhi.
My first thought was that prior to this exercise, I had not known that Jesus and Gandhi took the Myers-Briggs (Hehe). My second thought was one of curious bewilderment, because another, much less Jesus- and Gandhi-like figure was also an INFJ. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Whether hyperbolic or real, the alarming results of this exercise should point out the obvious for anyone who has read and believed what Scripture says about the human condition. Within each of us, there is potential for heroic love on the one hand, and unspeakable evil on the other. In Genesis, the human heart is described in stark terms such as “wicked…only evil, all the time.” In the Psalms, the virtuous David and Paul assert without hesitation that “there is no one who does good; not even one,” and in his masterful book, the prophet Isaiah says similarly, “our most righteous deeds, even, are as filthy rags.” One one occasion, even Jesus put relational boundaries around his life and heart “because he knew what was in the heart of man.”
I am both haunted and comforted by these words from Brennan Manning:
“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”
There is also this haunting assessment from Solzhenitsyn:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.
“Thanks to ideology the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing calculated on a scale in the millions.
“Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth. Yet, I have not given up all hope that human beings and nations may be able, in spite of all, to learn from the experience of other people without having to go through it personally.”
As I look back on my days in seminary, I can do so with a degree of awe as I consider how God has used so many of my classmates for good. Two of them are pastors with me at our church in Nashville. Another of them worships and serves at our church, and has spent well over a decade impacting college students not only at the university where he serves, but nationwide. Some have written books, while others have become outstanding counselors and pastors and thought leaders. Some teach at the university level, and others at the very seminary from which we all graduated.
There are also a few others from our class, however, whose stories have included adultery, divorce, abandoning their families, using illegal drugs, and leaving Christianity altogether.
The sad moral collapse of those alongside whom I had once studied, prayed, worshiped, served, loved, and dreamed about the future of Christianity, reminds me of a story I once heard about a famous pastor, told by his former intern. One time at a staff meeting, the intern recalls the famous pastor telling the entire staff that Satan has the power to tempt him in any number of ways, but that there is one area of his life that Satan will never touch: his marriage.
According to the intern, the famous pastor was caught in bed with a mistress less than one year after that staff meeting.
Sadly, such moral collapses by ministers are not uncommon.
For pastors and all other leaders, stories like these should cause us to tremble in our boots. For it is not just the ancient biblical accounts that tell us how frail we are. It is also the stories of moral collapse “from the top” that happen every single day—even among the best, most well-intended Christian leaders. There is potential in every leader, even the most virtuous ones, to fall into and become caught in unimaginable transgression.
Think about it. If Abraham, the father of all who have faith, could offer his wife up twice to be sexually used by unsavory men in order to save his own hide, aren’t we also capable of preserving self while making others vulnerable? If Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, could spend years lying and deceiving more than he told the truth, aren’t we also capable of becoming liars? If Rahab, who is listed as an ancestor of Jesus, gave up her body as a prostitute, aren’t we also capable of immoral thoughts and behaviors? If Peter, one of the twelve Apostles and writer of two New Testament letters, could fall into racist behavior after Jesus had restored him to ministry because he was afraid of what the other racists might say, and if Barnabas, widely known as “the son of encouragement,” could stumble right alongside him, aren’t we also capable of excluding those whom Jesus embraces? If King David, who gave us beautiful worship poetry in the Psalms, and who was identified by the Lord himself as “a man after God’s own heart,” could abuse his power by forcing Bathsheba—also the daughter of one of his most loyal friends—to sleep with him, and then scheming to have her husband, also a loyal friend, killed to cover it up, aren’t we also capable of abusing our power to get from others whatever we want, just because we can?
To these we could also add many titans from church history. John Calvin participated in the execution of a man whose crime was disagreement with Christian doctrine. Martin Luther made anti-semitic statements. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves until his death. Martin Luther King, Jr. was unfaithful to his wife as he traveled the country preaching about racial justice.
On the one hand, I find the stories of such leaders strangely encouraging. If there is hope for these, then there is also hope for people like me. If these were just as redeemed and welcomed by Christ in their worst seasons and behavior as they were in their best, then there is also redemption and welcome for me, by the same terms. On the other hand, their stories, their foolishness and their sin are there to instruct and help us so that we will wise up and live differently. Their stories teach us the importance of guarding our hearts, because our hearts, especially when we think they are not vulnerable or susceptible to sin, are more vulnerable and susceptible than ever.
“Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed, lest he fall.
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”
(1 Corinthians 10:12-13)
Are you someone who thinks s/he is not vulnerable to certain kinds of sin? Are you like the person who looks at the acorn and thinks that such a little thing could never become an oak tree, or a forest, or a forest fire? The sin in your heart, my friend, is the acorn—and it has the power, if not crushed, to germinate, to become a sprout, and then a tree, and then an entire forest, and then a forest wildfire.
This is in part why Jesus warned in the Sermon on the Mount not only against adultery, but lust in the heart. This is also why he warned not only against murder, but a grudge in the heart. Because every adulterous fling begins with a “harmless” thought or glance, and every murderous rampage begins with a tiny little grudge.
So then, wherever our hearts are vulnerable, it is essential to crush the acorn before it becomes a sprout; to dig up the sprout before it grows into a tree; to chop down the tree before it becomes a forest; to plow the forest before it becomes an uncontrollable fire.
As the great Puritan, John Owen said, “Always be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”
Or, if you prefer modern pop stars over dead theologians, there was also Pink, who sang words that should be a daily refrain for everyone who is even the slightest bit self-aware:
“I’m a hazard to myself.
Don’t let me get me.”
Pink, you are onto something. You are in the company of the Puritans and King David with a lyric like that.
We must never for get that what God said to Cain, God also says to us:
Sin is crouching at your door, and you must master it.
Master the sin, God says, lest the sin gain mastery over you. Crush the sin, God says, lest the sin end up crushing you.
For every sin we commit is not just a sin against God; it is also a sin against ourselves.
It is not only a sin against the law of God; it is also a sin against the love of God.
And it is the love of God, and only the love of God, that is our resource for survival and flourishing.
So then, friends, let those among us who think we stand take heed, lest we fall. May God have mercy on the Abraham, Rahab, Peter, Barnabas, King David, Cain, Hitler and Pink in us all.
And, for the love of God, don’t let me get me.
Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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