Someone recently told me that he doesn’t worry too much about “all that Heaven and Hell stuff” because he knows he’s a “decent person.” He explained that he pays his taxes, follows the law, provides for his family, and that ought to be “good enough” in the end. Now, he may very well be a decent person. I don’t know him well enough to say one way or another. But it strikes me that this kind of attitude is very common, even among Christians, and it’s extremely dangerous.
Of course, the person who relies on his own “decent” nature to get him through the pearly gates is wrong, first and foremost, because that’s not how it works. Heaven is open to us because of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice — a sacrifice made necessary by our sin, not our decency — and only those who love Christ will enter into it. As I’ve written many times, it’s not mere belief, nor is it mere acts of charity that make us eligible for eternal paradise. We must actively, purposefully, willfully love God. To love God is all that matters. Nothing else.
But I’ve said plenty in that vein recently, and I’d wager that a majority of the people reading this would already agree that you can’t win Heaven for yourself by being a decent guy. I’d like, then, to take this in a more challenging direction. I’d like you to consider not only that your decency won’t save you, but that, in fact, you may not be all that decent anyway. I think there are a great many of us in this country who imagine ourselves to be decent and honest, but our decency and honesty are incidental. If we are decent, it’s only because we haven’t had the opportunity or inclination to be very indecent. Or, I should say, our opportunities for indecency, cowardice, dishonesty, malice, faithlessness, etc., are so seemingly small and ordinary that we don’t think they count. We may actually behave like morally bankrupt egomaniacs on a near constant basis, but the circumstances seem so insignificant and the effects so minimal that we give ourselves a pass.
Here is the uncomfortable truth that many of us (though not all) must confront: we basically commit every sin we have the opportunity and desire to commit. Hardly ever do we decline an opportunity or suppress a desire. We have been about as evil as we could be. As Kevin Williamson pointed out in his excellent piece a few weeks ago, if our sins are small, it’s only because we are small.
If you need proof of this fact, consider the internet. Just think of how monstrous and despicable the average person can become when let loose into the anonymity of cyberspace. I’m not just talking about the casual death wishes that decent folks post to Twitter and comments sections, but also the increasingly depraved pornography that decent folks spend hours hunting for online. When given the chance to be adulterous deviants or cruel sociopaths, they take it. Their deviancy and cruelty are confined to the internet only because that’s the one place they can get away with it.
I can remember my days of working fast food and retail, where I would sometimes encounter managers utterly intoxicated by the tiny bit of control they had over their subordinates. I used to wonder what actually separated my manipulative shift supervisor from a third world dictator. They’re both being as tyrannical and abusive as their circumstances allow them to be. If the guy who oversees the six-to-midnight shift at your local Domino’s Pizza can find every conceivable way to exploit this power, one can only imagine what would happen if he had a military at his disposal.
Why do you think so many lottery winners turn into self-destructive hedonists so quickly? They were that way all along; they just never had the money to invest in it. The money didn’t make them bad. They money just gave them more opportunities to be as bad as they always were.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is not my way of saying “all sins are equal,” because Scripture makes it clear that they are not. Nor am I suggesting that everyone is equally despicable and no one can ever be better than anyone else. That’s plainly not the case. It is possible to attain, through God’s grace, higher levels of virtue and a deeper love for Our Lord and our fellow man. There are no perfect people on Earth, but there are honorable, courageous, honest, faithful people. All I’m asking you to consider is whether you are really in that category, as you most likely imagine yourself to be.
This, I think, is what Christ was saying in that challenging passage from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It’s not that lust and adultery are the same, but that one logically follows from the other. An affair is worse than mere lust, just as murder is worse than mere hatred, but the crux of the matter is this: If you are in the habit of indulging in lust, and you almost always take it about as far as you possibly can in your situation, then you are well on your way to having an affair. The moment a real opportunity for an affair presents itself, you will jump right into it. That is how you’ve conditioned yourself.
In a similar way, if you are in the habit of indulging in hatred, and you almost always take that hatred about as far as possible, then you are well on your way to being a murderer. It is not as bad to murder someone in your heart as it is to murder them with a knife, but if you take pleasure in murdering people in your heart, then you are at least the sort of person who would murder a person with a knife. And there’s only one frighteningly small step separating the sort of person who would from the person who does.
But let’s say the opportunity for physical murder or adultery or whatever other heinous sin never arises. What then? What if you were on the path to brutality and debauchery, but you expired before you could get there? What if you die with a black heart but clean hands? Will God judge you like he judges a man with hands as clean as yours but a heart of grace and love, or like a man with a heart as black as yours but hands that reflect the state of his soul? I’d say the latter, because that man has simply done everything you would have done, had you the opportunity and gumption to pull it off.
And what if you die having indulged nearly every temptation you ever experienced, but having never experienced the temptation to do anything that the world would consider especially perverse or terrible? Will God judge you like the man who acted decently because he resisted temptation, or like the man who acted on temptation and whose temptation led him to darker and more depraved depths? I’d say the latter, because the only reason you didn’t do what he did is that you didn’t want to. Whatever you desired to do, you did. It was simply a matter of good fortune (for your family and neighbors) that you never desired to be a child rapist or a cannibal.
This is why it’s not enough for us to be what the world would consider “decent” and “normal.” We can be decent, normal, and evil all at the same time. Rather, we have to actively pursue what is good and holy, and consistently reject any opportunity to sin, no matter how inconsequential the sin may seem to us. Accidentally dinging someone’s car door in the parking lot and then driving away without leaving a note is not the same as plowing down a pedestrian and fleeing the scene before the cops show up, but the one may be a precursor to the other. If I have no courage or integrity in that smaller matter, those virtues will not suddenly appear out of thin air in the more serious one. Most of us will only ever be presented with smaller matters, anyway. If we never act with faith, courage, or love under those circumstances, then, in the end, it must be said that we never acted with faith, courage, or love under any circumstance. That all we’ve left in our wake is a bunch of dinged car doors is irrelevant. They could have been pedestrians, had our luck been different.
We are always traveling closer to God or further from Him. Our choices are constantly taking us in one direction or the other. If we have been traveling away, even by the smallest of degrees, it will only take a change of fortune, an evolution of circumstance, a sudden opportunity, to turn that gradual descent into a plunge. And as we are free falling into the darkness, we will look up and see all of these decent people, who are headed in the same direction, shaking their heads and saying to one another, “Thank God I’m not like him.”
To see more from Matt Walsh, visit his channel on TheBlaze.