Where does a sin start? How does a secret addiction become so destructive? How does a look or glance or desire to find comfort in someone/something lead people down the pathway of ruin? How does covetousness take root in someone’s life, so that they will spend all their time and energy on attaining something they have no right to? How does greed and envy become justifiable so that a culture gives itself over to acquisition and discontentedness with last year’s model? How does the need to upgrade actually become a need? How does self-righteousness blind us to our arrogant attitudes and behaviours?
The Bible is pretty clear about the answer. The heart is the place. It’s not simply the seat of emotions in Scripture, it’s also the place where our wills and desires are germinated, take root, grow and flourish. And the problem of the human heart, as Jeremiah states, is that it is in no condition to decide for itself what it should or should not desire. Indeed only God himself can fathom the heart – your heart, my heart, everybody’s heart, as Jeremiah 17:9-10 famously reminds us:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
10 “I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.
Ok, so we know that. If you are a Christian you can probably assent to the twin truths in this passage: That the heart is the problem and that God knows the heart. So far so good. However what is most deceitful about the heart is that it can deceive us to such a level that the second part of this equation – God’s ability to know the heart – is masked by our sin. Sin starts in the heart, but it flourishes, grows and gives birth to death in a heart deceived into believing that the heart itself is beyond God’s searching gaze.
This truth came home to me recently as I read through the historical train wreck of 1 and 2 Kings, and the prophetic book of Jeremiah. Listen to the reason for the demise of the nation of Israel in 722BC.
The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns.
Here is where sin really gets a foothold: When we convince ourselves that “in secret”, really means in secret! I mean, what were they thinking? Did the Israelites really believe that their idolatry – the worship of gods who cannot see and cannot hear – could remain a secret from the LORD their God who could see and hear everything? Did they really think that if they built an Asherah pole under a grove of trees deep in a forest that it would remain hidden from the all-searching eyes of the LORD? At one level they couldn’t believe that – after all their theology told them otherwise. But at another, deeper, level they had convinced themselves that it was so. They had so compartmentalised their lives that they had come to believe their sin was too locked away – even from God – to see. But that is how deceptive sin is, especially the icky stuff we wish to keep to ourselves. It convinces us that NO ONE is watching us. In the abstract we know that this cannot possibly be true – we know that God can see everything, but somehow he becomes a non-entity – becomes weightless in our minds – when we set ourselves on a course of secret sin.
The problem with secret sin, however, is that it generally never remains secret. The porn addict gets sprung, or takes bigger and less “virtual” risks. The adulterer gets eaten up with guilt, or sears their conscience. The book-cooker himself gets cooked when the auditor spots an irregularity. Someone finds out, whether it be a spouse, a friend, or a work colleague. And then the shock, hurt, pain, and sense of betrayal kicks in. So too the guilt and self-loathing, or even unfortunately at times, the self-justification. It is often at this point in our sin we turn to God in repentance, traumatised and shocked by our self-deception. Unfortunately, all to often it takes being found out – by another human – to give us the impetus to change.
The truth is that we are always “found out”. Nothing is ever done in secret. There is no way to “secretly do things against the LORD that are not right”. Granted, our motivation not to sin should primarily be love for God and love for our neighbour, but our love for God is grounded in his character: who he is, what he is like, how he is different to us. By the time we get caught in the grip of secret sin, God’s true character has fallen off our radar, and we have replaced him with a deity who we can control, manipulate and lock out of areas of our lives.
The radical solution of course is to be radical with sin and radical in our understanding of God. Psalm 139 does both of these brilliantly. Here is how the Psalm starts:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it,
The Psalmist starts by affirming what God CAN do. He is able to search, discern and know. But that is only half of the truth. Knowing what God can do remains at the abstract level. It can easily be smothered over by the deceitful poison ivy of our sinful hearts so that its truth does not take deep root in our lives and kill sin. The Psalmist therefore does not simply affirm his theological stance, he finishes the Psalm by requesting God to do what he earlier affirmed he could do:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
Affirming what God can do is a theological statement : Requesting him to do it is a cry of utter dependance.