“She started it!”
“No I didn’t!”
“Yes you did!”
If you’re a parent, I bet you’re cringing right now. And, even if you’re not, my guesses are you might be, too. Because we’ve all been there, either with our children, the children of others, or even in the memories of our own childhood. A friend or sibling does something to us so we retaliate (and sometimes he or she retaliates back), and so the cycle goes until one (or both) end in tears (or a time-out).
And it doesn’t end with youth. We may be a bit more subtle with it as we age, but the desire for retribution never truly goes away. You cut me off in traffic, I’m going to tailgate you. You say something mean to me, I’m going to say something mean back (either to your face or behind your back). You don’t come to my party, I’m not going to come to yours.
It’s human nature at its basic sense, this prideful need for vindication. And yet, as “natural” as it may be, it is also sin. Plain and simple. 1 Peter 3: 9 says, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:15 says, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” Jesus says in Mark 11:25, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that our Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
And, trust me, these verses don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
My point is that denying ourselves an opportunity for revenge feels so counter-intuitive that we often-times feel justified giving into our sin. We tell ourselves that although we know and understand the Bible tells us to forgive, the offender’s perceived crime against us was so reprehensible, this one particular sin is okay. No, it’s more than okay. It’s rational. It’s reasonable. It legitimate.
The trouble is once you justify one sin, it’s a whole lot easier to begin justifying others.
Let’s revisit a perhaps familiar story in the Old Testament to see what I mean. In the Book of Daniel, we find the Jewish people in exile, under the rule of the Babylonians. Daniel and three of his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, had been put into the service of King Nebuchadnezzar. Although surrounded by a pagan and hostile culture, the four men were steadfast in their commitment to God and His decrees, ultimately earning favor and position within the kingdom even despite their Jewish background.
Until the day Nebuchadnezzar decided to erect a statue.
A statue of which he thought very, very highly.
Too highly, in fact.
“So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it. Then the herald loudly proclaimed, ‘This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, national, and men of every language. As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes, and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that Kind Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace” (Daniel 4: 3-6)
Well. That escalated quickly.
Now Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were included in this decree but they, unlike other people, recognized something wrong with the king’s command. You see, they weren’t just any old people. They were Jews, members of God’s chosen, specifically set aside and called to a higher set of standards and commandments.
Namely, not bowing down and worshipping anyone or anything other than the One True God.
And yet failure to do so would mean a certain and more likely excruciating death.
Surely, worshipping the statue to save them from this terrible fate would be okay, right? This sin was justified.
Think of all the ways they could have rationalized their sin:
“We’ll bow down but not actually worship the idol.”
“We won’t become idol worshippers, but we’ll do it just this one time and then ask God for forgiveness.”
“The king has absolute power and we must obey him. God will understand.”
“This is a foreign land, so God will excuse us for following the customs of this land.”
“We’re not hurting anybody. It’s just a small sin.”
“If we get ourselves killed, and some heathens take our high positions, they won’t be able to help our people in exile. Surely God doesn’t mean for us to DIE.”
All of these sound reasonable, don’t they? Though we may never have been in a death or sin situation, I can guess we’ve all used some variation of one of these as a means to excuse our own sin. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? When it comes down it, they are just excuses.
Each time we explain away our sin or attempt to give it just cause, we not only weaken our witness, we diminish the seriousness of sin. Sin is sin is sin no matter how we try to defend it, vindicate it, or even sanction it. And even if we may have legitimate (human) excuse for it, it does not change God’s call for us to live a life free from it. When we give into sin because we believe we have just cause to do so, it plants the tiniest seed of pride within our hearts that, if left unchecked, can grow into a weed that chokes out the peace of a soul in step with its Maker.
“Yes, I know God said not to do this, but I think just this once it’s okay.”
“God’s Word says this, but I believe He’d be fine with it in this instance.”
I think. I believe.
When we justify our sin with our own rationale, we attempt to take away God’s sovereignty and make ourselves gods in our own sight. And when you are your own god, who is to say what’s sin but yourself? While this thought might seem powerful initially, it is a dark, deep, scary hole from which it is almost impossible to escape.
“…each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1: 14-15).
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego understood this. While they had perfectly legitimate reasons to give into sin, they instead chose the opposite:
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 4: 17-18).
Even under threat of death, these three brave men refused to let sin enter their hearts or their lives. They had every reason to do it. Good reasons, if you looked at it from a merely human perspective. And yet they stood against temptation, against evil, and against culture. Because God’s commands, no matter how illogical or irrational they may seem at the time, are always for our good.
No, not just for our good.
For our best.
P.S. If you don’t know the end of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I highly encourage you to read the rest of Daniel 4. Their steadfastness did NOT go unrewarded. Check it out. 🙂