The Evil We’re Capable Of

Earlier today, Joe Paterno (affectionately known as “Joe Pa”), the Penn State football coach, and quite possibly the most iconic coach in the history of college sports, announced that he would be retiring.  It isn’t because he’s now 84-years-old and he’s finally had enough or is unable to handle the responsibility anymore (his team is currently ranked 12th in the country).  Rather, he is stepping down due to perhaps the most sickening scandal ever in college sports.

In short, the man who was once considered the next in line to the Penn State head coaching position, Jerry Sandusky, has been, to date, recently charged with 40 accounts of sexual abuse against 8 boys over a span of 15 years.  These boys came from troubled backgrounds, which means that they didn’t have the same natural authority figures looking out for them that most have, making them even more vulnerable.  What’s worse is that there were many in the Penn State organization that seemingly could have intervened, but didn’t.  In 2002, a graduate assistant with the team reported to Paterno that he’d witnessed Sandusky molesting a 10-year-old boy in the locker room showers.  The grad assistant’s first reaction was to go call his dad.  Understandably, there is public outrage that this graduate assistant didn’t intervene.  Eventually, the grad assistant told Joe Paterno.  Over the course of the next weeks, Paterno reported the incident to higher authorities at Penn State.  Sandusky was asked to leave his position, but no further ramifications were issued.  Understandably, the public is furious about this as well.  The sin of omission (failing to do the right thing in a timely manner – graduate assistant, Paterno, Penn State authorities) is just as offensive as the sin of commission (doing the wrong thing  – here, Jerry Sandusky’s sexual misconduct).  The whole thing, still a very fresh news story, makes people sick and angry.

I’m not interested in lambasting the character of each of the individuals involved here and the case is a long way from over, so there may be some considerations still before total blame is issued.  But everyone mentioned has been cited by police involved in the investigation as, at the very least, having demonstrated shortfalls in moral responsibility.  This deals a tragic blow to a program that went by the motto “Success with Honor.”

So, how does this happen?  Where does such evil come from?  Who is really capable of such atrocity?

I’ve linked here an interview with Matt Millen, former Penn State player under Joe Paterno, former NFL GM, and current ESPN football analyst.  When asked about his former position coach Jerry Sandusky as a person, Millen described him as follows: “Jerry Sandusky is your next door neighbor.  He’s the guy you’ve known your whole life.  He’s a helpful guy.  He’s a light-hearted guy.  He’s a smart guy.  He’s a willing-to-help person.  He’s everything you want……I can’t imagine this.”  In other words, he sounds like the rest of us. 

A Christian’s reaction to this painful story is a little different from the rest of the world’s.  We share the same anger over ungodly behavior.  We share the same disappointment in authorities who seemingly completely failed to offer attempts to rescue children.  Of course, we share sympathy with the boys who were victimized as well as with their families.

The difference for Christians, however, is not mere sadness and anger regarding those miserable people who did such bad things.  While the punishment for that behavior is obviously directed at specific individuals, the sadness and anger is perhaps more over us miserable humans.  You see, pride and religion teach us to point to the faults of others and, by comparison, without ever verbalizing it, perceive ourselves as better.  This has been a recurring tone in almost every news program I’ve heard thus far about the Penn State scandal.  The gospel of the Bible teaches us something different though.  The gospel reminds us that we’re all guilty of sin and therefore equally deserving of God’s wrath.  This is the truth that allows the Apostle Paul, the most prolific Christian missionary ever, to write words like “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)  Interestingly, the Apostle Paul doesn’t call Jerry Sandusky the worst sinner.  He saves that title for himself.

One of my favorite quotes regarding the universal nature of sin is from the famous 20th century English writer and Christian author, G.K. Chesterton.  When a local newspaper had posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ Chesterton wrote in a brief response letter: ‘Dear Sirs: I am.’ Sincerely Yours, G. K. Chesterton.

You see, the world’s religious approach to sin goes one of two ways.  It generally starts by reducing, redefining, or relativizing sin.  The thought is that we all should just “be true to ourselves.”  Then, when tragedy strikes and the reality, prevalence, and deadliness of sin is undeniable, as has been the case in the Penn State story, we tend to think in terms of “good people” and “bad people.”  The problem with that thinking, however, is that every single one of us is guilty of the most heinous crime in world history.

As the world chokes up thinking about the abuse of innocent young boys, Christians do so likewise, but also recognize the abuse of another innocent Son.

Jesus public abuse was not as a child, but it was no less sickening, as he was even more innocent than the sweetest of children.  “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.  After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.”  (Matt 27:28-31)  They stripped him naked, mocked him, gave him a beating/flogging within an inch of his life, and then actually took his life in the most painful execution possible – crucifixion.

Beyond the physical pain for Jesus was the pain of betrayal.  In the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case cited above, a team assistant watched it happen and went and told someone else.  He didn’t intervene as he saw a child getting molested.  How does that happen?  Answer: he was more concerned about himself than the child.  Now think about Jesus’ disciples and friends.  Where were they during his crucifixion?  Same answer.  Now perhaps they simply were held back by Jesus himself from physically intervening (Matt 26:50-54).  But that doesn’t excuse their absence, their lack of support at the time of his arrest or the time of his execution.  All except John fled because they were concerned about themselves.  And quite honestly, I’d like to think I’d have done better, but if most of Jesus’ disciples chickened out, I honestly don’t know that I would have had the guts for the situation either.

And beyond both the physical pain and the personal betrayal, for Jesus, the worst pain was the torment of hell – true separation from his Heavenly Father (Matt 27:46).  And that all had to happen as a result of…..OUR sin.  We committed the evil that murdered God’s Son.

News stories like this one with Penn State aren’t as much about those awful people over in ___________, as they are about the awful fallen state of humanity.  The unfortunate reality is that I’m more dangerous, more broken, more of a murderer than I’d ever realized.  However, the fortunate reality is that I’m more loved, more forgiven, and now by the grace of God, more of God’s child than I’d ever dreamed.

Despite my flaws, your flaws, or anyone’s flaws, all of us who killed Jesus have the grace of God extended to us.  We have the innocence of God’s perfect Son credited to us, ironically, through the same execution that we carried out.  We’re capable of great evil, but the good news, the gospel of Jesus is that Jesus’ goodness swallows up and devours our evil every time.

Hearing the news story at Penn State shouldn’t make us feel morally superior.  It should lead us to recognize the depth of Christ’s love.  Can God’s grace extend all the way to the depths of lost, perverse, evil souls?  It did with us.

The Idols We Never Knew We Had: PART VIII – Religion

And finally….we’ve come to the last week in our study of idolatry.  Perhaps the most pristine looking of idols, the most seemingly outwardly god-pleasing, is the idol of religion.

Now, we’re going to make a clear distinction of terms here so that there’s no confusion.  We’ll define “religion” as the belief of the world (and the human heart in its natural state) that man can make himself right with God if he does the right things.  We’ll define the “gospel” as the essential opposite, that man CANNOT make himself right with God, but that God descended to mankind in the form of Jesus, and through his gift of gracious love found in Jesus’ sacrifice, HE made man right with God.

In religion, man goes to God.  In the gospel, God comes to man.  Religion is about what I do.  The gospel is about what Jesus did.  Religion says that some are either born or eventually become good or bad.  The gospel says we’re born bad, but Jesus is good, so our future is good.  You get the point.

It’s a little difficult for Christians today to understand that Christianity should probably and properly not be labeled as a “religion.”  The world categorizes us as simply another belief system that has certain spiritual practices.  But, when Christianity first arose it was recognized so clearly and uniquely as a non-religion.   The Christians had no temple, and they had no priests sacrificing no animals at this non-existent temple.  Jesus himself was the logical conclusion to each of those religious customs.  This lack of religious traditionalism and external rite (with some obvious exceptions, like Baptism & Communion) was absolutely confounding to the pagans as well as the super-religious Jewish moralists.

Today we still tend to drift back towards religious ideology.  Despite the new nature we possess as Christians, we never fully shake the effects of the sinful nature in this lifetime.  Consequently, we never fully shake the prideful desire for religion to make us right with God in this lifetime either.  Unfortunately, sometimes Christians and Christian churches are some of the guiltiest parties when it comes to “religious observance.”  Sometimes it seems as though the only ones that Christian churches attract are the well-groomed, moralistic people of the world, i.e. the highly religious.  But that wasn’t really who Jesus attracted.  That was precisely who Jesus offended.  And this reality ultimately leads us to ask if the message we’re proclaiming today is always consistent with the message that he was proclaiming.

Again, we’ll understand better if we see the truth pointed out to us in God’s Word.

Most Christians have heard of Jesus’ famous parable of “The Lost Son” (Luke 15:11-32).  But, as Dr. Timothy Keller wisely points out in his book The Prodigal God, the story is probably better called “The Two Lost Sons” or “The Love of the Father” because the parable actually starts out: “There was a man who had two sons.”  (Luke 15:11)  Both of these sons are in spiritual peril.

No one doubts that the Father’s love in the story represents the gracious and forgiving love of God.  No one doubts that the younger son in the story represents all wayward souls who have indulged in the life of immorality only to come to their spiritual senses upon reaching rock bottom and returning to the open arms of God.  However, the misunderstood character of the account is the older brother.  Keep in mind, Jesus started teaching these parables on “The Lost” in Luke 15 principally for the benefit of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the super religious (Luke 15:2).  They went to worship regularly.  They gave large sums of money to the church.  They performed all of the worship customs and traditions and ceremonies immaculately.  And because they did all of this, they felt that God was indebted to them.  Like the older brother in the parable, they believed their Father (i.e. God) owed them good things due to their external faithfulness.  Also like the older brother, they were furious that the Father’s love could possibly extend to the prostitutes and tax collectors (i.e. the younger brothers).  Now, the only way that the older brother Pharisees and teachers of the law could possibly be upset with God about this is if they didn’t understand that the very love which the Father was showing to the younger brother prostitutes and tax collectors was the same gracious love that saved them too.  In other words, they didn’t understand the grace of the gospel because they were too religious.

The fascinating connection in the parable between the younger brother and the older brother is found in what they are both pursuing.  Both of them wanted the goods of the father, not the father himself.  Yes, the young brother makes this more obvious – he defiantly demands his inheritance early on in life, separating himself from the father for the sake of living how he wants.  But the older brother, through his anger, showed what the desire of his heart really was too.  He was mad at the father for welcoming the younger brother back into the family and now once again making him an heir in the family.  This re-admittance into the family actually came at financial loss to the older brother, since the property that remained of the father’s had been destined for the older son.  In other words, welcoming the younger son back into the family required true sacrifice on the part of the older brother.  Forgiveness always comes at a cost and it’s the one who is doing the forgiving who has to absorb the loss.  So when the Father in this account kills the fattened calf for the younger son and puts the special robe and ring on him, it is legitimately taking money out of the older son’s pocket.

All of this was so offensive to the older brother who felt he deserved so much more for his obedience.  But remember, both sons challenged the father.  Both sons sought to control the father through their behavior – one bad, one good.  Both sons were interested in the father’s inheritance, not the happiness of their father.  They’re a lot more alike than they think, and more alike than we initially think.

The scary part is that we’re never told that the older brother went in to the Father’s banquet.  “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28)  While the wild, immoral living was certainly dangerous to the younger son, the moralistic obedience of the older son was just as dangerous, perhaps more so, because unlike the younger son, he appears to be blind to his real spiritual condition.

When you think about the parable in its entirety, noting the personality of the older brother, you begin to better understand the behavior of the younger brother at the outset.  While the younger brother’s rebellion and immoral living are certainly not justifiable, you can understand his hatred of home due to the relationship he must have had with his moralistic older brother.  Who would want to be in a family where you thought you had to earn love through obedience.  It’s hypocrisy to even call that “family.”

Many in the world today have lumped Christianity together with other religions and recognize that the Christian faith has called us away from “younger brother” immoral living, but they often fail to recognize that the Christian faith has also called us away from “older brother” moralistic self-righteousness and judgment.  That’s an image, and at times a sad reality, that we as individuals and as a church need to repent of regularly – the idol of religion.  The world’s assessment that Christian churches are just “more moralistic religion” is regrettably sometimes fair.

So how do we move beyond the idol of religion?  It starts by recognizing the brother we wish existed in the parable.

If you examine all three “lost” parables in Luke 15, you notice that “The Lost Son” is different from the other two in that there is no character in it who goes out and searches for what was lost.  By the absence of one seeking the lost brother in this third and final parable, Jesus is teaching something pretty remarkable.  He is creating for us a longing for a better older brother.  And he’s helping us see that HE is the this better older brother.

Think through the account again.  We are lost.  God the Father is the Father.  If the older brother really loved the young, wayward brother, he would have left the Father’s house and chased after the younger brother, encouraged him to come home and absorbed the financial blow of welcoming the younger brother back into the family.  Who does that sound like?  Left the comfort of his Father’s home.  Check.  Pursued the lost brother.  Check.  Encouraged him to turn away from the lost life and turn back to life with the Father.  Check.  Paid the cost so that the younger brother could re-enter the family and once again be an heir to the Father’s blessings.  Check.  This greater older brother that we long for when hearing this parable is an actual reality for us – our Savior Jesus Christ.  “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17).

To avoid the idol of religion, there are a few things we want to recognize.  By nature, we are all lost brothers.  In our lives, we struggle with the tendencies of this parable’s lost brothers, sometimes the tendencies of both of them.  But the love of the Father extends to us all through the greater older brother Jesus.  And through his sacrifice, we have once again become heirs of our heavenly Father – recipients of promised real estate in paradise.

As with the two brothers, the distance from the least of us to the greatest of us is negligible in the conversation of earning the Father’s love (and our salvation).  None of us can come close to working our way to God through religion.  But we fortunately don’t have to because of our perfect brother Jesus.  And that means that we’re all in the same boat.  None of us has room for judgment.  None of us can point fingers.  None of us is proud.  All of us are humble because we’re all saved by a generous family member’s gracious gift.  No religion.  Just the gospel.