“Cycles of Sin”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. (Judges 2.18-19)
When we read about the Israelites’ long history, we are by turns saddened and maddened. On one hand, we tend to show some understanding for many of their sins, since we’re well acquainted with our own failures. On the other hand, how could they be so dense, so obstinate?! At some point our patience with them is exhausted, as it often is when we see a neighbor or brother repeatedly running headlong into destructive and sinful behavior. When we see such a person in distress, obviously reaping what he has sown (Ga 6.7), we’re inclined to ask, “well, what did you expect to happen?” We all find ourselves in such predicaments, though. Perhaps it’s not as extreme as the situation of the addict who’s lost his job, his family, his home, and his friends, as a result of indulging his appetite at their expense; but from a young age we often require painful consequences to learn a lesson. We learn that we shouldn’t touch the hot stove—not because it’s morally wrong to deliberately damage the bodies God gave us, but because it hurts! We’re supposed to learn from these natural consequences, and then begin to forecast what will result from, for example, walking into traffic, without having to test it to see whether our hypothesis is correct, or the instructions of our leaders. When we see someone willfully ignoring the obvious consequences and continuing into reckless behavior for the sake of momentary pleasure, we’re not sure how we could possibly help. What could we say or do that would get them to change course, when they ignore that?
The Israelites do this throughout the book of Judges. Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s not only individuals making foolish choices to continue sinning against God, as if the results will be different this time; instead, it’s a crowd of people, spanning a period of many generations. Sometimes there’s wisdom in a crowd, checking the more extreme impulses of an individual; but more often there’s folly instead. When a bad behavior becomes common, the crowd influences those who might have otherwise rejected it to question their own judgment in favor of the crowd's, and thus be led along into the same bad behavior.
Both the crowd and the individual can be influenced to change—to repent—by consequences. But all too often, as soon as the pain disappears, we go right back into the same old sin. That’s what Israel did, over and over. They rejected God, God allowed the Mesopotamians to oppress them, they returned to God and cried for help, and he sent Othniel to save them. They forgot the Mesopotamian oppression and rejected God again, so God allowed the Moabites to oppress them, after which they returned to God and cried out for help, and he sent Ehud to save them. They forgot again, rejected God again, and the cycle continued with the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Midianites, their fellow Israelites, and the Ammonites taking turns oppressing them.
The generation that followed Joshua into the promised land reflected immense growth beyond their fathers, who’d rebelled constantly against God and his chosen human representatives. It’s not that this new generation was perfect—we can read about several of their sins and shortcomings. But on the whole, they had made a strong commitment to remain faithful to the Lord.
Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel. (Joshua 24.31)
We might have thought the nation had put away certain sins for good; but the next generation proves us horribly wrong.
And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2.10-11)
All too often, individuals do the same thing, in a single lifetime. After a period spent in open rebellion to God, they learn from the natural consequences of their actions and make a commitment to God that lasts a while. But before long, that gives way to old habits of sin, until consequences produce sorrow and repentance, which lasts until the next relapse. Often the core sin has to do with drugs, or sex, or money, and just as often it comes with a host of other sins in service of carrying out, or covering up, the central transgression. Meanwhile, what do we silently scream at the Israelites? What did you think was going to happen? Why won’t you learn your lesson? Jesus taught about this:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11.24-26)
Why not, instead, give the evil spirit no room to occupy? Why not, instead, give his room to Christ, forever? Like Paul, we should say,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2.20)