1 John 1:8-10;
Several months ago I, like you, sat in front of the television set listening as former President Bill Clinton was being interviewed by Dan Rather and was reflecting on his life. Obviously, he was promoting his book. Dan Rather put the microphone in his face and asked him the question that every one of us has wanted to ask him.
Dan Rather asked him about the affair that he had with Monica Lewinsky while he was the President of the United States. The President gave an answer that is the moral code of our culture, and speaks more to our day than it does to his particular situation. When he was asked about Monica Lewinsky, he simply said, “I did it because I could.”
The tragedy of America and of the world that we live in today is that attitude has become our moral code. It defines the morality by which most of our culture lives. If we have the power to do something, that gives us the right to do it. The moral implications of what we do are meaningless and ignored. The effects of my actions on others are meaningless and ignored.
I did it because I could explains why the executives of Enron raped the company and stole the retirement plans of millions of people.
I did it because I could explains why millions are stolen from the public trough each year by public officials all across the nation.
I did it because I could tells why abortions are used as a form of birth control by countless thousands in our nation.
We did it because we could explains why two teenaged girls kill the grandparents of one of them because they want more freedom in their lives.
We did it because we could explains why people continually ignore the laws of our land.
I did it because I could explains why a South Carolina mother drowns her two sons by strapping them in the back seat and driving the car into a lake.
I did it because I could explains why a Texas mother kills her five children.
I did it because I could explains why a nine-year-old child, recently reported in the news, drowned his three-year-old neighbor in their swimming pool and pulled up a chair to watch him drown, and then got excited when he was on the news that evening.
I did it because I could seems to be the word of our day. We see the problems of our day as ignorance so we run to education. This is not saying that education is not important; I’ve spent a lot of my life around educational institutions. We seem to think that the problems of our day are inner disorganization, so we run to therapy. We seem to think the problems of our day are financial so we run to Wall Street. We seem to think the problems of our day are environmental so we run to legal systems. We seem to think that the problems of our day are political so we throw ourselves into that particular arena.
These issues must be dealt with, but the Bible is clear that none of these issues touches the heart of the human dilemma. The human dilemma can be spelled S-I-N. Now I know that in mainline churches in America, it is out of the question for the pastor to talk about sin. We all grew up in churches where Church Lady defines sin as F-U-N. But when we come down to the heart of the matter, we have to say that the basic problem with humankind is the fact that we are estranged from God.
I frequently receive articles written by those who know how to do ministry and do church, telling us why they have become so successful, how their churches have gotten so big, and how they have become so popular. Every one of them says one thing, “Don’t ever mention sin in your pulpit. Make sure your church is similar to a pep rally, and make sure that it has a positive mental attitude.”
The pastor of one of the largest churches in America never mentions sin when he preaches. He talks about a positive mental attitude and does a psychiatric experiment with his people every Sunday. That may work for the masses, but as I read the New Testament and understand the ministry of Jesus, and as I try to understand what the Bible is all about, I am convinced that the cardinal issue in the lives of people is simply plain, old sin. Fifteen pages in a Bible dictionary are required to define sin.
Modern culture has taken a low view of sin. When I came out of seminary, I was given a low view of sin. I had a good seminary education, but it was the fad of that day not to think very highly of sin. It did not take me long, dealing with a congregation, to find out that sin was in vogue because my people were participating in it. They were enjoying it. They were reveling in it. They were splashing around in it. So I had to revise my attitude about it.
The Bible takes sin seriously. Unlike our modern religions, the Bible has a high view of sin. It is a condition of dreadful estrangement from God. We find ourselves in sin and suffer its painful effects. And God offers us, in Jesus Christ, salvation from it.
I read recently of a discussion on MTV, the sin channel of cable television. The discussion by leading musicians, actors, and other celebrities was about the seven deadly sins. In case you don’t know, they are sloth, lust, anger, envy, greed, gluttony and pride.
Ice T, the rapper said, “Lust is not a sin. The whole list is dumb.” Another one of these celebrities, an opinion maker, said, “Sloth is good. Everybody needs a break.” Kirstie Alley from Cheers said, “Pride is not a sin. Some idiot made up that list.”
I did it because I could not only defines the morality of our day, but it defines our freedom.
Saint Augustine, in trying to discuss the human situation, said in one of his letters that we choose sin. We operate as though sin does not exist. It is not fashionable to think of humankind in moral terms. It presumes that there is a moral law beyond us. It presumes that there is a relationship to be obtained with God. We do not locate the problem in alienation from God. We locate it somewhere else. It is a serious issue in the lives of people in our culture.
John Steinbeck, the celebrated author, wrote the book Travels with Charlie. He said he had lost track of America, so he put his dog Charlie in the seat next to him and started out to drive across America. The first thing he did was to go to a little white, rural church in Maine. He sat on the back pew, and he heard a traditional, old style, dark-suited, long-faced, growling minister preach. He said, “That minister knew every sin in the congregation, and almost named the people that went with them. He didn’t leave a sin unnamed.”
So he went to church the next Sunday somewhere else, and he heard pablum. The following Sunday the minister gave cotton candy. He drove on across America, and he said, “The only minister I heard all across America who loved his people enough to call sin sin was in that church in Maine. Everybody else was afraid of it.” We need to understand that it tears up our families, it rips apart our fellowship, and it destroys relationships between people, all in the name of I did it because I could.
I read in the National Geographic about a major swamp in Africa, a natural habitat for flamingos. The swamp is fed by streams. The writer said, “You see thousands upon thousands of beautiful flamingos out there, but there was a problem with that flamingo habitat — chalky waters coming from the stream had collected there. The ecology had been disturbed because there had been some mining upstream, and minerals were in the swamp. The flamingos living and feeding there collected calcium on their feet and ankles. When predators came, the flamingos would try to fly but they couldn’t because of the calcium buildup on their ankles.”
Sin is the same way with us. I see our people doing things because they can, because they have the freedom to do it. There is a slow sin buildup on their ankles, then after a while, they can’t move at all and they become captive to it. I did it because I could destroys and separates.
You know the parable in the Bible about the prodigal son, the boy that went to his father and demanded his part in the inheritance. To make the story brief, he went into the Far Country (I think Far Country should be spelled as a proper noun), and he spent his inheritance in riotous living. He ended up broke, without friends, eating the food of pigs on a Gentile farm, which is about as far away from home as a Jewish boy could be.
“Then he came to himself,” the Bible said. The boy said, “The servants on the old home place eat better than this. I’m going home and ask just to be a servant.” His father met him halfway, threw his arms around him, and gave him the royal robe, the ring, and the sandals to celebrate, and said, “Kill the fatted calf. My son who was lost and wandered away has been found and is home.”
The elder brother, working in the field, heard the singing and dancing, and he asked, “Why are they celebrating?” Someone answered, “Your brother who was lost has come home.” And he said, “You know, I’ve served my father all these years, and he’s never thrown me a party.”
Now, just for fun, I want to do what Dan Rather did. I want to interview these people, starting with the prodigal son.
Interviewer: “Why did you leave home, break your father’s heart, take one-third of the family net worth? Why did you leave home and do that?”
Prodigal son: “I did it because I could.”
Interviewer: “Why did you spend that money on riotous living, women of ill repute, people with bad reputations? Why did you do it?”
Prodigal son: “I did it because I could.”
Interviewer: “Why did you end up in the pig farm, eating slop for your meals? Why did you do that?”
Prodigal son: “I did it because I could.”
Then I would go into the barn to see the hardworking, elder brother. I would put the microphone in his face and ask him a question.
Interviewer: “You stayed home all these years, and you are as smug and pious as you can be. Why is it that you are that way about your brother? Why did you respond that way when your brother came home and your father rejoiced?”
Older son: “I did it because I could.”
Then I would find the old man with a chiseled face, puffy eyes from crying and praying over his two boys who were sinful, and now on a walker.
Interviewer: “Why, why, why did you welcome that boy home? He made you poor; he destroyed your net worth; he broke your heart; he caused your wife to be an invalid, he tore the heart out of everything that you believed and owned. Why did you receive him home?”
The old man: (With a tear in his eye) “I welcomed him because I could.”
That is God. You may have expressed your freedom and destroyed your family and friends, destroyed your business and your reputation. You may have expressed your freedom, wrapped a robe of righteousness around yourself, and felt superior to all of those who have wandered away in their rebellion. Your attitude is an expression of your freedom.
But God provided a cross and that cross is there for one reason — because God wants us to know that salvation is difficult. If you have a flip idea that you sin, then run in and God will forgive you, and then do it over and over again — no! Sin abounds but grace abounds more. It is a cross in the heart of God that bleeds because of God’s love for us.
Why did the Father do it? Why would the Son of God die for the sins of the world? Because we are in the Far Country, and we have gone there because we could. His word to us now is to come home, to get out of the Far Country and to come back because the Father opens His arms to us. Whatever we have done, He opens His arms to us because He can and because He would.
William L. Self is Senior Pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, GA.