The Nearly Damnable Danger of “I’d Never Do That”

I used to work for a company that created software for publishers. It handled mail orders that were accompanied by checks, cash, or credit card information.

We had a balancing tool that ensured all the money that came into the mailroom was entered into the Grandmother holdup r2system and deposited in the bank. It protected against embezzlement.

In 1988 we installed the software at a large Christian publisher. When management heard of our checks and balances, they were appalled. They felt it questioned the integrity of their employees. They asked us to turn off the balancing feature.

A year later, a timid, gray-haired, rooster-pecked grandmother—a long-term employee of the publisher—stole fifteen thousand dollars.

Afterward I asked her, “Why?” She shyly stammered, “It was so easy. The money was just sitting there. It was just so darn easy.” She added,

I’d heard of embezzlers before. I always said, ‘I’d never do that.And then I did.”

Her simple path to self-destruction    …     

This simple grandmother’s self-identity of “I’d never do that,” led to a false self-confidence, but when external constraints were removed (“It was so easy”) she became a thief. Her self-pretense allowed a weed of greed to grow in her heart.

How many weeds grow in our hearts, secretly nourished in the soil of “I’d never do that”? How many of us secretly think, “But I’d never … use drugs, be unfaithful, cheat on my taxes, molest a child, or resort to violence”?

We see others divorce or commit adultery, or perhaps they betray us. We say, “I’d never do that,” but can we be so sure? If we had their parents, their lives, their temptations—and if we had their restraints removed—do we honestly know what we’d do?

If God removed those same restraints in our lives, might we do the very same thing? Or maybe something completely different but equally harmful or worse?

What if…

What do we mean when we say, “I’d never do that”? Do we mean, “I would never do that,” or “I could never do that”? I think we tell ourselves, “I would never…” when what we really mean is, “I could never….”

But what if we could? What if God, for one sliver of time, looked away, and if we knew, for one sliver of concealment, no one—not even God—would ever find out?

This is actually the terror of the Ring of Power (in The Lord Of The Rings). If given unlimited power—if every restraint was removed—we might not do the evil Sauron does, but we might do something else equally evil. If given the Ring of Power:

  • Galadriel would become “Great and terrible … All shall love me and despair.”
  • Boromir would save his people from Sauron by becoming an evil substitute.
  • In the end even Frodo yields. He is saved by an external force—Gollum’s teeth.

God’s grace in rules and restraints

Restraints (such as accountability groups like Covenant Eyes, peer-pressure, or will-power) temporarily save us from destructive behavior. We agree to them in moments of clarity to strengthen us in moments of confusion.

Restraints are like training wheels. They keep us upright as we develop an inner poise. But in a moment of mechanical failure, the wheels may fall off and we crash.

How dare we disparage our friends when their training wheels break! They may actually have more inner poise at this moment than we do (just not enough). It is God’s grace—not our personal greatness—that keeps us from falling.

Do we shoot ourselves up with self-euphoric heroin when we claim, “I’d never do that”?

The danger of rules and restraints

Moralism is not the proliferation of rules and restraints; they are simply symptoms. Moralism is the self-assurance based on right behavior arising from external restraints.

God desires a changed heart not training wheels for our training wheels. When we rest our hearts on our restrained behavior, we are in a moment of grave danger. A time will come—and it will!—when external restraints disappear or our will-power is exhausted.

What will we do then?

If our heart rests on “I’d never do that,” we will fall. And great will be that fall. If our hearts rest on “There but for the grace of God go I,” (found in God-given restraints and God-formed inner-poise) we will ride upright in freedom. And great will be that ride.

We need a strengthened heart

God wants inner strength of heart, not just external restraints. He says, “Do not be like the horse or the mule … held in check by bit and bridle” (Psalm 32:9).

Let’s find almost any restraint that keeps us from trampling on each other. But those bits and bridles are training tools to teach us to rely on God’s grace, to guide us as our hearts are reshaped with his desires. Someday the bits and bridles are coming off.

Retrained behavior is good; a spirit-changed heart is better. Only God himself can strengthen our hearts; not rules or restraints, only a relationship.

Holding on to God

I haven’t spoken to the woman who embezzled since that interview twenty-five years ago. I don’t know where she is or what she is doing or even if she is still alive. But I’ll always remember how she concluded our discussion.

Sam,” she said, “I used to go church because I thought, ‘I’d never do that.’ Now I’m holding on to God for dear life, because I know I might.

Sam

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What do YOU think?

24 thoughts on “The Nearly Damnable Danger of “I’d Never Do That”

  1. Thanks, Sam, this really hits home. I have been reading ‘Give Them Grace’, a parenting book, which teaches how to show our children Grace and relationship with Christ > over rules and orders. It talks about why so many children of Christian families don’t turn to Christ in their adult years — because of the moralism of it all — we must teach that Christ loved us through it all, and we must help them grow, as you have just written, a “spirit changed heart”!

    • Hi Rambling Wildflower,

      It sounds like you are reading a very good book, teaching grace over moralism (though I believe true grace leads to changed hearts which leads to deeply moral and warrior lives!).

      As you comment about raising kids, I remember my own earlier parenting. Honestly–and a bit humbling-ly–when I used to look at other parenting styles and examples, I used to say, “I’d never do that!”

      Even in my hopes for grace, I was trusting … in myself. Alas.

  2. Sam,

    Very good topic and so true. I know from personal experience too, when I crossed over the line. Thanks to God’s grace He redeemed from that painful situation.

    Shalom

    Bill

    • Hi Bill,

      Even though I can write about it (the dangers of “I’d never do that”), I find I still think it deep in my heart. I cross over that line far too often.

      Writing is not the same as doing; understanding is not the same as living.

      God help us all!

      Thanks,

      Sam

    • I like this analogy, it reminds be of my partially yielded heart. That is I often think about finding all the training wheels i can, just because I know what I am capable of and think that I need all the help I can find to keep myself in check. Yet, like Sam has pointed out, these externals are, at least in small ways, just that. The danger is that my tendency is to think these externals will “do the trick” and my reliance on them keeps me from pursuing the source of a changed heart. I would never diminish my/our intentioin to do right using the externals to keep me/us in check, as you say, until I/we “harden,” but more and more, I am trying to be careful I don’t let the training wheels become “enough” and supplant the real source of my protection…and ability of God to truely change me from the inside, if I will just pursue Him.

      Another thought to chew on…I think the best training wheels can be our companions…when we are real with each other, grace can flow through us and restore or empower our connection to God….thoughts?

      • Hi Randy,

        I like your last comment, “I think the best training wheels can be our companions.”

        Our best companions will act as training wheels (or cement forms) AND they will do something inside us to give us inner-poise or strength. Those are the best external constraints (and inner strengtheners) of all.

        I laugh (with you) at all the external aids we use … and then trust in them. Alas!

        Thanks,

        Sam

  3. Thanks again for a good one Sam. A reminder to remain humble and keep Him first, by hiding His word in my heart.

    Jeff

    • Hi Jeff,

      Yes, we really need that. But I think we are infected with the Pharisaical attitude of heaping rules upon rules. Pretty soon we break!

  4. This is pretty much exactly what I have been thinking about and discovering! Thanks so much for putting words to my thoughts.

    • Hi Joseph,

      And thank you for putting your words here on “paper” (or cyber-paper). We all needs those words to disentangle our thoughts.

  5. Okay, a friend of mine asked me what a rooster-pecked grandmother is. I thought it obvious. We often disparage the hen-pecked man, maybe for being spineless. But we forget all those women who are under the thumb of a controlling man; this grandmother was such. And I think she exploded in a kind of rebellion.

  6. I’m not very enthusiastic about this constraint removal thing. Those humbling experiences have happened to me enough that at this point I’m pretty grateful for whatever constraints God has blessed me with. I suspect he removes them just to teach me a lesson whenever I say, “I would never do that.”

    I admit, the bit and bridle passage does extol those who don’t need bits and bridles, but if I may be so bold– that passage isn’t about moral constraint. It’s about being sentient, willing learners:

    8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
    9 Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
    but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.

    Anyway, I consider my constraints to be gifts of mercy, sparing me the condition of being temptable by… everything!

    • Hi Martha,

      I’m with you when you say, “I’m pretty grateful for whatever constraints God has blessed me with.” Those constraints are God’s blessing, as you say. As I look back on my life, there are so many times that I WASN’T given the leadership, or opportunity, or power to do something. At the time I didn’t like it. Now I know God was protecting me from stepping into something I didn’t have the “strength of heart” (or character) to handle.

      But at the same time, I think God DOES want to free us from the Bit and Bridle. Not so we can do wrong things but because he has changed our hearts to want right things. The whole Psalm is a Psalm about repentance. It is when HE is our true hiding place–not just the training wheels and bits and bridles but HIM alone–when he is our hiding place, we can actually be free.

      But not before then. So we must trust in his work in our heart and not jump ahead of his plans.

      Many restraints may never be removed, a recovering alcoholic will hopefully never drink again. That doesn’t mean all restraints will remain.

      I think restraints of fear or anxiety–which can help us at times keep from sin–will eventually be removed in favor of a heart filled with strength from knowing God’s love.

      When my kids were little, I had bedtime restraints and curfew restraints. As they grew up, I loosened the restraints because they were capable … even though they might have made a mistake or two 🙂 .

  7. I think back to Biblical times and the piety of the ones who believed they kept all the laws …paid their tithes, prayed …kept all the rules and then thought they were so above those that they felt we ‘lower’ than themselves and ‘judged’ them accordingly… “I am not like them”……. Whenever we get to thinking ‘we would never’ ..watch out!…..Just some thoughts…Diane

    • Hi Diane (Writer-wannabe!),

      Great thoughts. Thank you.

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. God wants an inner-changed heart. External compliance is okay, sure. But a changed inner-heart is God’s goal. We should wash the inside of the cup and the outside will be clean as well.

      Thanks!

    • Hi Rachelle,

      You are 100% right. I could have saved an entire blog by just writing that, “God, help us all.”

      We need God most of all, in all; we need a real relationship, a conversation, a friend in God … and we need his help.

      Thanks for boiling this all down to it’s essence: we all need God’s help.

  8. Thank you for this Sam, excellent post!
    One of my favorite books is Culture of Honor by Danny Silk. One of the things he talks about is about how God values freedom whereas we love control. I think it links to your concept of external controls. We put boundaries and controls in place to make sure that we or our loved ones aren’t even exposed to temptation eg sending kids to Christian schools, in stead of teaching them how to deal with freedom and make choices that protect relationship with us and God.
    This is so counter to how God deals with us. He put the tempting tree right in the middle of the perfect garden and gave man freedom to choose to protect our relationship with Him … Or not.

    If it were up to us we’d probably never have put that tree there! Heaven is a place with more freedom than we’ve ever known (where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom), I don’t know what that looks like, but I think God is preparing us to live in that freedom while we’re here on earth. One of the questions I find quite intriguing to think about is what a place of complete freedom would look like … For example, would there still be the possibility of making bad choices?

    • Sonja,

      I so love your response. There are so many great discussion points: freedom and control, right and wrong boundaries, and avoiding temptation vs. dealing with temptation.

      Your observation about “Paradise” containing the tempting tree is brilliant. And isn’t it interesting that Adam and Eve added a man-made rule. God said don’t eat of it; Adam and Eve added, “neither shall you touch it.” But the man-made rule, in the end, didn’t protect.

      Because the real issue was their hearts’ attitude toward God. Satan says, “You shall be like God,” and in saying that, he says, “God is holding back on you … you can’t trust God.” THAT was the real temptation; we humans miss it all the time.

      I’m not a “heaven-scholar” but I suspect it’s freedom means the ability to make choices; Satan chose something bad. But I think seeing the true love God has for us–the cost of the cross–will eventually change our heart enough to simply want the right thing. Our “duty” will be converted into choice, a heart that says yes to God out of love.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  9. Amen! It is God’s Grace that saves, and by His grace we are held upright. Thank you for the reminder, Sam, ’cause I can take it for granted.
    Debbie