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.
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 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.”