I used to work for a company that created software for publishers. It handled mail orders accompanied by checks, cash, or credit card information. It included a tool that balanced all the money that came into the mailroom with the money entered into the system with the money 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 said it questioned the integrity of their employees. They demanded we 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 had heard of cheats before. I always said, ‘I’d never do that.’ And then I did.”
Self-Deception Leads to Self-Destruction
This simple self-identity of “I’d never do that,” gave this grandmother a false self-confidence. But when external constraints were removed (“It was so easy”) she became a crook. Her self-pretense allowed a weed of greed to grow in her heart.
Each one of us grows weeds in our hearts secretly nourished in the soil of “I’d never do that”? How many of us secretly think, “But I’d never … betray a fellow Christian, use drugs, be unfaithful, or cheat on my taxes”?
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 at least equally harmful though different?
We say, “I’d never do that.” But what if we could? What if God, for one sliver of time, looked away; what if we knew, for one tiny moment, no one would ever find out—not even God? And what if we knew there would be no consequence whatsoever?
That is the real terror of possessing the Ring of Power (in The Lord of The Rings). If given unlimited power and if every restraint was removed, what evil would we commit? We might not do what Sauron does, but we would do something 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.
The Grace of Rules and Restraints
Restraints (such as peer-pressure or accountability groups) temporarily save us from self-deceived destructive behavior. We agree to these restrictions in moments of clarity to strengthen us for the coming moments of confusion.
But restraints are like training wheels. They keep us upright as we develop an inner poise. But in a moment of mechanical failure, the wheels 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 yet enough. It is God’s grace—not our personal greatness—that keeps us from falling.
When we claim, “I’d never do that,” we are injecting ourselves with self-euphoric heroin.
Holding onto God
We need inner poise not mere external restraints. God says, “Do not be like the horse or the mule … held in check by bit and bridle” (Psalm 32:9).
Let’s use 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 our lives as we are reshaped with his desires.
Someday the bits and bridles are coming off. They always do. Always.
Retrained behavior is good; the life of God in us is better. Only God can change our lives; not the self-hypnosis of rules and restraints. Only a relationship.
I haven’t spoken to the woman who embezzled since that interview thirty-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.”