Some Shady Characters
by Fr. Jack McArdle
In this chapter I want to look at how you and I have added to the problem, by the sins we ourselves commit. Again, to understand this properly, it is important to keep in mind that, through no fault of my own, I am born into a sinful state. I am not using that as an excuse for all my sins, or as a reason why I can do anything I feel like doing, and blame it on my damaged nature. If I am to be anywhere near being honest, at all, I should be ready to take responsibility for many of the things I do, knowing that it is usually my own selfishness, greed, or jealousy that has caused the harm. Eve's real problem was, not that she did wrong, but that she shrugged off her own responsibility in the matter, by saying, "The devil made me do it."
Firstly, let us look at the dark side of our nature, the part that is sometimes called the shadow. It's like the dark side of the moon, the part that we turn away from others, and will not permit to be seen. We all have our shadow, and, unfortunately, it is a part of us that we may not easily accept, that we do not like, and that we may even deny that it's there at all. An excellent book, around for a while now, is called "Make friends with your shadow". It asks us to accept the way things are, and not to be afraid to get to know that part of us that we don't like.
Did you ever hear the comment "She's really very nice, when you get to know her." The socket over there in the wall has a positive and a negative. If it hadn't that, there would be no power. Everything has its opposite. If there was no light, there would be no darkness, there would be nothing with which we just judge light. If there was no such thing as sickness, we probably wouldn't have the word "health", because we wouldn't need it. If I have come through a war, I will appreciate peace all the more, just as if I was reared in poverty, I will strive to get a good job, and to better myself. I think, just as the shadow in me can cause me to project the bright side even more, the bright side should not deny the shadow, pretend it does not exist, and do nothing about it.
In a subsequent chapter, I will speak about Jesus coming, and how he declared very definitely, that he was on the side of the shadow, that he came to reclaim those things in us that we reject, and deny. He showed this most strongly by hanging around with the outcasts, the unwanted, and the rejects of society. He showed strongly where his preference lay.
Anyhow, back to us. Because of original sin, there is some kind of rebelliousness deep within us, that shows a stubborn determination to have its own way, and is not very ready to listen to common sense. It is like an addiction, or a compulsion, that can fight with great cunning for its own survival. All diets start next Monday, and there are a whole lot of people out there who are definitely going to stop smoking next Lent! Anything only face up to things now, as that part of me bargains for survival. I heard of a man who read so much about the dangers of smoking that, one day, he made a firm resolution, and gave up reading!
St. Paul gives us a good and a very honest description of what he experienced within himself, and it would be worth listening to most of it. ".....I am full of human weakness, sold as a slave to sin. I cannot explain what is happening to me, because I do not do what I want, but, on the contrary, the very things I hate. ........I am not the one striving towards evil, but it is sin, living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, I mean, in my flesh. I can want to do what is right, but I cannot do it. In fact, I do not do the good I want, but the evil I hate. Therefore, if I do what I do not want to do, I am not the one striving towards evil, but sin, which is in me. I discover, then, this reality: though I wish to do something good, the evil within me reasserts itself first. Even though my real self rejoices in the good, I notice within me another drive that challenges that good, and delivers me, like a slave, to the forces of sin that are within me." I thought I should quote that at some length, because it is so honestly human from someone who was a very great man of God. Paul goes on, later in that passage, of course, to rejoice that Jesus had come to his rescue, when he himself experienced helplessness.
There is always a struggle or tension in life, as I experience myself pulled in one direction, and then in another. There is a tension between what I want to do, and what I ought to do. I go into a shop to buy something, and may end up with other items that I want, but don't really need. I can, of course, makes choices, but it is not always easy. I would argue that it is not really the tensions that cause the problem, but any attempt on my part to deny them, or pretend they are not there. There can be a whole lot of denial in myself, because the biggest lies I tell are the ones I tell myself. I will never really be honest with others, until I begin by being honest with myself. To do wrong is one thing, but to deny that wrong, and pretend it doesn't exist, only makes things worse. I am not, at all, talking about guilt trips, or flogging myself for what I do wrong. All I am saying is that it is necessary for my own maturity, and inner peace, to recognise the tendencies within me, and to try to understand why I do what I do.
It is frightening when I come across someone who is trying to justify very destructive behaviour. In recent times, on our television screens, we have had leaders in the former Yugoslavia, in Northern Ireland, in Rhwanda, etc., seeking to justify something that is dreadfully evil. There has never been a bomb planted, or a bullet fired, that did not begin in the human heart. The heart of man(and woman) can be a source of real evil, and, I believe we have within us the seeds of our own destruction. Like St. Paul, we can all identify some force within us, that seems to drag us down, to hold us back, or to compel us into actions we would rather not do.
Let me introduce the word "sin". Sin is a lie, in some form, whether the action itself is deceitful, or it is based on something that is untrue. Let me be very specific about this, and do so through examples. Original sin happened when Adam and Eve fell for the lie they were told. I am not saying they were blameless, because they must have had some idea of being independent of God, or the temptation would not have been tempting. In other words, if one person found a wallet containing five thousand pounds, what is done with that will be decided by what is going on in the person's heart, and not by what is in the wallet. If the finder decides to hold on to the money, that action will have to be based on lie, and, of course, on a lie that suits the finder. He can convince himself that someone else would have found it, and probably would have kept it, anyhow, so what's the difference when the person who lost the money was not going to get it back, anyhow. Someone with all that money in cash must surely have plenty of it, and this won't really be missed, and so, I convince myself that I need it more than the other. Immediately, you can be certain, that the mind will begin to put together whatever argument leads to the bottom line — I put the wallet in my pocket. That is a sin, right there, because it is saying something that is not true, and that I know to be untrue.
A married man is having an affair, and he brings home flowers to his wife, and is particularly nice to her, just to reassure her that she is the only woman in this world for him. That is a sin, because it is not true. Don't forget what I am saying: bringing home the flowers is also a sin, because it is a lie. His conversations, promises, and undying love being promised to the other woman is also a sin, because he is not a free agent, and is acting out a lie, and is assuming rights he does not have. Just watch the roundabout ways he goes about things, the deviousness, the plotting, and the intrigue, and watch how restless, and on his guard he becomes, and then try to tell me that he doesn't know that what he's doing is wrong!
The liar has to have a good memory, because it is important to repeat the same lie, or I'm caught. One lie usually requires several others to back it up, and so begins the path that continues original sin in new and various forms. And then there is all the injustice that flows from sin...the money that is stolen....the marriage and home that is wrecked....the life that is lost, and the families that are bereaved. Especially the destruction within my own spirit when I go against my own conscience, and try to live with the lies. It is not possible to live with lies, and have peace in my heart. I believe that I am punished more by my sins, than for them. That is why is has happened, on occasions, that, years after a murder was committed, someone called into the police station, and confessed to what he had done.
When I speak of sin here, I am not at all speaking from a church point of view; in other words, the church says this is a sin, therefore, it is. I am speaking here, as a human being, who is supplied with a conscience, and with a set of justice weighing-scales somewhere within my being, and when I try to act, while ignoring that fact, little red flags, red lights, and warning bells draw my attention to that. In other words, if we had never been given the Ten Commandments, it would have made little real difference, because, I believe they are written in our hearts. I know it is right to honour my parents, and that it is wrong to kill, steal, or tell lies. Any mother will tell you that, one look at a three or four-year-old child, and it is obvious, a mile away, that he has been up to something.
I remember, some years ago, watching a nephew of mine, trying to turn on a television set, without his granny noticing it. I was fascinated, as he talked to her, told her he loved her, gave her a book to read, and, all the time he was backing towards the television set, with his hand behind his back, ready to push the button. This was before they got a television set, with, what he would call, a "mote control". Anyhow, he succeeded in turning on the telly, and, but for the fact that he couldn't manage to control the sound, with his back still to the set, he might have got away with it!
I remember, on another occasion, watching two young people open up the boxes, and assemble the parts of a computer. Again, it was fascinating, as, with the occasional glance at the instructions, and their instinct for such things, the whole set-up began to take shape. That same afternoon, they were already printing out some fancy drawings and works of art. The whole secret of success lay in following the maker's instructions, using every part that had been provided, and connecting them up in the correct way.
It is the same with us, God's very intricate creation. If we follow the Maker's instructions, and not try to make short-cuts, because we couldn't be bothered to do things correctly, then we don't break down, and we work peacefully, and at ease with ourselves. Sin is a disease, as in dis-ease, or a lack of ease. It is a rasping grating sound, disturbs the soul's tranquillity, and makes it even more difficult for me to enjoy my own company. And that is a fact. I can become totally ill-at-ease in my own company, and I will require the help of a walkman (or a brain by-pass, as I've heard it called!) to drown out any attempts at the still quiet voice of conscience to get my attention.
Sin is selfishness, where I put myself before another, and meet my needs at the expense of someone else. There is always a destructive dimension to sin, because selfishness, and self-will run riot, tends to trample down the needs and welfare of others. I was speaking to a little girl recently, who was being prepared for her First Confession, and she insisted on telling me her sins. A sort of dry-run practice for the real thing, the following Monday night, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, I had one very strong reaction within myself, as I listened. Why, oh why do we call such things "sins" ? Why not call them "things I did that were wrong", and introduce the word "sin" when the harmful, destructive behaviour begins. It would be a great tragedy to lose a sense of sin, and there are times when I fear that this is what is happening.
Planted bombs, scattering human limbs in all directions, are defended as necessary for the furtherance of some cause. What an evil, evil, lie! Human nature, unbridled, and conscience, unheeded, can produce ugliness beyond compare. The ugliness, and the evil is bad enough, but to try to justify it, on the level of some noble or high ideal, makes the whole thing sickening and disgusting. The problem is that those who do such things, and those who suffer the results of such atrocities, are all part of who and what we are. If I am not part of the human solution, then, be sure, I am certainly part of the problem. There is no in-between, when I can stand back, and look on, like a spectator. A sin is a sin, and if God wanted a society where each could act independently of the others, he would have given us Ten Suggestions, and not Ten Commandments.
We are all sinners, because we have inherited a nature that is drawn towards the selfish, and the easy way out. In a later chapter I will share how I see what God has done to buy us back from all kinds of slavery. I will also have to look at what happens when I face up to truth in my life, and stop hiding behind excuses and falsehoods. In the meantime, I just wish to stress that we are all sinners.
One time, a minister got very discouraged by the lack of interest and response among his people, so he decided to give up his ministry, and look for work from which he might get greater job satisfaction. He was surprised, and disappointed, to discover that work was very hard to come by, and he had to settle for a job in the local zoo. Before he took over his new job, however, he was asked to help out in an emergency that had arisen. The chimpanzee had died, and it was not possible to replace him at once, so, in the meantime, the zoo would lose the custom of the children who came especially just to watch the chimp. Anyhow, the minister was persuaded to put on a chimpanzee outfit, and enter the cage, where all he need do was lie down in the sun, get up now and then, and jump around a few times, and then go in the back for a rest. To his amazement, whenever he jumped or rolled around, he drew great crowds, and he began to think that he was now getting more attention than he had when he was preaching for all those years! He actually began to like the job, and to get into the spirit of it. One day, feeling in high glee, he jumped up, caught the overhead bar, and began to swing to and fro. He was enjoying the cheers of the crowds so much, that he got carried away, and began to put more and more energy into the swinging. And then, just as he swung high into the air, didn't his hold on the bar slip, and he went flying over the partition into the cage beside him. This cage contained a lion, and, as the lion approached, our friend was terrified, and forgetting that he was supposed to be a chimp, he shouted "Help! Help!", and the lion whispered, "Shut up, you fool, or you'll ruin everything. I'm a minister, too!"
No matter what the other people look like, no matter how smartly they dress, or how correctly they behave, they share one thing with you and with me. They are sinners, with a nature that is subject to the law of gravity, which can bring them down without any great effort on their part. When I say that I am a sinner, I don't mean to say that I commit sin all the time, but that, unless I am on my guard, and open to truth and honesty, I can look at the greatest blackguard, or the most hardened criminal, and say, with total honesty, "But for the grace of God, which came through family, rearing, or environment, that could be me." When I really believe that I am a sinner, I will stop in my tracks, and think, before I attempt to throw a stone at anyone. Someone said one time that, when you point a finger at others, you are pointing three at yourself.
If what I write helps you see sin for the destructive thing it is, and helps you identify that in your own life, then it will have achieved what I set out to do. I am deliberately not talking religion here, as much as plain common sense, and appealing to that streak of honesty and fairness, that's also part of who and what we are. Despite our damaged nature, and our inclination towards getting it wrong, I also happen to believe that people are, basically, very good, and make great efforts to do the good. We all need to be reminded, however, because we can all drift into habits and behaviour that, after a while, are accepted as normal.
A sin is a sin, just, as the poet said that a rose called any other name, would smell as sweet. My conscience can get hoarse from not being listened to, and I can begin to skim the surface of life, without any great depth, or sincerity. I can become indifferent, I couldn't care less, and I just couldn't be bothered, and that is the worse state of all. The opposite to love is not hatred, but indifference, and when I reach that stage, I am spiritually dead, and can no longer have any life-giving qualities. When I fail to, at least, try to be honest, and to be authentic, I am mediating death to those around me, and I am more of a burden than a blessing to those who share life's journey with me.
Two men stood at the street corner in a country town, as a funeral came up the street. One man asked the other who had died, and was told that it was Pat Mc Carthy. "Ah, is Pat dead?" asked the other, as the hearse passed by (I hope he was!). "What did he die of?" asked the first man, to which his pal replied, "I don't rightly know, but, as far as I can gather, I don't think it was anything very serious!" What I write is very serious, and it demands our most urgent attention. The more listening, reflecting, and pondering I can do on all of this the better. There then comes a time when the ending of discussion has arrived, and the time for making decisions has come. One of the ways of ensuring that I don't act on a particular issus is by discussing it long enough!
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.