Two men at prayer

Mack Stiles, businessman in Dubai, tells this story when sharing the gospel in a Muslim context:

Two men went to the mosque to pray. One was a rich man, the other a poor man. The rich man went through his libations and prayers as he did five times a day. As he was praying, he began to have a sexual fantasy about the young wife who lived next door to his home. But he finished his prayers and went home. The poor man stood off at a distance. He came so infrequently to the mosque, that he couldn’t remember the positions for prayer or his libations. But he looked up to heaven, beat his breast, and said, ‘Forgive me, O Lord, for I’m a sinner.’ Who went home justified? 

Editor’s note: “Mr. Stiles says that every Muslim he has asked this question to has answered, ‘The rich man.'”

We’re not Puritans anymore

David Brooks, writing about Penn State in the NYT

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

Led into temptation by their very goodness

Ross Douthat, writing about Penn State in the NYT:

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

The likeness re-drawn

Athanasius in “On the Incarnation”, roughly 376 A.D.:

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains? The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’

Which calls to mind a verse of Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” which I’ve heard rarely sung:

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

The horror when beauty becomes too weak a stimulant

From That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis:

Suddenly…desire (salt, black, ravenous, unanswerable desire) took him by the throat.

…[This desire] disenchants the universe. Everything else that Mark had ever felt – love, ambition, hunger, lust itself – appeared to have been mere milk and water, toys for children, not worth one throb of the nerves…

…It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion: while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It is ugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty has long since grown too weak a stimulant.

Teddy bear or beast

From Nick Lowe’s song, “The Beast in Me” (memorably recorded by Johnny Cash):

The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me

Sometimes it tries to kid me
That it’s just a teddy bear
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air
And that is when I must beware

Billy Sunday, expressing the same truth with a different metaphor:

One reason that sin flourishes is that it is treated like a cream puff instead of a rattlesnake.

Guilt of infinite extensibility

Wilfred McClay, writing in a First Things article, “The Moral Economy of Guilt”:

“There is another factor at work too, one that may be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This…is a surprising by-product of modernity’s proudest product: its ever growing capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.

In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects becomes better understood, in which the means of communication and transportation become ever more efficient and effective, and in which individuals become ever more powerful and effective agents, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, expands to literally infinite proportions…

In such a world, where there are few intrinsic limits to what I can do, there is almost nothing for which I cannot be, in some way, held accountable. I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television and know for a fact that, if I cared to, I could travel to that remote place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering. Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it is never as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.

…indeed, as those of us who teach young people often have occasion to observe, it may be precisely the most morally sensitive individuals who have the weakest commonsense defenses agains such overwhelming assaults on their over-receptive sensibilities…”