A trope often posed in old works of illustrated fiction is that of an angel and a demon who appear before a character at a time of crisis, the former urging the person to pursue the righteous course of action and the other highlighting the temporal pleasure of giving in to temptation in a sharply hissed just this once—
Though done mostly in a comedic context, it is representative of dilemmas we face almost on an everyday basis. Like when it is time for your kale and avocado salad but there is this limited two-for-one offer at your neighbourhood pizza outlet, and you hear this smooth, cajoling voice in your mind telling you to do what you absolutely shouldn’t. Or when you have been off alcohol for four months now, and your friends suggest a get-together at the local pub to celebrate the occasion.
That hissing in your head is, as I theorized in an earlier post, the voice of the Beast inside. It is the voice of temptation, the one that tells you to live in the moment and not worry yourself with petty concerns like ethics and moderation. Usually starting off as a whisper, it feeds on tidbit after tidbit that come its away until it finally becomes big enough to overwhelm every other voice in your head and drive you to committing the act of sin.
The Bible lays out the progression of sin quite clearly in James 1:14-15. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
But then, quite inconveniently for man’s sinful nature, you also have something urging you in a starkly different direction that doesn’t feel half as fun most of the time. Like when the cashier at a store mistakenly hands you a fifty dollar note instead of a tenner, and something in your head informs you that the money is not yours and returning it would probably be the right thing to do. Or when you spot a stalled vehicle on the way, and as much as you want to get home, you probably shouldn’t just blink your headlights and drive past at 80 mph. Now, this voice may feel helpful or just plain annoying – it depends on your disposition at the time – but even the worst part of you wouldn’t be able to able to deny that it usually tries to direct you down the right (even if inconvenient) path.
Say hello to the yin for the Devil’s yang inside you. Your mostly ignored good side. Your conscience.
Have you ever been to one of those illegal events where people pit dogs against each other, and they go at each other’s throats until there is just one of them left? The closest I have been to any such fight is at the movies, I am grateful to say, but I can imagine it to be quite a disgusting affair with dust, flesh and drops of blood flying through the air as heartless spectators bet their top dollar on the canine most likely to survive the night.
Well, your mind witnesses similar battles between the Beast and your conscience uncountable times every day, and mostly, it is the former that emerges victorious. Many such turn out to be complete walkovers in the Beast’s favour, where you do not even consider adopting a more morally appropriate alternative, but others are self-serving decisions adopted after a lot of thought. Even the few good things we do (such as the occasional monetary donation to charity or the grant of a helping hand to a friend) are followed by so much virtual chest-thumping that the resultant self-aggrandizement brings everything back to square one. Merely doing a good deed isn’t enough, one also needs to choke the pride and self-glorification that comes with it.
Jesus provides the perfect solution to this problem in Matthew 6:1-4: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Even the few good things we do, such as the occasional monetary donation to charity or the grant of a helping hand to a friend, are followed by so much virtual chest-thumping that the resultant self-aggrandizement brings everything back to square one.
And yet, how practical is that? Your left hand will know what your right hand does, given the manner in which they are joined by the same body, just as the heart will always gloat over every little good you do simply because it is joined to the Beast and everything he stands for. We are – after all – like the proverbial dog that returns to its vomit no matter how may times we are reprimanded for it.
I believe that the secret to salvation lies in persisting with your struggle against the enemy regardless of how many times you find yourself face down on the mat. It lies in pursuing your struggle with utmost sincerity, sans compromise or the explaining away of your sins as paltry or harmless. Even so, the nature of the world and our own inherent nature will not allow us to succeed, but the effort put into trying to achieve the task should help you pass the test that is life.
Proverbs 21: 31 provides some insight into this with the verse: A horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory comes from the Lord. Read simply, it provides some advice on how the best laid plans (or preparations) of man still need the God’s approval to succeed. But read differently, it also says that while victory comes from the Lord, we still need to prepare the horse for battle.
This is exactly where a lot of us may be going wrong. We believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and as we are all sinners anyway, it is okay to go about doing whatever we want so long as we establish ourselves as honoured members of his flock. Which could mean registering with the local church (maybe even worming our way into one of its many committees), partaking of some wine and wafer every Sunday, and quickly mumbling the Lord’s prayer before it is time to lay yourself down for the night. A good example of a today’s Christian would be the fictional Anthony Soprano Sr, a devout Catholic in church and a mobster outside it.
Then there are others who arrive at extra-moralistic compromises aimed at pushing their dealings through. Like your friendly neighbourhood restauranteur, who donates $500 to charity in the wild hope that it would be enough to make up for the sin of paying those pesky food inspectors off. Or the Christian priest who tries to compensate for the occasional sexual transgression by treating himself to a bullwhip every night. Wonder where they got the idea for the second practice though, considering that the closest Biblical comparison one can find for it is the part where the prophets of Baal pit themselves against Elijah in 1 Kings Chapter 18. “The prophets prayed louder, cutting themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed, which was the way they worshipped… But no voice was heard; Baal did not answer, and no one paid attention.”
And Christ is unlikely to answer those whipping themselves, or crucifying themselves atop hills, because He most certainly does not savour self-flagellation or other questionable practices of the kind that have developed amidst his faithful over the ages. What he desires, and has always desired from us as the true members of his flock, is a simple yet difficult thing to yield. Not grand proclamations, fasting or self-harm. Just obedience to the law and kindness towards your fellow-beings, or at least an honest attempt at it.
Christ will not favour those who indulge in self-harm in the name of faith. What he desires, and has always desired from us, is a simple yet difficult thing to yield: Obedience to the law and kindness towards your fellow-beings, or at least an honest attempt at it.
While Christian scriptures largely look at things from absolutes, the idea of obedience to a divine law – duty or dharma – is more clearly articulated in Hinduism. According to the Bhagwad Gita, the idea of morality can differ from one person to another on account of each living organism having its own sva-dharma. Everybody has different obligations to keep, and what may be the ideal recourse for one may not suit another’s circumstance. However, while the concept of going against one’s duty (leading to adharma) may make for good philosophy, it could end up providing people with just the kind of moral ambiguity needed to do whatever they desire. In the end, everything comes down to interpretation.
Good for Christians, then, that the Bible lays down everything it expects from us in terms as clear as they can get. And still, we somehow manage to skirt all it says about worship, charity, humility and righteousness, and instead focus on the most literal interpretations of its verses. It is almost as if we play dumb because it suits us.
Take, for instance, the fourth of the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down Mount Sinai in Exodus Chapter 20, which says: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
Now, I do not believe for a single minute that this has anything to do with the cries of Oh God! or Jesus Christ! that people make ever so often these days, only to draw disapproving looks from the more sanctimonious among them. That does not amount to blaspheming, and I do not believe that either Jesus or God would be overly concerned about something as petty as their Earthly titles being uttered in an exclamatory tone.
Who, then, is guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain? Consider the satin-robed priest who delivers the Biblical message of frugality to a largely lower-income congregation before zooming away in his Bentley. Or the grouchy couple who find their Christian way of life being threatened by the lower-income housing project coming up in the neighbourhood. These are individuals who swear by Christ and yet do the exact opposite of what he preached, because nothing can prick their collective conscience dulled by years of hypocrisy and self-worship. Which brings us back to the conscience, a subject I unfortunately digressed from a few paragraphs ago.
Many a theory has been propounded on the concept of the Holy Trinity, which relates to the Father, the Son and The Holy Spirit, and I have one too. The Father is God because from Him comes everything, and the Son is Jesus Christ, the ideal of truth, obedience and sacrifice that we are expected to work towards. What, then, do you think constitutes the third part of the equation?
I believe the Holy Spirit in the Trinity refers to our conscience, the inbuilt moral compass that treats us to discomforting pinpricks of guilt every time we go astray. It is the guardian angel that stands by our side in the moral battles we fight, shielding us from the barbs of the beast and giving us the strength to rise every time we fall. It is the best bet we have at rising above the cesspool of sin that is our world.
And yet, the conscience can only be as strong as its bearer makes it. Have you heard how killing becomes that much easier for soldiers with each life claimed on the battlefield? The same concept applies when it comes to resisting your conscience in favour of sin. Ignore that voice long enough, and you will soon find it fading into nothingness, much at the mercy of the very beast you should be battling. And, if you are really unfortunate, leaving you somewhere beyond the point of no return.
But if there is a Holy Trinity, I believe that the Yin-for-Yang principle allows for an Unholy Trinity that fights for supremacy inside us too. But let’s leave that discussion for a more evolved time.
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