John Edwards cheats on his wife, impregnates his mistress, and thinks he can keep the child, and the affair, a secret…while he’s running for President of the United States.
Arnold Schwarzenegger also has an affair and an illegitimate child, and thinks he can keep it all a secret from his wife…while keeping the woman employed in their home for over a decade.
Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail admits that he cheated on his wife with another woman…while he was castigating the then-President of the United States for similar behavior and voting for his impeachment.
And now U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) is in trouble for allegedly sending inappropriate pictures of himself to a woman…via a publicly accessible social media tool…and only a few months after another congressman lost his career for similar pictures.
Crazy. Irrational. I don’t know the full story behind any of these, but, in every one of these situations, the behavior seems self-evidently self-destructive. So why do they do it? Why do people risk their families, their careers, their reputations, in such reckless ways?
The most dangerous thing we can do is to assume that these famous people are somehow crazy. They don’t lack intelligence or skill or foresight. They would have never attained the positions they have if they did. Something else is going on here.
As Christians, we believe that temptation isn’t merely biological. There’s something wild and wicked afoot in the universe. These beings have an ancient strategy, and part of that is to shield us from the future. Desire gives way to sin, James tells us, and “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). Temptation only works if the possible futures open to you are concealed. Consequences, including those of Judgment Day, must be hidden from view or outright denied. That’s why in humanity’s ancestral sin the serpent told our mother Eve, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4).
The tempting powers come after all of us in much the same way. Whatever our particular point of vulnerability is, they seek to distort the way we see our future. It doesn’t matter if I know that eating deep-fat-fried doughnuts every morning can raise my cholesterol levels, unless I can also imagine having a heart attack. I choose to give my children building blocks and not matches to play with because I can imagine what it would be like to see my house burning down.
Almost every adultery situation I’ve ever seen includes a cheating spouse who honestly believes that he or she is not going to get caught. The cheater often doesn’t want the marriage to end in divorce. Instead, like the characters in today’s headlines, he or she instead wants to keep everything the same: spouse, kids, and lover too. That’s irrational and completely contrary to the way the world works. Anyone can see that.
But you can convince yourself…or be convinced…that it will work for you. You’re special, after all. That’s the way temptation functions. We put consequences out of our minds, both temporal and eternal consequences. We start to believe that we are gods, with power over good and evil and life and death. And then we do crazy things.
This doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. Satan is hyper-intelligent. And yet, even knowing that he will ultimately have his skull crushed, he rages all the more against Christ and his people, “because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). In terms of the most basic principles of military strategy, that’s crazy. What we need is not intelligence, but wisdom. Wisdom includes seeing where the way I want to go will lead (Prov. 14:12).
I don’t know who you are, reader, but I know you are probably not smarter than Anthony Weiner or Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Edwards. And neither am I. Both of us, you and I, are on the verge of wrecking our lives. We’re probably not on the verge of a situation quite like any of those men, but the gospel tells us we have vulnerabilities just the same, and they all can lead to destruction.
The answer isn’t found in talent or in strategy or in brilliance. It’s found in fear, the fear of the Lord and the vision of his future.
Lord have mercy.
Dr. Russell D. Moore is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.