My sister Shirley and her retired husband Ralph live in the shadows of a great learning institution, The Ohio State University. Their Dutch Colonial-style home is a single-family dwelling and sits perched above—and adjacent to—a small walking park on the edge of the campus where there are many fraternity and sorority houses, apartment buildings and other kinds of “off-campus” housing for students.

Obnoxious parties have always been a part of the landscape, but in recent years things have gone downhill in almost every conceivable way. The blaring music has begun to stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Party nights are no longer just Friday and Saturday; Thursday is the new Friday. Mischief and mayhem are on the uptick, along with their companions, vandalism and graffiti. More students are staggering in the street or losing consciousness in Shirley and her neighbor’s yards than ever before. Sadly, the City of Columbus and its police officers don’t seem to take it too seriously.

When my sister confronts unruly students (who also happen to be adults) she usually gets blank stares or a “what did I do?” attitude. Even the two inebriated young women who dangerously dangled their legs out into the busy street outside Shirley’s house didn’t appreciate that it was to their own benefit to get out of harm’s way. When asked about the neighbors and their children who are kept up half the night with their antics, some of the belligerents reply with words akin to “who is my neighbor?”[1]

Are these anti-social acts being committed by socially deprived and unemployed inner city youth who have nothing but time on their hands? No, the perpetrators are mostly privileged students who ought to be in their dorms studying instead of staying up partying and causing their neighbors to lose sleep.[2] Why do these students behave like this, then? (Shouldn’t I say misbehave?) My scientifically researched and academically sound answer is this: They do it because they want to….

If we are truly inclined to do evil continually, why don’t we sin at every waking moment, then? In other words, if the picture I painted of our sinful hearts in the last few chapters is accurate, why don’t we all go on maniacal rampages, destroying everything and everyone in our paths? If I am correctly presenting what the Bible teaches, how does society even function, let alone prosper at times?

The answer to these questions is simple, too. Just as the reason I misbehave can be traced to the words “I want to”, the reason I don’t do evil things all the time is just as simple: “I can’t.” God won’t let me. He has put a whole bevy of restraints on my behavior, so that I cannot do what I would do if I could.

First, each man and woman is made in the image of God and, though fallen, still retains a conscience (Rom. 2:15) And although it is badly distorted so that it is often an unreliable guide, it is like a nagging buzzer that won’t let us forget that the evil we contemplate is just plain wrong.

Second, we fear the punishment we might receive whenever we do wrong, whether it comes from a parent wielding the rod of correction for our good or from the sword of the magistrate who was raised up by God to keep our evil in check. Even our fellow human beings might show their anger against us should we wrong them. After Cain killed his brother Abel, he recognized the peril that would come on him and said unto the Lord:

My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. (Genesis 4:13)

Third, many of us have been trained since our childhood to put others first and to use self-control. Every time our parents denied us the satisfaction of having every goody our hearts desire, they were training us, even restraining us. Christian churches, and even the rituals or teachings of non-Christian religions, can have the effect of restraining outward wicked acts, at least for a season. Cultural traditions and mores have an impact as well.

Fourth, we are physically or providentially incapable of doing all the evil that we would wish. Even if you wanted to destroy all of mankind in one fell swoop, you would fail. There is no doomsday device. On 9/11, terrorists wanted to kill all of the tens of thousands of Americans who worked at the World Trade Center. While what they did was spectacularly evil, they did not kill everyone, even within their targets. The heroes of Flight 93 kept Osama Bin Laden from carrying out all the diabolism he wanted to accomplish with that airplane. Grandiose plans for evil often fail because God has other plans.

The Plan of God vs. the Plans of Men

The Bible tells us of a man named Joseph who was favored by his father Jacob. His envious brothers kidnapped him and eventually sold him as a slave to the Midianites, who in turn resold him to the Egyptians (Gen. 37:28, 36). After experiencing many ups and downs, Joseph was raised up by God to be second-in-command under Pharaoh. Then a great famine arose and Joseph had opportunity to bless the brothers who were unaware of God’s shining Providence in Joseph’s life. God had given him a plan to rescue the nation of Egypt, which was really for the benefit of the people of God. When his brothers came to Egypt to get food, they eventually learned of the power of the brother they had earlier abused, scorned and criminally mistreated. How did Joseph view the earlier sin against him?

“And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt…. But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” (emphasis mine, Genesis 45:7-8; 50:20)

Not even Satan himself can do all the evil that he would. Job was sorely afflicted, but God would only let the Devil go so far and no further. The whole book of Job shows that even acts once perpetrated by the Devil and permitted by God can simultaneously serve two different purposes. And it is God’s purposes for His people that always win out in the end….

Men want to dethrone God; they are mutineers of the worst sort. But He who sits in the heavens laughs at the plots of wicked men (Ps. 2). Even the most singularly wicked act in all of the world’s history failed in its goal: to destroy the Son of God, Jesus our Savior:

“But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  (I Corinthians 2:7f)

As the various restraints are removed from people, they begin to brutalize each other. When parents cease to discipline their children or train them in right and wrong, they are preparing them to have outbreaks of socially destructive sin. The trouble brewing on virtually every college and university campus across the country, sometimes breaks forth in full-blown riots or wilding. The latter term refers to groups of marauders who randomly pick and then begin to beat the daylights out of innocent passers-by, sometimes killing them. This is also known as the “game” of “Knockout King.”[3]

When people get drunk, one of the earliest casualties is inhibition, an internal mechanism designed as a restraint. Drunkards are displaying another face of humanity unmasked. That drunkard is you and me, dear reader, if left unrestrained. When someone misbehaves under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he or she should not get away with blaming the beer. This is the “real person” coming out.

The relation between restraint and government is almost predictable. In Israel, a pattern can be seen in the book of Judges, typified by the following passage:

“And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgat the LORD their God, and served Baalim and the groves. Therefore the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia: and the children of Israel served Chushanrishathaim eight years. And when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them, even Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel, and went out to war: and the LORD delivered Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed against Chushanrishathaim. And the land had rest forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died. And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the LORD: and the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the LORD.” (emphasis mine, Judges 3:7-12)

The pattern seems to be that Israel sins, God sends judgment in the form of bondage, the people cry out, God sends a leader (called a judge) who brings deliverance and peace to the land, the judge dies, and the people fall into great sin—again (see also Ps. 106:34-45).

There are two lessons to be found in this pattern. First, governors are needed to restrain people from outbreaks of lawlessness stemming from unfettered passions and lusts. Second, such governments do not change the basic nature of the human heart. Restraint is like a strait jacket that surrounds a madman. It keeps him from harming others and himself, but it does not change who the man really is inside. As soon as the restraint is released, man begins to do all that his heart inclines him to do. Like the wild man of Gadara, who could not be bound, even with chains and fetters, a man cannot be truly changed without sitting at the feet of Christ, the Savior (see Lk. 8:26-35).

The Los Angeles riots in 1992 demonstrated this principal. Rodney King, a young black man, had been beaten by police and the incident was recorded on video tape for the whole world to see. The nation was divided, some believing the use of force was justified because of the resistance King gave to the police, others believing that the beating was racially motivated. When a jury found the police officers not guilty of assault, the city of L.A. began to experience a series of riots that would eventually spread elsewhere. The civil disorder was aggravated by the apparent fact that in some key places police were nowhere to be found and in others they did not squelch the melee in a timely manner. Over the next several days the unrestrained hoard of unbridled humanity assaulted, robbed and shot others for “no reason” other than “they could.” Thousands of fires were set and 53 people died.

Man needs restraint, and government must be big enough to keep us from destroying ourselves.

Part 14 of a series of excerpts from my book, With Christ in the Voting  Booth.

[1] Luke 10:25-37

[2] I must be getting old. When I hear the word “party”, I still think of cake and ice cream.

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