There is a moment of perfect recognition when you are flying through the air, clinging to the handlebars of a bicycle, that is cinematic.
Frame by frame, you can see what is happening, and yet you cannot stop it. You are powerless like a moviegoer in his seat, just waiting to see what unfolds next. Except when you are the bicyclist and not the moviegoer, you are not waiting for the next scene, you are waiting for the consequences.
I was waiting for the consequences. I had just started riding my bike to the train station from our new home. It was my second day of riding, and I thought I could just ride as fast as possible―something I have loved to do since my mountain biking days, when I would ride too fast, and sometimes recklessly, just for the thrill of it.
Now I had a family, and was riding to the train station to go to work, and my wife was insisting I wear a helmet (she knows me). Begrudgingly, I had decided to wear a helmet―I had made a promise―and I was now testing the veracity of the helmet’s structure. In hindsight, attempting to ride my bike in-between a sign post and a telephone pole while at full speed, in the highest gear, was an immensely stupid decision. My foot clipped the sign post, my front tire jerked sideways, and I was falling and sliding along the bike path.
And I just got up and dusted myself off. What could have seriously injured me ended up being nothing more than a bruised toe. It felt like I had cheated death.
Sin is like that. It’s like doing something you know should kill you, hurt you, destroy you or harm you, but it doesn’t. Not always, anyway. Many times, you can just get up and dust yourself off. Worse, you can keep on going with your life and pretend your sin never happened.
We see this image in our first parents, Adam and Eve, way back at the beginning of human history. When our first parents ate some forbidden fruit, God told them they were going to die. Theologically, we understand this to be that when you sin, like our first parents did, you don’t literally drop dead. Sin, as a kind of darkness, slowly eats away at you, and eventually there will be real consequences, culminating in death.
For long periods of time though, we can continue in sin without seeing any negative consequences to our actions. Think of people who perpetuate financial schemes for years on end or leaders who hide patterns of abuse. Almost without exception, these people are eventually found out. The sin happens for so long for a variety of reasons, but one of them is precisely that the immediate benefits of sinfulness came without any consequences that would deter their action.
The hardest part about how sin kills you is that it often doesn’t―yet. It will though. You can never cheat death. But too often the lying, cheating, anger, callousness, lack of compassion and hate we often hold inside us have immediate benefits for us without enough consequences to deter us from falling into these patterns again and again. So these isolated sins end up forming into habits, and then into part of our being. And we keep sinning until it either gets bad enough that something stops us or we repent and begin another long journey toward discipline and virtue.
As hard as it can be to stop sinning when there are no major consequences and we feel like we can cheat death, it can be just as hard on the flip side, the good side, of becoming a more disciplined person. We can repent, renew our understanding of this world and divorce ourselves from the patterns of this world without ever seeing anything amazing happen to us.
Often, becoming a better disciple of Jesus feels frustratingly ordinary and regular. You don’t get a trophy, you don’t win the lottery and you don’t get everything you’ve always wanted. Like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, we can end up feeling like we’ve been good this whole time without any rewards, and that can be frustrating. Eventually, we will find a reward for our virtue and increase in Christ-likeness in the same way that the consequences of sin eventually find us out.
There truly are two paths, and both are long winding journeys that ultimately arrive at a destination: one is life, the other is death. The life we have in Christ, a life that is the culmination of a long hard slog at trying to become more authentic Christ-followers, is one bathed in His eternal light, and one we can glimpse in our lives today. It most certainly is a reward worth waiting for, even if it takes years of patient growth to find.
This morning I was running late for the train. I was going to have to pedal fast, because if I missed the train I would have to stay at work late, then I would be late for a dinner party, which would mean my wife would have to wrangle our kids over to our friends’ house by herself, which would compound into a disastrous first impression of the Turner family. The whole day could be destroyed right at the very beginning if I missed that train. I pedaled and then halfway messed up shifting and the chain popped off. I hustled to fix it and was back on. And then I saw it: an opening in traffic if I just cut across the street at a light. But something inside me told me no, it’s not worth it. And then, from the corner of my eye, I saw that truck making a right turn.
I don’t know what would have happened (I’m certain I would have been OK!). Thankfully, the fact I didn’t take the chance shows that while sin can kill you—like a truck making a right-hand turn can kill you—we have the ability to repent and change our ways. We can choose to stop sinning even when there are have been no consequences, just like I chose to stop riding my bike so recklessly even when I had never suffered any serious harm.
I chose to put aside my old pattern and start a new one, one that took responsibility as a husband and father to not engage in such reckless behavior anymore. In that same way, we can all choose to walk out of the shadow of the valley of death, a death that has not yet taken hold, and venture into the marvelous light of Christ. That path is long, and the rewards are not always instantaneous, but that is the path of salvation and the only way we can truly cheat death.