Ominous silence

Sometimes it's better to have your whipping right now

Issue: "Clinton: Final straw?," March 28, 1998

I can't help wondering whether President Clinton, when he was a little boy, tested God a bit in terms of his response to wrongdoing. I wonder that because I know I tested God that way. And in checking around this week with other folks, I'm discovering the experience isn't all that uncommon.

Most of us, if we had any kind of moral upbringing at all, made a profound discovery. Early on, we learned that God was watching and knew everything we did. So we pretty much expected that if we did something really terribly wrong, we could anticipate that punishment would be swift and sure. If God knew, which he certainly did, then he would get us.

Yet experience showed he didn't always "get us." We could tell a lie, and not only did our parents sometimes not catch it, but God himself seemed to let it go by. We could say a bad word, and no lightning struck. We could look at a magazine we shouldn't have, and the heavens didn't open to spill terrible plagues on our lives.

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But our childish experience was naïve. We drew wrong conclusions. Only when we matured-if we ever did-did we discover that the great God of the universe is not a Pavlovian response device bound to act in some mechanical fashion.

The problem is that so many of us never grow up in that respect-or that the rest of us grow up so slowly.

It borders on harsh to say that we have a president who has never grown up. It is not harsh, but scary, to draw the much larger lesson that we also have a whole society that has never, in this very same regard, grown up. Ours is a society that still thinks it can sin to its heart's content and get away with it.

That's why two-thirds of our people today say there's no connection between a president's private life and his public performance. They really think we can "get away with it."

Trouble is, the more we get away with, the more evil things we try. Our daring vocabularies get raunchy. Our harmless fibs become devious schemes. Our minor adventures become major. As our behavior drifts farther and farther from God's standard, and he seems not to notice our waywardness, we get bolder still with our sin.

What happens with us personally has also happened to us as a society. Behaviors that once were regarded as scandalous come more and more to be accepted. A good example within evangelicalism itself is the issue of divorce-an experience sufficiently rare two generations ago that it hung like a stigma wherever it landed. Now we pride ourselves on a more "enlightened" view of those whose marriages have been broken; but with that "enlightenment" has come a huge increase in the number of divorces. One couple in a local church goes through a painful breakup-but no judgment of God seems to fall, and the next weak marriage is that much more susceptible.

But easy divorce is only one of a hundred examples of our decline. It's as if the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that everything in the universe is running down, is also true of human behavior. Like water, our moral inclinations always seem determined to seek their lowest level.

But why doesn't God put brakes on us? Why, when Kathleen Willey couldn't quite bring herself to slap the president of the United States across the face as she said she was tempted to do when he allegedly accosted her in the White House-why didn't God himself smack Mr. Clinton with a heavenly two-by-four to bring him up short in his bizarre and devious ways?

God didn't do that because he has a habit of delaying his responses-even to our sin. Sadly, we humans, like our president, too easily misread the delay as a lack of concern.

The lessons he intends to teach us are much more nuanced. Righteousness and character are not qualities God seeks to build into us through immediate gratification or pain; he wants instead to weave them into our inmost beings throughout the long process of his remaking us in his own image.

Indeed, God is quite specific about the matter. The damage we do when we ignore his commands results in his "punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me." No, that doesn't mean he's bound to visit our grandchildren with earthquakes and plagues of locusts-any more than he immediately responded to our own sin that way. He may simply let them inherit a morally impoverished society.

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