Judas Iscariot didn’t begin with betrayal in mind, and David didn’t intend adultery and murder. But then one day they sat alone, their minds consumed with guilt and recrimination, the deeds done.
How? Judas was one of the twelve. David was a man after God’s own heart. What went wrong? The question is important if we want to avoid our own personal and spiritual disasters.
One thing I know: It’s not the exotic sins that get us. We’re mastered by the moral failures we’ve already made mundane by our small but continual indulgences.
Satan didn’t hook Judas with the stark and sweeping act of supreme blasphemy. He played on his greed first.
The Apostle John tells us that Judas used to steal from the disciples’ purse. He nicked a bit here and there, perhaps growing bolder as time went on, until finally he was so predisposed to satisfying his impulses that he was willing to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. One small sin built on another until his whole life came teetering down.
When I think about Judas being undone by greed, my mind jumps to the line from the Song of Solomon about little foxes: “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom” (2.15). These little foxes, while inviting many interpretations, are traditionally understood as the seemingly small sins and errors that undermine the body of Christ.
We’re prone to mistake a trap for a trifle, but little, continual compromises can reap untold destruction in our lives. Mark the Monk says that Satan “downplays minor sins” so he can “lead a person to greater evil” (On the Spiritual Law 97).
Small indulgence of our passions prepares our hearts for greater sins. We qualify them, make peace with them, grow comfortable with them. Suddenly, weakened by our little sins, a serious temptation comes and we are thrown off balance as easily as anything. There’s nothing so treacherous as the mundane. It’s the small, simple, stupid sins that end up killing us.
As Coptic priest Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty says, these little foxes
quietly crawl from the small holes to spoil the vine at the beginning of its growth. Thus they spoil large quantities of the coming fruits. Although they are small, they ruin man’s growth and maturity. . . . These little foxes are the sins that we may consider small, such as white lies, improper joking, or anything (friends, books, places, etc.) that may be harmful to our bodies and our spirits. Therefore, we must keep our inner doors closed from any little fox, abstaining from every form of evil (1 Thess. 5:22).
Set to fail
In his book Finishing Strong, Steve Farrar points to David as an example of indulgence weakening our hearts. David had several wives, though Israelite kings were specifically forbidden by God to do so. The king “shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away” (Deut 17.17).
By continual gratification of his sexual desires, David preconditioned himself to fall when he saw Bathsheeba bathing on her roof. He readied his heart to turn away, weakened its resolve. There’s nothing wrong with sex per se. But David had never learned to deny himself when the conditions made it wrong. Had he taken his heart in hand earlier — had he learned to control his passions — it wouldn’t have run away with him. But he didn’t.
Not only might these little sins add up to a spectacular blowout some day down the road, they also dull our spirits in the present. “[T]hey ruin man’s growth and maturity,” as Fr. Tadros said. If we’re stunted spiritually, if our prayers are ineffectual, if our hearts are cool, our little indulgences might be the culprit.
“The heart seeks to increase what it already has stored inside,” says Mark the Monk (On the Spiritual Law 178).
So what are we nurturing inside our hearts? Do we have small and cherished sins that we keep hidden there? They are not tame little creatures. There’s no such thing as a domesticated sin. Foxes are wild. They gnaw and bite and scratch. They invariably spoil the garden that God has planted in our hearts.