J.C. Ryle is right when he observes that sin never announces itself to us with its full intentions. It never says, “I am your deadly enemy, and I want to ruin you forever in hell” (Holiness, 9). It shows its pleasure, but hides its pain; shows its sparkle, but hides its death (Romans 6:23).
But that is not all that sin fails to reveal to us in the moment of temptation. It also does not disclose how it plans to harm others. It never introduces itself, “I am your deadly enemy and the deadly enemy of everyone you know. I want to ruin you and them in hell — and use your sins and theirs as a means to do it.”
One of the most treacherous lies we can believe about sin, especially sin we consider private or secret, is that we can keep its consequences to ourselves. That we will be the only ones — if anyone — affected. We rarely consider how our sin inevitably influences others in one way or another.
Sin Never Stays Alone
Even when we “sin alone” — meaning that although the lidless eye of heaven sees us, no other human does — our sin does not remain alone. It travels with us from the shadows into the world of our relationships. We sin as a member of a community — even when we sin alone. Herman Bavinck so helpfully points this out when observing our first parents’ sin:
Adam and Eve sinned not only as individuals, as persons, but they sinned also as husband and wife, as father and mother; they were playing with their own destiny, with the destiny of their family, and with the destiny of the entire human race. (The Christian Family, 10)
To be sure, our sin does not carry the same consequences as our federal head. His sin was Original; ours derivative. But it is true that we, like Adam, never sin just as isolated humans, as individuals. We never play just with our own destinies, completely detached from others. We each sin as a human connected to other humans. We sin, as often as we sin, as fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, neighbors, coworkers, citizens, and, if Christians, members of the body of Christ.
“We sin as a member of a community — even when we sin alone.”
In suggesting that some sins affect only us, Satan strips some of the urgency from fighting private sins of anxiety, undiscovered flames of envy, hidden banquets of pornography telling us that such will stay quarantined with us. Each will have to lie in his own bed — nobody else will lie in it with us.
In this, Satan is a crafty spider, spinning a web of concealed threads sticking to those we never intended to harm. He hides the consequence of how powerless sin makes us when a friend comes to us for help, how unmindful we become toward our children because the fear of man grips our attention, how the sewer of lustful images lingers in our head, hindering us from brotherly love in Christ. The devil would not dare remind us of the horrible side effects, including distraction, disinclination, and hardness of heart, that poison our love for God and good deeds toward those closest to us.
As people who have committed innumerable sins, I assume we all know this to be the case experientially. But do we see this principle in Scripture? On top of narrative after narrative showing individuals’ sins that did not stay individual, glean from the wisdom of the book of Proverbs.
“A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). A foolish man is not a foolish man for himself alone, but a foolish son for his mother. When Judas, an evil man, betrayed the Lord, he did so not only as Judas, but also as “Simon’s son” (John 13:2, 26).
Or consider the surprise twist in Proverbs 10:17: “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.” The father, mother, daughter, son who rejects godly reproof does not merely lead himself astray but, like a strong current, drags others along with him. He is not stiff-necked for himself alone.
Similarly, a foolish wife and mother not only decays her vertical relationship with Christ, but takes down her whole household with her: “The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down” (Proverbs 14:1). When we sow seeds to the flesh, they reap corruption not only in ourselves but in all spheres of life. Poison in, poison out — and most to those we love most dearly.
‘Against You, You Only’?
If our sin has such dire, hidden consequences for others, why does David repent of his grievous, explicit sins against Uriah (adultery and murder) as he does in Psalm 51?
Against you [God], you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment. (Psalm 51:4)
He sinned only against God? Did David really mean for Uriah’s family to sing those lyrics placed in Israel’s hymnbook, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” as though their beloved, faithful Uriah had not been profoundly betrayed and then murdered?
“Sin’s effects, we often find out too late, are far messier and far more uncontrollable than we imagine when tempted.”
David meant that as compared to all others he sinned against God alone. His was not a humanitarian worldview that placed offenses against man above offenses against God. “Against man, and man alone, have I sinned” is the modern creed. No, David knows full well that he has Uriah’s blood on his hands: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God” (Psalm 51:14). But even this is foremost treason against his Creator.
He acknowledges that his sin was chiefly against God, but consider the web of consequences. When David sinned, he did so as a husband, as a father, as a son to Jesse, as a fellow brother and soldier to Uriah, as the king of Israel, as a man who would influence many sons and daughters, husbands and wives, citizens and souls long after he had departed from this world. His sin was against God and God alone, but the consequences of that sin did not stay with him alone.
You Never Obey Alone
Sin’s effects, we often find out too late, are far messier and far more uncontrollable than we imagine when tempted. But this brings us to the staggering contrast.
Satan would conceal the engulfing influence iniquity has on others. But he also hides the momentous influence of what we too often consider common, hidden acts of faith, love, and obedience. He would have us think that sin and holiness are both trivial, both mists that vanish into irrelevance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Did you see it in the wisdom from Proverbs?
- “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1).
- “The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down” (Proverbs 14:1).
A wise man is not wise to himself, but he is a wise son who makes a happy father. A wise woman cannot contain the blessing of her wisdom to herself; she builds up her whole household from her fear and love and obedience to her Lord. Proverbs and the narratives in Scripture bear testimony together that “whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life” (Proverbs 10:17) and he who accepts reproof leads others along that same path.
Incalculable is that blessing flowing to others from the hidden headwaters of communion with Christ. The godly man, whose mind and heart meditate upon the Scriptures, becomes the Giving Tree of fruit to others, whose own leaf does not whither (Psalm 1).
Only heaven can detail how turning off that screen in that moment, and how a pattern of praying to God, affects thousands of situations, and people, to follow. Slight turns of the rudder change the course of large ships. When we treasure Christ above sin’s pleasures and believe his promises above Satan’s lies, we flood our spheres with waves of blessing. Hidden sins, like hidden good works, “cannot remain hidden” (1 Timothy 5:25).