We returned home from a week’s vacation to hear shocking news about some friends of ours. Married 29 years, they were in the midst of a bitter divorce. Saturday morning the husband (so it is alleged) killed his wife and then tried (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to kill himself. They have two daughters, 22 and 17. I’ve spent the last days trying to process this, and help others process it (including our daughter, who is a close friend of the elder daughter). Many in our community feel utterly at sea; these were nice people, normal people, happy family people. My wife and I have known them for 15 years. How could this happen?
Shocking news, surely, but not really surprising. The old radio show asked, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only the Shadow knows.” But we know too, we Christians. We know that “there is a voice of rebellion deep in the heart of the wicked,” and we know that we hear that voice, every one of us.
Sometimes the voice calls on a massive scale, too massive to comprehend. The holocaust of the 1940’s, the Rwandan genocide of the 1990’s, and other incidents too numerous to mention—examples of ordinary people doing horrifying things. The banality of evil. Sometimes it calls on a more localized scale, as with my friends. Horrifying still, and harder to objectify.
How could this happen? I don’t need to look far to find the answer. It is in my own heart, where that voice of rebellion also whispers. I’d like to think that a person who kills another is a monster, but the monster lives in me, too. It was Luther’s very wise insight to say that the fifth commandment means we are not to hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs. I don’t live up to it.
How could this happen? I only need to turn the question back on myself. How could it happen that I spoke that angry word which hurt my neighbor—as I intended it to do? How could it happen that I walked by on the other side when I saw the man on the Jericho road? Not the same as a vicious murder, I protest in my self-righteousness. Ah, but it is of the same stuff. It comes from the same place. It can happen because we human beings are by nature sinful; it can happen because the human heart is a mystery, and it twists and turns in ways we cannot control or understand.
“Sin is couching at the door.” That line from Genesis 4 has always been one of the most terrifying in Scripture for me, because I know it to be true. And so a vicious murder is shocking; but it is not really surprising. Very little about human beings is, in the end, surprising.
But there shall a star come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. In the dark chaos of human life, that is our hope, our consolation.