CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Falling Down and Mass Murder

Jun 4, 2010

Right now a lot of unanswered questions surround the latest mass killing, this time in the UK. Derrick Bird is now one of Britain’s most notorious killers, having shot dead 12 innocent people before shooting himself. Why did he do it? What pushed him over the edge? Why did he snap?

Specific answers may never be known. But general answers are available, from the Judeo-Christian perspective. The doctrine of original sin is a basic feature of biblical morality. We are all born with a disposition to sin and selfishness.

We are all prone to evil, and only two things stand in the way of us going down the same path as Bird. The first is conscience. We have a built-in moral gyroscope, which is meant to help us as moral decision makers. Unfortunately the law written on the heart can be blurred, marred and distorted, if not lost altogether.

The Bible speaks of those whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron. We can drown out the inner moral voice, or deaden it completely. The second means of restraint is the state. Laws, courts, and the police are all part of the way we maintain civil society. Thus inner and external factors keep things in check.

Ideally a healthy and robust conscience should keep us on the straight and narrow, but in a fallen world, that is usually not sufficient. Thus God has ordained the state to maintain justice and punish wrongdoing. God’s common grace, which keeps us from being as wicked as we might be, is supplemented by cops and conscience.

Yet even with all this, people can go off the rails big time. And the result is all these dreadful newspaper headlines we keep encountering. The question really is, how much worse would things be if these divine forces of restraint were not available to us? Indeed, the truth is, we are all potential Derrick Birds.

Now this idea that at root we are all sinners who could easily spin out of control does not go down well with modern secularists, and even with many religious folk. We like to think that we are somehow different. We pretend that we are basically pretty decent people, and only a few bad eggs are out there.

But we are all bad eggs, and only the grace of God is keeping us from showing our real colours. Even Hollywood can get hints of these truths. Indeed, we have plenty of films which testify to our inherent depravity and corruption.

Consider one such film made back in 1993 starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall. Called Falling Down, it tells the sad story of a man who slowly lost the plot. Everything was going against him, and it took its toll. He lost his job, his marriage broke up, and he was not able to see his young daughter.

Despite a restraining order, he was intent on going to his daughter’s birthday party. But on top of all his other misfortunes, his day just went from bad to worse. He got stuck in an LA traffic jam on a hot summer day. His air conditioning was not working, and on top of all that, there was a pesky fly in the car bugging him no end.

Finally he simply snapped – he lost it big time. He abandoned his car, leaving it on the crowded freeway. He then went on a rampage, smashing up shops and going berserk. He eventually gets a hold of some firearms and started shooting people.

I leave the rest of the story for you in case you wish to see the film, and discover how it all ends. The point of the movie of course is that this is just an ordinary guy – just like you and me. He is a normal Joe who starts getting some raw deals and bad breaks. And when all the circumstances seem to conspire against him, he finally loses it. He falls down. He snaps.

This may have been what occurred with the guy in the UK the other day. Indeed, it seems to happen fairly often. And the moral of the story is this: would we really be any different? If we were put in the same situations and endured the same circumstances, would we not also snap? Would we not also go nuts?

Again, most people would immediately proclaim, ‘Not me! No way! Never! I am not that bad!’ But that is already the beginning of our downfall: our pride. It is pride which says only the other guy is capable of great evil. It is arrogance that says I am pretty decent, and I would never lose it.

The Bible of course insists that we are all sinful, all depraved, and all capable of great evil. It is only the heavenly restraining factors mentioned above that keep us from fully going over the edge. That is the Biblical assessment of every one of us, and most of us do not like such an assessment.

The truth is, without the grace of God, we would all respond in the same way if put in these difficult circumstances. And this goes straight back to our first parents. Adam and Eve blew it big time. But the sad truth is, we all would have done exactly the same as Adam and Eve if we were in their place.

Take any situation, and we are able to replicate it. Jesus had twelve disciples for three years, but when crunch time came, they denied him, turned from him, repudiated him, betrayed him. And we all would have done the same as the twelve. We too would have denied our Lord and fled into the night.

All the great saints are the ones who are quite aware of their own depravity. The apostle Paul was fully aware of his own fallenness. For example, writing around the mid-50s he could say, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9).

Writing in the early 60s he said, “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8). And writing in the mid-60s he said this about himself: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15).

Note the steady progression – or regression – here. The more he goes on with the Lord, the older he gets, the more spiritual he becomes, the more aware he is of his own sinful and fallen condition. All the great people of God had the same sense of sin, and the recognition that it is only the grace of God that prevented them from going off the rails.

Luther famously said, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” As Alan Redpath rightly remarked, “You are never used of God to bring blessing until God has opened your eyes and made you see things as they are.” Until we see ourselves as God sees us, we will never really be of much use for the Kingdom.

When we see ourselves as we really are, we know that all glory must go to God. We are but “unprofitable servants, we have only done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). Any goodness, any greatness, any work for the Kingdom, must ultimately all be traceable to Him, not us.

Alan Redpath had it right when he said, “God expects nothing from Alan Redpath but failure. I as a man am no different today from the day before I was converted. Five minutes after I’ve finished preaching I would be capable of committing any sin imaginable but for the grace of God. Alan Redpath is no different as a man from what he was as a youngster. And the sins that beset him then beset him now, were it not for a constant, continual dependence upon the blood of Jesus, and the grace of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit to keep me.”

We shiver when we learn about another mass murder occurring somewhere in the world. What we really should shiver about is our own sin, our own depravity, our own wretchedness. Anything praiseworthy about us must go back to Jesus Christ who has made it possible that fallen sinners like us can in fact be used as his instruments.

As John Newton, the former slave ship captain, author of the hymn Amazing Grace, and friend and supporter of William Wilberforce put it, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.” All glory to God.

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20 Responses to Falling Down and Mass Murder

  • Can you believe the concepts of ‘sin’, ‘grace’ and ‘conscience’ are omitted from morality courses in some ‘Christian’ places of learning. Everything is reduced to relativity.
    What chance do we have if ‘Christian’ institutions do this?
    Jane Petridge

  • When tragedies like this occur, we often hear the savage outcries, “Why would God let these innocent people die?”

    It is a sad truth, firstly, that there are none who are “innocent” and a more accurate assessment of the situation, would rephrase the question, “Why is it that we are ALL dying?”

    It takes great humility to be able to admit that we are no better than the worst of offenders. Only a man filled with arrogance and pride would beg to differ.

    Bennett Donelly

  • Hi Bill,
    a prisoner, (Pentridge gaol 1990) said to my colleague “I loved my wife. I killed her in a flash of rage what does that make me?” My friend’s response was, “welcome to the human race”.
    Stan Fishley

  • Great article Bill. Thanks once again for the truth.
    Garth Penglase

  • There has been an increase in the number of middle aged men ‘snapping’ and murdering their wives by stabbling them with knives. It is not reported very much in the media but many prison staff can tell you.
    Impatience, anger and selfisness through lack of communication might be a big part of the mix- and all these factors involve sin.
    Michael Webb

  • One also wonders what stash of violent videos he had at home. In many of these cases, the perpetrators had watched hours of video nasties.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Expressed poetically by John Donne: “No man is an island” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/no-man-is-an-island/

    Bennett, you are correct: we are all dying. Innocence is a relative thing (oh, dear, have I opened a door I should not have?). Maybe innocence has to be qualified by a specific action: I may be innocent of murder but if I am guilty of gossip, I have still broken the holy law.

    Could we consider death to be a mercy from God? Sin has an ending, but God and His people will live forever.

    John Angelico

  • Two friends of mine both “snapped” and murdered their fathers, (many miles and years apart). How easy it is to be judgemental and bury our own failures. How hard do we really work at building communities where people in distress are more likely to be noticed, and given help, before they succumb to their despair?
    Richard Bunn, Toronto

  • Oh my, Bill the questions you raise!
    Great article.
    Trouble is we just don’t believe we are as bad as God says we are.
    I think we all need to get past our thick sculls that every act man has ever done we too are capable of.
    I am sure that is my case.
    Look at the holocaust, it was no backward bunch of barbarians that committed this but the most sophisticated educated advanced nation on the planet, and christian to boot. We had good Lutherans praising God on Sunday and working in the gas ovens on Monday thinking they were doing God a favor. Change one decision by a German ancestor 130 years ago and that could have been me.
    I will never forget one documentary about young German Christians being prayed for before they went off to the Russian front, and two months later were committing the worst atrocities including murdering their mates to eat them.
    And we learned nothing?
    It is in these darkest places (like the crucifixion) the greatest revelations can be found of both man and God.
    I just love this insight from Oswald Chambers MUFHH July 29.

    There is a connection between the strange providence’s of God and what we know of Him, and we have to learn to interpret the mysteries of life in the light of our knowledge of God. Unless we can look the darkest, blackest fact full in the face without damaging God’s character, we do not yet know Him.

    Rob Withall

  • It is significant that this level of nihilistic violence does not stem from straightforward, stereotypical criminal behaviour, but from within family and close relationships.

    Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

    James 4:1-3 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures

    Matthew 10:21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.

    Romans 1:28-31 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

    Matthew 24:12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.
    21-22 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the
    elect those days will be shortened.

    David Skinner, UK

  • I feel sorry for men who kill other people. But Mr Muehlenberg is exactly right. We are all sinners and capable of the worst sin. But I think it was St Augustine who first said “there go I but fot the grace of God”.
    Luke Portelli

  • Indeed Rob, there but by the grace of God go all of us. The delicate membrane of civilised society is but paper thin. Once this is cut, lusts and rage overwhelm us within seconds.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Thanks Luke

    It is hard to know exactly where the phrase first originated. Many believe it was the English reformer who first said it, at his own martyrdom in 1555: “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,
    Working as a counsellor for so long now I have listened to too many stories of people doing things they never thought they were capable of. Extra marital affairs being one of the most common. As a counsellor I have opportunity to look at myself as well when I hear these confessions. I agree that as we get older we seem to become more aware of our fragility in the face of a holy God. I have just turned 60 and I am only too aware of how fragile I am in a number of areas. I have great need to call on Gods grace daily.
    We are all just one choice away from sin.
    Thanks Bill
    Warwick Murphy

  • It is somewhat ironic that the same Britain which does it’s utmost to deny, repudiate, minimise and eradicate the knowledge and worship of a holy God and replace it with it’s own thin gruel of political correctness and “compassion” religion, is the same one which blames God for not intervening, for allowing these awful murders to occur.

    It seems God gets blamed for His intolerance and bigotry when things are going well and for His lack of authority and justice when they are not.

    I remember the quote from “The Practice of the presence of God” where brother Andrew was asked why he thought the world was in such a terrible state. He replied that he was constantly surprised that it was as good as it was, that he expected worse.

    Lennard Caldwell

  • An excellent article Bill – I have often wondered in the past what kind of a person I really am outside God’s grace. Sometimes I would get these little thought flashes in my mind about things that were simply awful and I knew where it was coming from but I realised that if we can think it then we are most certainly capable of doing it! The only thing that stops a lot of this evil in the lives of humans I believe is God’s restraint! Also it was lovely to meet you face to face on Sunday night.
    Steve Davis

  • Thanks again Bill for a wonderful article.

    I appreciate it in more ways than one as it has helped me to understand Luther’s quite – “There, but for the grace of God, go I” -applied as it is in your article to refer to our sinful nature, I have no issue with it and it makes much sense. However, I always have heard the phrase used in the context of when something bad happens to someone else, it hasn’t happened to me. While that may well be true, the implication to me has always been that the grace of God does not avail for anyone else – because of what has happened to them.

    Back to the theme of the article, I have always had difficulty with society’s treatment of hit and run drivers as being some of the worst scum going. Yes, it is awful to hit someone with a vehicle and not stop, but when I challenge people, with my response, they are left with their mouths hanging open. My response is usually, “Do you mean that I am the only one here who would want to flee the scene as my first impulse?” Certainly, I would hope that I could show the moral courage and fortitude to stay on the scene and assist someone I had injured, but I know that would not be my heart’s first impulse.

    Kerry Letheby

  • An outstanding article Bill . We have to admit to our fallen nature and our total dependence on God’s grace if we want to be saved and we have to ask His forgiveness whenever we sin, then pick ourselves up and keep going. I was reading Paul’s first letter to Timothy today myself and was struck by his humility and spiritual maturity but a bit disgruntled by Ch. 2 v 9 – 14 clearly I’ve got a long way to travel yet.
    Anna Cook

  • Bill, was not this man on a rampage, energised by demonic compulsion? Our beloved Lord sent his disciples to ‘preach the gospel, heal the lepers, heal all manner of sickness and disease, with power over unclean spirits. Matthew 10.
    Did not HE cast seven demons from Mary Magdalene? Did not the Lord of glory cast a legion of demons (6,840) from the Gadarene?
    Demonisation is freely observed in other nations, but is concealed in our nation: road rage, envy; alcoholic binge drinking; lust-driven sexual relationship, pornography. verbal savagery indicate demonic control.
    ‘Spiritual Warfare’ Ed Murphy is a masterpiece supporting demonisation of believers. Commmendable.
    I have detailed the glorious release of the Gadarene in my web site. http://www.biblestories.stellaris.com.au
    Harrold Steward

  • Thanks Harold

    Thanks for reminding me of Ed Murphy’s Spiritual Warfare. I have not read it for years. I need to find it amongst my large library, blow off the dust, and re-read it. I recall it was a very good book indeed.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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