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.