In 1907, when young Adolf was sipping a cup of coffee outside a corner shop in Vienna, he wasn’t plotting how he could murder six million Jews. He was pondering his next watercolor painting, dreaming about becoming an artist.
When the teenager Devin Patrick Kelley was sitting in Algebra and American History in my hometown of New Braunfels, he wasn’t deliberating on what rifle he’d use to gun down 26 worshipers at First Baptist Church in Sutherlands Springs, TX, in 2017. He was thinking about enlisting in the Air Force.
No one becomes a very bad person overnight. The dark and final chapter of their lives is preceded by many other chapters of intermingled light and darkness. By reading their lives backwards, we can search for prophetic hints of the evil to come.
This is a helpful exercise. How did the dreamy artist become the mass murderer? How did the Air Force enlistee become the church shooter? It’s fascinating stuff. But it’s even more fascinating when, instead of looking at infamous men like Adolf and Devin, we look at more garden variety examples—beginning with ourselves.
STEP BY STEP DOWN THE PATH OF DARKNESS
Most of you, at some point in your lives, will find yourself several miles down a very dark road that you never planned on taking. While in high school, you didn’t daydream of getting hooked on meth, having a baby, and watching Child Protective Services take your son away from you. During a Friday night football game, you didn’t imagine yourself, ten years down the road, slouched on a couch, an empty whiskey bottle by your side, typing out a hateful text to send to your ex-wife.
Nor, while in graduate school, then while an intern, and finally while a rising star in your company, did you forecast the day you’d finally make it to the top, have a six figure income, and go to bed alone every night—spouseless, childless, friendless, and hopeless, because your whole life has been devoted to the sole ambition of looking out for #1.
But there you are. Or will be. You’ve gone down a dark road. No, you’re not Hitler. No, you’re not Kelley. But you’re also not the person you thought you’d be. And you lie in bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, wondering how you got where you are. Because as hard as it is to admit, especially to yourself, you’re not a very good person. Whether, from the world’s perspective, you’re a failure or success, a drug addict or CEO, you know that if you continue down this path, all that awaits you is more darkness. More disappointment. More despair. More inhumanity.
A FEW PENNIES AT A TIME
We don’t sell our souls to the devil in one lump sum, but a few pennies at a time. Many a life has taken a tragic turn toward eventual destruction between bites of a sandwich, over lunch with some influential people from work, when we hesitantly agree to turn a blind eye to some minor ethical violations so that this inner ring of people from our company will welcome us into their circle. Many a teenage life headed down a dark road late one night, at a party, when everyone else was getting high and we didn’t want to feel left out.
And so it begins. Bit by bit, step by step, flirt by flirt, joint by joint, rung by rung, we regress into the people we swore we’d never be. The arrogant executive. The cheating husband. The resentful wife. The student-hating teacher. The addict. One day we wake up and realize we can’t stand ourselves. And we don’t know what the hell to do about it.
DYING TO LIVE
If you're at this point, you're actually a lot closer to leaving that dark road than you might expect. Because the first step backward is the admission that you are not a very good person. You are, in fact, a self-centered, self-serving, self-destructive person with a mile-long rap sheet to prove it.
To admit this, to face it head-on, is a blessed realization. An even more blessed realization is this: no matter how many years you’ve traveled down this dark road, there is a God who is but a moment away. No matter how many people you’ve hurt on this path, there is a God who has taken great pains to travel with you unseen. No matter how hopeless you think your future might be, there is a God who has the surprise of a lifetime right in front of you.
He is a God who specializes in taking people in your exact situation and giving them life after killing them. This is how he works. He will take you from that dark road and put you in the grave. But it’s a unique grave. It's a salvation grave. It’s the grave where you give up on yourself, die to your desires, die to your regrets, die to all the dead ends you once clung to, and find beside you the one thing you’ve always needed but never had. Because beside you in that grave is God himself. His name is Jesus, and he’s there to make sure you’re good and dead to yourself, that you might rise good and alive with him.
Don’t say you’re beyond hope, for there is not one beyond God. Don’t say you’ve done too much evil, for there is no wrong bigger than God’s heart of forgiveness. Don’t say you’ll never make it because it’s not up to you, but him. All you have to be is dead. He’ll do the rest. He’ll bury you with himself and raise you to newness of life. He’ll show you the way off that dark road into the light of his love.
Now is the time. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, however bad you’ve become, there is a God who stands waiting, arms open wide, a smile on his lips, love in his heart, dying to show you just how much you mean to him.