The big steel prison door closed with a loud and echoing slam behind me. I sat down in a small visitation room, bare except for three metal chairs. I had come to visit my incarcerated friend.
As I sat there and waited for him to be brought in, I was still baffled by what had happened. My friend was convicted of embezzling money from his employer. A lot of money. Like everyone else, I was shocked to hear the news of his arrest. He was the last person I would ever suspect of being arrested, much less arrested for embezzling money.
My friend had money of his own. He was educated, married, lived in a nice house, drove a nice car, and came from a nice family. He attended church regularly and was involved in what was going on. He was outgoing, well-spoken, and health conscious. The last person you’d ever dream of this kind of behavior.
As his pastor, it was my responsibility to stay in contact with him and provide as much soul care as circumstances allowed. But it was also my responsibility to provide support to those who were affected by his choices- his spouse, his family, and his friends in our church.
Those were difficult and gut wrenching conversations. Because he didn’t offer much in the way of explanation of his actions, we were left to try to make sense of it all. And as we worked through what happened, I remember the most frequently asked questions. “What could have motivated him to do such a thing? Why would he jeopardize his marriage, his family, and his reputation?”
His spouse came to the conclusion that his behavior revealed him for the kind of man he really was- someone she never really knew. She couldn’t understand how he could do something like this with such disregard for others. Surely he had a deep, fundamental character flaw that was bound to surface at some point. Other family and friends believed he developed a secret addiction or compulsion that required money he didn’t have. And some quietly wondered if he fell in with the wrong people and found himself in a situation he couldn’t get out of.
During his time in prison, my friend and I had a chance to talk frankly about what happened. He had never done anything like this before, and until now he had always had the highest regard for his family. He assured me in the strongest possible terms that he wasn’t driven by addiction, and he wasn’t in secret trouble. I believed him.
So what happened? I have a theory.
I believe my friend fell victim to a condition that every human being is susceptible to- he underestimated the destructive power of his uncontrolled human nature. Let me explain.
Through the years, I’ve had a chance to sit down with a number of people who have made similar life choices- maybe not embezzlement, but equally damaging such as having an affair or getting caught in a prostitution sting. All these people had something important in common: none of them woke up one day and decided to ruin their lives. Instead, they described a slow, step wise journey toward ruin. And it all began with a small, seemingly insignificant compromise of either integrity or purity. They were bored, they were stressed, they were pressured, or whatever, and they satisfied their desire.
Once this happens, the next time is easier. Do it again, and it seems more fun. Before we know it, the voice of our conscience is drowned out by the cries for more. We become braver. We take more chances. We tell ourselves that no one knows, so we’re not hurting anyone. Then we tell ourselves that we’re too smart to get caught. Finally, we become so brazen that we almost don’t care if we’re caught.
In my friend’s case, it probably started small- a few dollars here and a few dollars there. But once the process began, it was impossible to stop. It became bigger than what he could handle, and he got caught.
What’s at the root of this behavior? The bent toward evil of our human nature. Our natural instincts are to rebel, to be autonomous, and to reject authority and direction, and those who grow up to live successful, meaningful lives are those who learn how to control the demands of these desires.
So here’s my point. You and I are no different than my incarcerated friend. We all share that same poisoned nature, and we are all one compromise away from stepping onto that long, winding road that leads to disaster.
We said our goodbyes, and as I walked down the hall toward the exit of the prison, I remember muttering the prayer, “God, but for your grace, that man would be me.”