As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:
In reply to the general question, every man will affirm that murder is evil. But he who is plotting the death of an enemy contemplates murder as something good. The adulterer will condemn adultery in general, but will privately flatter himself in his own adultery. Herein is a man’s ignorance: when he comes to a particular case, he forgets the general principle he has just laid down.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, 2.23
I think this is an incredible observation by Calvin! He’s obviously talking about extreme cases here, but the principles are the same. We’re very happy to pass judgement on someone for a wrong that they have done, but will justify even the same wrong action as right when we come to do it.
Maybe it’s the fact that we think “People would agree with me if they knew what I’d been through/what I knew”. There’s no end to how we can justify things to be right in our own eyes. That’s why God had to give us a law in the first place, because if he didn’t, we’d do whatever we wanted and convince ourselves we’re doing the right thing. How do I know this? Because even with the law we still do it.
Adultery is wrong, of course. But there’s this man/woman who totally gets me, my marriage/their marriage is a shambles and we are soul mates. How could it be wrong?! Is that really the same as adultery?
Sure, it’s wrong to evade paying taxes. But my employer wants to pay me in cash, and we’re doing it tough at the moment. Paying tax is meant to be for rich people who are trying to dodge the system. I’m just looking after my family, how can that be wrong?
Stealing is wrong—everyone knows that. But all the rich fat cats in Hollywood are doing is lining their pockets with any profits from movie sales. What does it matter if I download a bootleg copy of this movie? All I’m doing is helping to bring equality between the rich and the poor in this world. I’m actually doing the world a favour!!
I know God asks me to love my neighbour. And I do. It’s just that there’s this one person at work who annoys the crap out of me and deliberately makes my life miserable. Why should I bother talking to them? What does it matter if I laugh about them with my co-workers?
Some of these may seem like ridiculous examples to you, but why not think of things you justify as good for yourself? We all do it. With God’s help, maybe we can stop.