This post will be more personal than most as the content relates directly to a recent family tragedy: the sudden, accidental death of my 20-year-old brother, Christian. He was out driving after midnight on an interstate in Florida, outside of Tampa, when he lost control of his car while speeding. The car swerved, went into a tailspin, and then, I think, flipped over. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
There is more to this story than the simple tragedy of a young life ended far before his time in a random accident. Over the course of 2 or 3 years, starting when he was in high school, my brother had become an alcoholic and drug addict. His addictions growing stronger with time, he was jailed multiple times and even hospitalized at least twice from beatings suffered from his so-called ‘friends’ that were drunk and/or stoned with him. Even last month he was in two minor car accidents in which alcohol was involved, one resulting in another brief imprisonment. Increasingly desperate and not knowing one else to do, my mom somberly lamented, two days before his death, that he was going to end up either killing someone – or getting killed himself.
While he always fled from my efforts to reach out to him by phone, he would occasionally engage in meaningful exchanges by facebook. Frequently, over the past few months, he would post Status Updates that seemed to be a way of dealing with the temptations that came. Things like “them devils be speaking to me again,” and “tell them devils to go away.” The last one I read like that said, “Niggaz in the hood holla go crazy Christian, crayola.” I’m not even sure what all this means, but I could infer from the comments that he was experiencing the enticing call of his addictions with all their malicious promises.
When I read this, and thought about all his talk about demons tempting him, the song “Paul Newman vs. the Demons” by the Avett Brothers flooded into my mind. The song describes the war between good and evil, darkness and light, angels and demons, that rages in and over human souls, and is a cry for redemption from the sins of our past:
You may have to drag me away
From my demons kickin’ and screamin’
It’s been so long since I’ve been with them
Can’t tell where they start and I begin.
While the Bible teaches of the reality of demonic forces in the world, seeking to demean, destroy, and enslave human souls, which is why I took seriously what my brother was describing, the clichéd excuse for our sins that “the devil made me do it” is not legitimate and therefore does not get us off the hook. When we are tempted, we are faced with a moral choice about whether to harken to those voices, believe their lies, and give in to the temptation. Every time we do, our willpower, our capacity for doing what is right, is weakened, thus making us even more vulnerable to evil forces, enveloping us even more in their darkness, and shutting out the light of conscience that reveals to all of us the reality of God’s good and just will.
Thus, the wrong things we do are not just isolated incidents of bad behavior, or random lapses of good judgment, rather they both shape and are shaped by the kind of people we are, our character, and throughout our lives, our character becomes either increasingly identified with the reality of God, being made more and more like Him in righteousness and beauty (this is what virtue is) or identified with the reality of Satan, becoming more and more twisted and distorted by lies, and enslaved to evil (vice). We are either progressing one way or another, though all at different rates and with different consequences, but no one is standing still in neutral.
Sadly and tragically, I think my dear brother had gotten to the point where he could barely resist his demons, because resistance requires a clear, distinct sense of self, a confidence of identity and purpose that exists independently of these dark forces, a sense in which these demons are foreign invaders and do not belong in one’s life. Over time, I’m afraid, my brother’s sense of the otherness and thus the danger of these voices had diminished to where he could not tell the difference between their voice and his own.
The fact that sin is fundamentally an identity problem, a problem with our hearts being wedded to and ruled by the wrong things, things that deceive us and cover us with darkness, causing so much misery even as they promise so much happiness, points to our need for a supernatural rescue from a divine rescuer. I’ll continue my thoughts on that in part 3.