A Reminder from an Ancient Source Not to Dabble in Sin

by Jerry Newcombe The Bible says that if you think you are strong and think you stand, watch out lest you fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). I found a fascinating story from ancient Rome from which we can learn a lot about dealing with temptation.

Here’s a little background on this subject.

I teach a Sunday school class on the subject of “Christ and Civilization.” This is a class for adults at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. About 55-60 attend, for which I am most grateful. The “Christ and Civilization” theme is essentially an amalgamation of various points Dr. Kennedy and I made in the books, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Nelson, 1994, 2001) and What If the Bible Had Never Been Written? (Nelson, 1998). You could re-title these books: BECAUSE Jesus was born, here is what happened; BECAUSE the Bible was written, here are some of the results….one of the chapters in What If Jesus deals with how Jesus increased the value of human life.

In one of the classes, I spoke for a few minutes about how the world into which Jesus was born was a very cruel world. Human beings were butchered for sport in the gladiator contests. These were slaves, forced against their will, to fight other slaves, so that the masses could be entertain. I suppose one could argue that we have the same type of blood lust today. For example, when Hollywood churns out movies where they advertise that "the body count is awesome!," you know there's something very wrong. People apparently enjoy seeing these scenes where one person mutilates another───complete with blood flowing and body parts flowing. Common sense tells you that there's something sick about all this. Worse yet, there’s often a link in some movies or in some pornography of sex and violence. Both appeal to our lust.

Thankfully, while Hollywood goes to great lengths to make their violent stunts look real, of course, it isn't. But, again, there was a time when it was real in the gladiatorial contests. Thankfully, it was Christianity that ended these contests. Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette (of Yale from the early part of the 20th century) writes:

Under the influence of his new faith, the Emperor Constantine forbade gladiatorial shows and abolished the legal penalties which required criminals to become gladiators. . . . We are told that the gladiatorial combats persisted in Rome until, in the fifth century, a monk, Telemachus, leaped into the arena to stop the combatants and the mob, presumably nominally Christian, stoned him to death for interfering with their pleasure. Thereupon the Emperor ordered that the spectacles be stopped and Telemachus enrolled among the martyrs. [Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 1 (New York: Harper and Row, 1953, 1975), p. 245.]

Meanwhile, before the incident with Telemachus (c. 404), the bloody games were very much alive during the days St. Augustine wrote his classic book, The Confessions of St. Augustine. He describes an incident in the life of a friend, who thought he was so spiritual, he could resist sin. He could not.

If you’ve never read The Confessions, I highly recommend it. The whole book is a prayer. So the “you” referred to is God. Here is what St. Augustine writes about his friend, Alypius:

Since of course he did not plan to give up the worldly career that had been dinned into him by his parents, he had gone on ahead of me to Rome to study law, and there he was carried off in an unbelievable way by the unbelievable passion for gladiatorial shows. Although he would have opposed such shows and detested them, certain of his friends and fellow students whom he chanced to meet as they were returning from dinner, in spite of the fact that he strongly objected and resisted them, dragged him with friendly force into the amphitheater on a day for these cruel and deadly games. All the while he was saying: “Even if you drag my body into this place, can you fasten my mind and my eyes on such shows? I will be absent, though present, and thus I will overcome both you and them.”

When they heard this, they nevertheless brought him in with them, perhaps wanting to find out if he would be able to carry it off. When they had entered and taken whatever places they could, the whole scene was ablaze with the most savage passions. He closed his eyes and forbade his mind to have any part in such evil sights. Would that he had been able to close his ears as well! For when one man fell in the combat, a mighty roar went up from the entire crowd and struck him with such force that he was overcome by curiosity. As though he were well prepared to despise the sight and to overcome it, whatever it might be, he opened his eyes and was wounded more deeply in his soul than the man whom he desired to look at was in his body. He fell more miserably than did that gladiator at whose fall the shout was raised. The shout entered into him through his ears and opened up his eyes. The result was that there was wounded and struck down a spirit that was still bold rather than strong, and that was all the weaker because it presumed upon itself whereas it should have relied upon you [God].

As he saw that blood, he drank in savageness at the same time. He did not turn away, but fixed his sight on it, and drank in madness without knowing it. He took delight in that evil struggle, and he became drunk on blood and pleasure. He was no longer the man who entered there, but only one of the crowd that he had joined, and a true comrade of those who brought him there. What more shall I say? He looked, he shouted, he took fire, he bore away with himself a madness that should arouse him to return, not only with those who had drawn him there, but even before them, and dragging others as well.

From all that you rescued him with a hand that was most strong and yet most merciful, and you taught him to put his trust not in himself but in you. But that was long afterwards. [John K. Ryan, trans., Confessions of St. Augustine (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1960), Chapter 8 of Book 6, pp. 144-145.]

If you play with fire, you will get burned. How foolish of Alypius to think he could go into the auditorium, but not watch the spectacle. Many times when we succumb to lust, it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to flirt with it. To conquer lust, some have to take drastic steps, like dropping cable TV or getting rid of the TV altogether. I know one man who won’t even go to the beach any more because he doesn’t want to be tempted to lust. This may sound extreme and I certainly don’t want to be legalistic. Let each reader decide for himself how to keep oneself free even from the temptation of lust, inasmuch as it is up to you.

I’m reminded of a couplet Dr. Kennedy used to love to quote. With Alexander Pope’s short poem, we close:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien [appearance],

As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

[Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, quoted in Oscar Williams, ed., Immortal Poems of the English Language (New York: Washington Square Press, 1952, 1969), p. 162.]