John Le Carré’s novel, The Secret Pilgrim, tells of a young man, a member of the intelligence services, visiting the former East Germany to liaise with a spy. Against all proper procedure, acting from anxiety to do things right, he carries in his pocket some cards on which were written details of the spy network. The visit goes well, and it is only on his return that he notices that the cards are missing, that they must have fallen out of his pocket.
Shortly afterwards, the spy network is rolled up, resulting in torture and loss of life. This leads to the young man having a mental crisis and confessing to his superior in the intelligence services what he had done. The superior in question is the narrator, and in the novel there are these words about the narrator’s reaction to what he had just heard: “Then the appalling banality of what the young man had told me got through to me: that you could lose a [spy] network as easily as you could lose a bunch of keys.”
Although sin involves free choice and decision, and although world history is peppered by sins that are big and systematic and massively destructive, I wonder if there’s not an important part of the story of sin that is not unlike careless, unthinking banality, almost like losing a bunch of keys through lack of thought and care.
Sin renders us blind and insensitive; sin stops us from being truly free. When sin gets into the system, when our whole way of thinking is touched by it, we can find ourselves almost sleepwalking into sin, shoring up the patterns of sin. We can find ourselves almost sleepwalking into hurting others and hurting ourselves, thoughtlessly, committing all those acts of petty cruelty and betrayal, that despite their banality and carelessness leave a trail of hurt and damage in their wake.
We may focus on the big sinners and the big sins, of cruelty, tyranny and hate; but perhaps the seeds of such horrors are to be found in the small acts that burrow into the system, dulling our senses, getting us to almost sleepwalk into what can be so destructive. It can happen all too easily. We are tempted by desire for bodily satisfaction; we are tempted by desire for power, to be like God; and we are tempted by our psychological complexity, playing mind games and seeking quick and easily satisfaction. Satan in the desert tempts Jesus in these very ways, and so discloses to us what temptation is about.
Most of the temptations we face are probably fairly minor. It is important not to exaggerate, and it is important to recognise too that our desires seek things that are genuinely good. We must try to avoid being overly scrupulous and anxious, which can be harmful. But we must try to avoid being complacent, which can also be harmful, for we might all too easily find ourselves sleepwalking into sin, into doing all sorts of things that hurt ourselves and others.
And yet despite the serious matter in hand, Christ being tempted by satan is meant to give us hope and to show us something about what it is to be truly happy. Jesus resists the temptation to turn stones into bread; but this is the same Jesus who eats and who drinks with his disciples. Perhaps one lesson to draw from this is that it is only the one who can eat his food with self-control and without greed who can enjoy it fully. Greedy people are too busy thinking about what they do not have to enjoy what they already possess.
Sin is a complex business that stops us from living as we ought, and so Lent is a wonderful opportunity to ask ourselves hard but realistic questions about true human happiness, questions that involve reflecting on the role of sin our lives. To take up this opportunity is to ask if we have been sleepwalking through life, sleepwalking into patterns of sin and destruction, perhaps not so much out of active malice or greed, but almost carelessly, unthinkingly, almost like losing a bunch of keys through lack of thought and care.
Lent is therefore an invitation to open our eyes so that we can by the grace of God say yes to life and to love, the precious gifts God offers us but satan never even mentions.