If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire — not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself — is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted — it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”
Bear with me as I (seem to) digress: This reminds me of something that happened to me long ago, when I was a youngish teacher at Wheaton College. In those days — and for that matter until I moved to Waco — I played basketball several days a week, and one morning I almost got into a fight. A guy on the other team said something snarky to me after fouling me pretty hard, and I completely lost my temper, called him him some choice names, and tried to punch him. (It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t, because he was younger and stronger than me and could certainly have kicked my ass.)
This was a pickup game mainly populated by faculty, staff, a few graduate students, and a handful of undergrads, and later that day I found myself wondering what they thought of me. Here I was, a faculty member at a Christian college, cursing like a sailor and trying to slug someone who offended me. What kind of Christian witness is that? I thought and prayed and decided: If I can’t behave any better than that on the basketball court, then I should give up basketball. No matter how much I love it, I need to give it up if it’s standing between me and a decent public life as a Christian.
I also decided that I was going to tell my students about my decision, on the “confession is good for the soul” principle — and because I wanted them to see that (supposedly) more mature Christians can struggle too. And maybe, if I am honest, also because I wanted them to see how humble I was. So the next day in class I told the story and explained my decision — expecting, I suppose some admiration for my Christian commitment.
I was therefore quite disconcerted to see, in my first class, as I related my edifying tale, a student sitting in the front row and, in obvious discomfort, shaking his head. That student was an older student, an ex-con named Manny Mill — you can read a bit of Manny’s story here. His head-shaking was very odd, because Manny was exceedingly, even excessively, respectful of me. I managed to get through my story and teach the class, and when we were done Manny bolted to the front and asked — in his Cuban accent and with what was in those days a pronounced stutter — if he could talk to me. I couldn’t see him that day, but we made an appointment for the following one.
When he came to my office, Manny began by apologizing repeatedly for being so bold, but then took a deep breath and said: “Dr. Jacobs, please do not make room for the Devil.” I found this statement incomprehensible, but he went on, nervous and stammering, to explain. He asked me if I enjoyed playing basketball. I told him that I loved it. Then, he replied, I should not allow the Evil One to take a good thing I love away from me. By giving up basketball, I was saying, whether I meant to say it or not, that that part of my life belonged to the devil, was impervious to God’s grace, was an arena in which God could not win. Manny asked when, if I were still playing basketball, I would next play, and I told him that it would be the very next day. He then pleaded with me to get back out there on the court — but do so only after having prayed for patience and a peaceable spirit.
This was strange news to me. I had thought that “not making room for the Devil” was the very principle I had followed in giving up my favorite recreation, but if Manny was right I was accomplishing the opposite of what I hoped to accomplish: I was ceding territory to my Enemy — an enemy who does not give territory back. By going back onto the basketball court I was putting myself in moral danger, wasn’t I? Surely I was. But what if the alternative to moral risk, especially for Christians, is ceding spiritual territory you can’t get back?
I did what Manny asked. And I have always been very, very glad I did.
When I reflect on such matters, I remember Don Quixote, who once stops on the road a man who is transporting lions in a cage and orders him to open the cage so that he, Don Quixote de la Mancha, can perhaps have the opportunity to fight a lion or two. After the lions, remarkably, show no interest in fighting the knight, Don Quixote considers his honor satisfied. He then addresses an observer of the scene:
“Who can doubt, Señor Don Diego de Miranda, that in the opinion of your grace I am a foolish and witless man? And it would not be surprising if you did, because my actions do not attest to anything else. Even so, I would like your grace to observe that I am not as mad or as foolish as I must have seemed to you….
It was my rightful place to attack the lions which I now attacked, although I knew it was exceedingly reckless, because I know very well what valor means; it is a virtue that occupies a place between two wicked extremes, which are cowardice and temerity, but it is better for the valiant man to touch on and climb to the heights of temerity than to touch on and fall to the depths of cowardice; and just as it is easier for the prodigal to be generous than the miser, it is easier for the reckless man to become truly brave than for the coward; and in the matter of undertaking adventures, your grace may believe me, Señor Don Diego, it is better to lose with too many cards than too few, because ‘This knight is reckless and daring’ sounds better to the ear of those who hear it than ‘This knight is timid and cowardly.’”
Ours is not a spirit of fear.