Defaulting to the Devil:
the Choices We Refuse to Make
By Audrey Stallsmith
When several of us females were travelling together to a conference a while back, one of the women asked the rest of us why we had or had not chosen to get married. As she said herself, she'd never had much interest in small talk!
I had to conclude that my spinsterhood wasn't really a choice, but something I had drifted into. As an introverted type, I am slow to warm up to new people, and I also get bored easily. So blind dates tended to be excruciating for me, and always seemed like too much trouble. Not to mention that those of us females who have read a lot of romantic fiction tend to set impossibly high standards for what we want in a man.
In other words, I remain single out of sheer laziness and misguided idealism! I was surprised to learn, however, that some of the other women had drifted into marriage too. After a Christian couple have been dating for a certain amount of time, after all, it is just assumed that they will get married. So some of the ladies never actually received a proposal.
If people can float into such a major decision as that, perhaps we'd better start thinking about how many even more important choices in our lives have happened by default. This occurred to me while we were talking about Sodom and Gomorrah in Sunday School recently. I wasn't concentrating, as I probably should have been, on the more horrible aspects of the story. Instead, I was irked by another question which had never occurred to me before. After the destruction of Sodom, why didn't Lot return to Abraham?
Under the circumstances, if I had a rich uncle who'd been like a father to me, I think he'd be the first person I would run to. And the fact that Abraham could see the smoke of the cities from his location proved he wasn't all that far away. So why did Lot find it impossible to go back?
His original choice of the grazing land near Sodom was obviously a conscious decision. And a natural one to make, considering that those fertile, well-watered plains must have looked very attractive to a man used to having to scratch a living from the more barren and difficult hill country.
But I suspect that his eventually ending up inside the walls of the city was more of a drift. Sodom was a prosperous town, after all, and could offer business opportunities that were a lot easier than herding livestock. Although vexed by the filthy conversation and dishonest dealings of the place, Lot couldn't seem to pull himself away from all the luxuries that the city had to offer. So he went along to get along, apparently settling into a nominal kind of religion that didn't offend anyone. Obviously our decisions, rather deliberately made or not, eventually harden into habit that is hard to break.
And Lot had become an important man, as proved by the fact that he was sitting in the gates of the city. But at what price? The lack of moral fiber in him and all the members of his family speaks for itself. He even had to be rescued by his older but more vigorous uncle once, when he and the rest of Sodom's population were taken captive by foreign invaders.
Abraham's moral fiber, in contrast, can be judged by his actions. Although it must have occurred to him how impossible it would be to defeat an entire army with only three-hundred-and -some men, he just went and did it anyhow because he cared about his nephew. And about what was right. As Philip Yancey notes in Where Is God When It Hurts? "God wants us to choose to love him freely, even when that choice involves pain, because we are committed to him, not to our own good feelings and rewards."
At least Lot still had enough conscience that he felt concern for two clueless strangers who intended to camp out in the streets. He invited them to his home instead, to protect them from the homosexual gangs which apparently roamed Sodom at night. Lot obviously didn't perceive, as Abraham did, that the strangers were angels. Or he wouldn't have had any concern about their ability to defend themselves!
It doesn't seem that all the men of Sodom were part of those gangs, as Lot had to go in search of his sons-in-law. But apparently the rest of the population wasn't concerned enough to interfere. Much as the modern population in some parts of Mexico is apparently allowing its corrupt element--drug cartels--to run wild.
The main problem in Mexico is probably fear, but Ezekiel holds that Sodom’s was "pride, gluttony, and laziness." (Ezekiel 16:49, NLB) People were so complacent about the good life in those cities that they simply ignored the moral deterioration that went with it. As long as they could barricade themselves behind their wealth, they didn't care what was happening out there in the streets. "Holiness," as Elisabeth Elliot points out somewhat wryly, "has never been the driving force of the majority."
And setting oneself against the majority can cause a great deal more conflict in our lives. "But," as Madeleine L'Engle writes in The Irrational Season, "I am not at all convinced that life without conflict is desirable. There's not much conflict in the grave, but while we're alive the only creative choice is the choice of conflict." G. K. Chesterton put the same idea in different words. “A dead thing goes with the stream. Only a living thing can go against it.”
Lot must have more closely resembled the dead fish to those around him. When he tried to warn his sons-in-law about God's punishment, they thought he must be joking. So obviously the subject hadn't come up in their conversations before.
There wasn't time for him to convince them, since the meteor shower or other natural disaster that was going to destroy Sodom must have been already on its way. As proved by the urgency with which the angels had to literally drag Lot and his family out of the condemned city. Even in the face of that danger, Lot couldn't summon the willpower to take action voluntarily. And his wife was doomed by lingering too long.
There is no indication that Lot ever deliberately chose to turn his back on God, but just slipped further and further away from Him. As one of the demons advises the other in C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, "The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." In other words, the road where the victim is not even aware that he is being lured downhill.
Perhaps Lot had only always "ridden on the coattails" of Abraham's faith. If so, the weaker nephew would have had no real faith of his own to sustain him once he was out from under his uncle's influence. And, even after his soft life was destroyed, Lot apparently couldn't bring himself to return to the more rigorous demands of Abraham's religion and lifestyle.
Instead, Lot seems to have gone into a prolonged and drunken sulk. With what disastrous results we know. But that refusal to act was also a choice. As Elliot points out, "Self-pity is a death that has no resurrection, a sinkhole from which no rescuing hand can drag you because you have chosen to sink."
I suspect the position of most people today could be compared to Lot's. They don't actively disown God. Most believe in Him. In fact, I would guess that most have some vague idea that they will "get right" with God eventually. Probably in their old age, after they've had their fun, and when it seems more urgent that they do so.
What people don't seem to realize is that, the longer they stay away from God, the less inclination they will ever have to return to him. As Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, "Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself."
In other words, every choice we make--either conscious or unconscious--moves us in the direction of God or away from him. Abraham had his own weaknesses, as proved by his half-lies about his wife's identity. So it's possible that he could have gotten into trouble as well, if he'd moved closer to Sodom. And, as patriarch of the clan, he should have had his choice of grazing land. But he unselfishly allowed his nephew to pick first. By doing the right thing, Abraham not only moved himself further from Sodom but closer to God.
As someone once said, if you are not as close to God as you used to be, you need to ask yourself who moved. And those who wait until their old age to seek Him may find that they have neither enough desire or willpower left to make the effort.
Although Lot seems to have maintained some vestiges of his righteousness, his family had obviously already succumbed to what Elliot calls "the temptation complacently to settle for visible things." The visible things are easier, after all. The others demand a great deal more effort on our part, but are infinitely more important.
We should ask ourselves a paraphrase of George MacDonald's question from Getting to Know Jesus, "Is the will of God the glory of my being, or am I merely ferreting about in this world to get something to have?" MacDonald held that the only thing standing between most people and life is that they will not take it. Will not consciously choose it, in other words, over the trivia that keeps them distracted from what is essential.
Obviously, we need to stop making decisions by default and force ourselves to look those choices in the face--call them what they are. Suppose, for example, I am tempted to turn over and go back to sleep on Sunday morning, instead of forcing myself to get up and get ready for church. If that happens, I need to say to myself, "By this decision, I am asserting that a little extra sleep is more important to me than God is."
No doubt some will whine that skipping church once in a while isn't such a big deal. I might agree with that, if it was only once in a while. But I've seen, in both my acquaintances and myself, how quickly skipping church or devotions--or anything that has to do with God--can become a habit.
"For God is always to be found in the details of things," Helmut Thielicke notes in How the World Began. "I have to do with him--and also with the Tempter!--at every point in my everyday life." So we need to do our best to make that battle more apparent to ourselves, and to make all our decisions deliberate ones.
It sure beats drifting through life with blinders on! As Lewis advises in The Magician's Nephew:
"Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had."