A Powerful Picture of Sin
Adrian Reynolds says watching a TV documentary challenged him with a vivid illustration of the destructiveness of sin. He says it should be a warning for fellow leaders.
I caught the back end of a documentary on BBC2 the other night: The flu that killed 50 million.
It was so gripping that I had to go back and watch the whole thing over. The programme was a part retelling/part documentary of the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ outbreak that killed at least 50 million people around the world, and possibly as many as 100 million. Coming hot on the heels of the devastation of WW1 the spread of the deadly virus affected nearly every country on earth.
The programme focused on the effect in Britain and – frankly – that was enough. It was not for the faint-hearted! Excerpts from doctors’ diaries, for example, spared no details. 17 million people died in India, and at its height 175,000 people were dying per month in the USA. It was a truly global disaster.
But here’s the thing that got me most: with the benefit of tracing and DNA sampling and so on, researchers and scientists know exactly where the flu originated. And it originated with just one man, a US army cook called Albert Gitchell. When he left his family farm in Kansas, he was almost certainly contaminated with what we would now call avian flu.
On arrival at his base camp, he reported sick. He was the first. Within a month over 1,000 other soldiers had fallen sick and many had died (the death rate from the flu was about 10%). Gitchell’s unit was posted to northern France at the tail end of the World War and from there, it spread rapidly all across the world. Gitchell – ironically – survived the epidemic (he died in 1968). But the flu he carried devastated the lives of millions all around the world.
Sin is Destructive
As I reflected on this extraordinary story, I realised what a powerful picture of sin it was. Sin is destructive like this. On this scale. And just as infectious. “A little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough” (1 Cor 5:6). When we tolerate even little sins, we must not be surprised at the multiplying destruction that often results.
This is certainly true for us as leaders personally. As we all know, effectiveness in ministry is directly linked to our own godliness (1 Tim 4:16) and we delude ourselves and deceive others if we believe or convince ourselves that our sin simply doesn’t matter. It matters deeply. It spreads quickly.
Therefore we must, as leaders, be those who are constantly putting sin to death in our own bodies, with the Spirit’s help.
However, it is also true corporately. We must be under no delusions that sins that are allowed to fester in our congregations, spread and destroy just as quickly. It’s why church discipline is such a key part of discipleship. And it’s also why we must be honest about the kinds of sins we are tempted to tolerate. Few evangelical churches I know tolerate sexual sin, for example. But our churches can easily be full of gossips, proud men and women and those ruthlessly pursuing their own agendas. Such sins can be just as destructive.
No wonder that Jesus himself encourages us to be ruthless when it comes to dealing with sin.
Poor old Albert Gitchell. He was only identified as Patient Zero a couple of years ago, long after he himself had died. For which I’m quite glad. Imagine living with that burden!
The picture breaks down at this point of course, for he could not be held to blame for the terrible destruction the infection his body carried to others. Leaders, however, are accountable to the Chief Shepherd, and we must thus listen to the words of the Master encouraging us to be ruthless and intolerant when it comes to sin.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matt 5:29)
Photo: Influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.