There was a time in my teens—a brief time, thankfully—when I dabbled in horror books and movies. In what is probably not an atypical experience for teenagers, I developed a strange interest in the macabre and found pleasure in getting frightened. This led me to explore a few terrifying novels and films before I decided I ought to heed my conscience and turn to more worthwhile endeavors. I don’t remember a whole lot about the stories anymore, but do remember a number of sleepless nights as I lay awake listening to the sounds of a quiet house, fretting about every creak and groan. I had fed my imagination with unhelpful material and was reaping the consequences.
I found myself thinking the other day about why people like to be frightened by their entertainment. I really don’t get it. I don’t understand why people pay good money to sit in theaters to watch characters be stalked and killed and dismembered. I don’t understand the appeal in yet another killer clown. But as I thought about this, my mind was drawn to the scary things I’ve read in the past and I quickly concluded the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read is not from Stephen King or Dean Koontz, but John Owen. While their novels may have left me awake for a night or two, Owen’s writings have caused me to pause and reflect on a near-daily basis.
John Piper once said that it isn’t books that change people, but sentences. That has certainly been my experience with John Owen. In all I’ve read from him, there is one sentence that comes to mind most often, a simple one: Sin aims always at the utmost. Owen employs anthropomorphism to make sin something living and active, a being with an evil mind and insidious design. Sin always has an aim, a purpose, and it is always to lead you to the farthest possible degree of that transgression.
- When sin offers an opportunity to enjoy a fleeting, lustful glance, it is not actually an invitation to harmlessly linger on a desirable body, but to utterly destroy a marriage through adultery.
- When sin offers an opportunity to doubt the existence of God, it is not actually an invitation to consider the matter with an open mind, but to defiantly deny him altogether.
- When sin offers an opportunity to desire the property of another person, it is not actually an invitation to long for what someone else has, but to commit the greatest theft, the boldest scandal.
Here is how he says it: “Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head. Men may come to that, that sin may not be heard speaking a scandalous word in their hearts – that is, provoking to any great sin with scandal in its mouth; but yet every rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villainy: it is like the grave that is never satisfied.”
This is real terror, true horror. I do not encounter killer clowns every day and have never been involved in a demonic exorcism, but I do face a fresh wave of temptation each and every day. Every morning a small sin presents itself in my mind and asks whether I’d like to dabble in it. Every afternoon a mere peccadillo offers itself as a harmless comfort or distraction. Every evening I hear a little whisper just to take just a wee nibble of that forbidden fruit. These little temptations look so small and so harmless. They appear to offer something desirable at a negligible cost. But through Owen, I know better. They want to wreck me. They want my utter destruction.
Another memory from my younger years: I am at a winter youth retreat and some girls have decided they will go halfway down a snow-covered hill on an inner tube. They want the pleasure of the ride, but know there is a barbed-wire fence at the very bottom. So they’ll just go halfway. But they soon learn that once that tube starts sliding, it’s nearly impossible to stop. And sure enough, I and everyone else watch as they careen into the vicious fence.
Get on the tube and you are on your way to being entangled in the fence, no matter how much you enjoy the ride; embrace the temptation and you are on your way to utter destruction, no matter how much fun you have along the way. Because sin aims always at the utmost.