Even the Smallest Island

The Pacific Campaign of the Second World War is a fascinating slice of military history. In many ways, it seemed like a nonsensical series of battles between the United States and Japan–battles that ranks as some of the most horrifyingly brutal in the long and terrible history of warfare. As the Americans sought revenge for the devastation of Pearl Harbor, and as they sought to curtail Japanese aggression in the East, they fought their way across the Pacific Ocean, moving slowly and deliberately from island to island. Tiny, seemingly insignificant pieces of coral, jutting from the midst of a boundless ocean, hundreds of miles, thousands even, from the nearest mainland, became fierce battlegrounds. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in conquering little pieces of land. And yet these islands were far more important than their size may have indicated, for they were able to serve as air bases from which strikes could be launched against other islands, and eventually against Japan itself. The insignificant islands were crucial stepping stones across the vast Pacific Ocean.

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In this campaign the little things were necessary prerequisites to bigger things. The little pieces of land led to the Japanese mainland. Little things led to big things.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing our pastor challenge us on erecting idols of the heart. He challenged us to seek out the sin in our lives and to determine where we have built idols that supplant the preeminence that rightly belongs to God. I thought about this yesterday and have, in truth, been thinking about sin a whole lot lately. I’ve been amazed to see lately how God has been dealing with some of my bigger, more glaring sins, completely eradicating their prominence in my life. Some of these sins remain, to be sure, but with only a fraction of the power and hold they had in the past. And for this I am exceedingly grateful. I’ve been asking myself why God would be so gracious in doing this. What does it mean? What does it point to? Why, after so many years of struggle, would God one day suddenly just take them away? Will they come back in such power and strength in the future or are they really and truly diminished for good?

Yet, though God has been so gracious and kind, I know that so much sin remains. So much. When I look at my life and at my heart, at this point at least, I do not see the huge and glaring sins that I may have pointed to even a year ago. Rather, I see many smaller sins, these sins that I know are mere stepping stones to bigger ones. And so, though I have written on this topic in the past (and last summer, to be exact) I felt that today, for the good of my own soul, I needed to revisit it since it may just be that the sin that is most prevalent in my life right now is in allowing these small sins and giving them only scant notice. My big sin is the multitude of small sins.

As with so many other believers, I often tend to feel that I’m a pretty good guy. I have never committed any of the really “bad” sins. I’ve never killed anyone, I’ve never committed adultery and I’ve never stolen anything big enough for anyone to notice that it’s missing. I pay my taxes, stick near the speed limit, and try not to hate people. But while I have not committed those big sins, I’ve come to realize just how open I have become to the little sins. To use our military metaphor, while the mainland has not yet been conquered, I can see how I’ve gleefully allowed island after island to fall to Satan. Surely concentrated attacks on the mainland cannot be far behind. Surely big sins will follow these little ones.

The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, likens Satan’s attacks to bridging a gulf. “If it be desired to bridge a gulf, it is often the custom to shoot an arrow, and cross it with a line almost as thin as film. That line passes over and a string is drawn after it, and after that some small rope, and after that a cable, and after that the swinging suspension bridge, that makes a way for thousands.” An apt metaphor. Not too long ago, the Toronto press reported on a local man who had committed a horrifying murder. A bit of a loner, this man began to use his home computer to look at pornography. Soon light pornography was not enough to satisfy him and he began to look at things that were increasingly perverse and disgusting. He became enslaved to his sin so that before long he was seeking after and finding loads of child pornography. And one day, as he was looking at these horrible acts played out on his computer screen, he looked out his window and saw a young girl walking by. Without planning and without having seriously considered that he might do this or even that he was capable of it, he snatched her from the street. A couple of days later the police found her battered, abused and now lifeless body. The man turned himself in and confessed to the crime, insisting that he had not meant to do something so horrifying, so evil. It is likely true that this was not an act that had been planned for a long time. Satan had conquered island after island in this man’s heart until he finally reached the mainland. A series of small beginnings led to a horrible end. Spurgeon warns against allowing these little sins. “Oh! take heed of those small beginnings of sin. Beginnings of sin are like the letting out of water: first, there is an ooze; then a drip; then a slender stream; then a vein of water; and then, at last, a flood: and a rampart is swept before it, a continent is drowned. Take heed of small beginnings, for they lead to worse.” I think of the classic tale of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. If he removes his finger and the water flows, what was once a mere dribble of water will soon become a raging torrent that will flood farmland and drown innocent people. Sin is like the ocean, with a power that, even when restrained, remains potent. It is always pushing against the walls of the dike.

Stories like that of the man who brutalized the little girl terrify me. It’s not that I enjoy pornography or have even ever considered seeking out child pornography. Rather, it terrifies me because it shows the truth of the lesson behind the story–the lesson that little things lead to big things. Thomas Brooks, the Puritan, wrote, “Greater sins do sooner startle the soul, and awaken and rouse up the soul to repentance, than lesser sins do. Little sins often slide into the soul, and breed, and work secretly and undiscernibly in the soul, till they come to be so strong as to trample upon the soul, and to cut the throat of the soul.” If this is true in the life of an average guy who murdered a little child, could it not be true in my life? The Japanese Army knew this and it led them to fight tooth and nail for each and every little piece of coral in the Pacific Ocean.

in God’s Way of Holiness, Horatius Bonar wrote, “The avoidance of little evils, little sins, little inconsistencies, little weaknesses, little follies, little indiscretions and imprudences, little foibles, little indulgences of self and of the flesh, little acts of indolence or indecision or slovenliness or cowardice, little equivocations or aberrations from high integrity, little touches of shabbiness and meanness, little indifferences to the feelings or wishes of others, little outbreaks of temper, or crossness, or selfishness, or vanity–the avoidance of such little things as these goes far to make up at least the negative beauty of a holy life.” Jerry Bridges is astute in pointing out that “it is in the minutiae of life where most of us live day after day.” Few of us are regularly faced with the outright decision of whether or not to commit adultery, but each of us is faced each day with the temptation of stealing a single lustful look or allowing a single lustful fantasy to play out in our minds.

We may think we avoid evil by fleeing the sins we perceive to be greater. But Jesus dealt harshly with such thoughts. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus gave no quarter to sin. He knew that sin begins in the heart and it begins not with a great act of sin, but with many small acts. Surely Cain first grumbled against Abel, and then plotted against him before finally murdering him. Surely David allowed himself to think lustful thoughts and surely he went to the roof of his palace knowing what he might see. Those little sins led to breathtakingly horrifying, ungodly acts of lust and anger.

The truth is, that every sin, whether large or small, is a declaration of war against God. In last year’s Israeli-Lebanon crisis, we saw this principle played out. The Hezbollah sent a few troops across the border into Israel. They did not send an entire army, but only a small squad of soldiers. Still, this was as much a declaration of war as if they had sent every solider under their command. Israel perceived this for the statement it was and reacted accordingly. In the same way even a small sin is a declaration of war against God. After all, Adam and Eve did not commit adultery and did not murder–they merely ate a piece of fruit that God had told them not to eat. This may seem only a small sin, but it is a sin that has made all the difference.

As I reflected on the sin in my life, I have been challenged in my life to guard against the small sins–those sins that seem so small, so insignificant. I have come to see through Scripture and through human experience how those sins soon lead to others. They are but the beginnings of much greater sins. Each and every one, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is a declaration of war and an act of war against the Creator. And if I do not guard against these sins, soon island after island will be conquered and only the mainland will remain, weak and unprotected. It could well be that the greatest sin I face today is in allowing small sins to pass by scarcely noticed, all the while rejoicing that I do not succumb to the greater sins. Yet if I allow the small sins to pass through my heart and I allow them to take root, it is only a matter of time before small things lead to big things.

Thanks be to God that He provides the strength and the power to reconquer and reclaim islands that have already fallen to the enemy. He has won battles, but by the grace of God he will be pushed back, further and further from the mainland, and will not win the war. Through His power even the smallest island can be ably and securely defended.

I append to this article a brief note for my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is good to look to the heart and to assess where Satan has made gains in your life. I plead with you to look long and deep at those little matters, those small sins, those stepping stones to the big and glaring sins. If there is great sin in your life, bring it before God and plead for His grace. But look also to the stepping stones that carried Satan one step at a time. If you struggle with pornography, look to your eyes or look to your attitude towards women and sex; if you struggle with having a foul mouth, look to the movies you watch or the music you listen to; if you struggle with gratitude, look to your understanding of the meaning and power of the cross. At this very moment my wife is outside tending to our garden. Show knows that if she wants to have a lush and beautiful garden, she must deal with the weeds that seek to smother out her plants. Were she to simply snip the top of the weed she would find that they will grow back in just a few days. Instead, she needs to dig down, wrestling with that weed until she extracts it by the roots, tearing it from the soil. Do this with your sin, digging ever deeper and determining where you have given Satan permission to put roots of sin into your life. Tear out those roots, cast them away, and live in freedom.