Sometimes we can learn to do good by carefully considering its opposite. That’s what C. S. Lewis does in The Screwtape Letters, a fiendishly clever little book in which an older demon advises a younger demon on how to damn a soul. Never stated to the reader: hey guys, you should, um, do the opposite.
One of the techniques that the older demon recommends is suggesting that a temptation will go away if the client gives in to it. You don’t need to be a Christian theologian to recognize this is bunk, but it helps to know that behaviorist psychology has discovered a behavior that leads to a reward will be reinforced.
Well, this a problem, since the reward is produced by the behavior you’re trying to extinguish, and so by the time you’ve done the behavior, it’s too late to avoid the reward: the quick smoke, the second donut, that one more YouTube video when it’s already time for bed.
But this is where the Christian concept of the “near occasion of sin”. As fellow comic book artist Nathan Vargas once put it when we were getting coffee, people think they make decisions by themselves, but they don’t: there were ten decisions that led to you standing here in that line, about to buy a mocha.
In the same way, ten steps lead to any given sin: driving to the convenience store to get a smoke, eating the first donut, opening the browser tab instead of closing the laptop. When the next video from Local 58 is sitting right there, man, in your queue, it’s hard to resist; it’s a lot easier if YouTube isn’t even open.
If you really want to not do something, you should not do it: while a failure to yield a reward will at first lead to a flurry of behaviors that potentially lead to the reward – driving past the convenience store, looking longingly at the donuts, opening YouTube – eventually those behaviors will become extinct.
As comic satirist and idiosyncratic religious scholar Dave Sim once said – edited for language, Dave is not PG-13 – if you leave it alone, it will leave you alone. This is easier if the behavior is altogether bad – for example, if you’ve decided to quit smoking because it’s addictive – so you can stop entirely.
But the donut or the YouTube video, now, that’s a pickle. You can choose intellectually dishonesty and claim that the donut or the YouTube video is always bad, but that’s the evil path towards Puritanism. Sins like theft are always wrong, but sins like gluttony aren’t caused by eating per se, but eating too much.
So what can we do with sins of excess and similar behaviors that aren’t always wrong? Another vaguely Christian concept to consider is the wages of sin. If ten acts lead up to any one choice, ten reactions will follow it. Considering the consequences of our choices can help us understand and control them.
Many Christian thinkers see sin as choosing our will over God’s. But if God’s is good, then God’s will is what’s good for us – the concept we’ve discussed a few times before, that things are not good because they are in the law, but they are in the law because they are good.
So if that’s true, bad behaviors are likely to lead to bad outcomes. For me, the matter is pretty clear with the second donut: it won’t taste as good as the first, and it adds to your indigestion and waistline. Similarly with the YouTube video: the later it gets, the more tired I am the next day.
For things we have less experience with, it’s harder to make this judgment call. Another friend put it this way: “When faced with these choices, I don’t think about how good it will feel when I am doing it. I try to think about how I will feel when it’s over.”
God’s will isn’t about arbitrary laws which are difficult for people to follow. It’s about choosing things that are good for us and the people around us, and avoiding things that are harmful to us and others. My mother put it this way once: “Don’t do anything to hurt yourself.”
That’s hard to judge in the moment, but if a sequence of actions leads you to unavoidable regret, it’s worth considering: is this God’s will? If that’s too hard – and it often is – just ask yourself: “How will I feel about this when it is all over?”
Pictured: my mother, Susan Francis.