The Lure Of The Forbidden

Earlier today I had the chance to see a phenomenon that never ceases to fill me with a sense of foreboding concerning the moral nature of humanity. In a place where I happen to be a low-level administrator, someone had made it clear that they did not want to be pinged, and yet a fair number of people stated that they desired to ping this person because they were asked not to. It is not as if they had a reason to ping him–they did not. Yet the fact that he did not want to be pinged made them want to do it all the more. The prohibition of something had made it attractive to them, something that would not have interested them on any other grounds. There are a great many people who think human nature and the ordinary run of the mill human being to be good, but this sort of phenomenon is a strong degree of proof that human nature is evil, precisely because it has a bent to do that which is forbidden and prohibited. The lure of the forbidden because it is forbidden is a demonstration of the crooked and evil bent of human nature to a degree that is difficult to see in more ordinary circumstances where we may delude ourselves into thinking that we are good. One can hardly claim with any degree of competence that humankind is generally good and decent when one sees the large extent that people are enflamed and enticed and encouraged to do something wrong based on the knowledge that it is wrong with little else to encourage them so.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Romans 7:7-12 gives a particularly eloquent discussion of this evil desire, a matter that has been spoken of often here [1], in saying: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.  I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.  And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death.  For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.  Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” What makes Paul’s writing so powerful and so striking is in part that Paul draws from the reality, whether personal or collective, that we desire what is evil in part because we know it to be forbidden and taboo and thus exotic and attractive, that the law is holy and just and good because it exposes our longing for evil. This is quite the opposite conclusion that people tend to argue, which is that the law is unholy and unjust and wicked for reminding us that we are so.

It is by no means obvious that the very act of being asked not to do something should make us desire all the more to do it. If someone asks us to refrain from doing that which we would have little inclination to do anyway, namely to bother and annoy and irritate someone without having a good reason to do so, we should not feel any desire to do so. If someone tells me that I should not eat or drink that which I do not desire to eat or drink normally, I should not develop a sudden fondness for it. If someone tells me that I am not permitted to go to a place that I have no reason to go to, I should not find my footsteps directed there with evil intent. If I am told that saying or doing something offends and bothers someone else, and I have no particular desire to say or do that thing under ordinary circumstances, the fact that such a word or deed is offensive to others should not make it more attractive. And yet it often happens that this is so. Quite regularly things are attractive for being across a line apart from whatever charms they have on their own merits. There are a whole host of things that are attractive largely, if not only, because they are forbidden and somehow off limits. And the fact that this is so reveals the darkness and evil that is inside of us more than almost anything else in existence.

It is not as if this tendency takes a long time to develop. There is humanity, even in very young specimens of humanity, the widespread tendency for ornery small beings to do that which they are told not to do because they are told not to do it. In fact, one of the things that tends to inhibit people from outright forbidding things to young people is the human tendency to view those things that are forbidden as being especially desirable on those grounds. And the fact that such a bent towards evil, such a profound vulnerability to the lure of the forbidden, has been so universal a human tendency, only varied as to which evils we find ourselves drawn towards, has been among the strongest proofs to those who hold to an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. It is only to be lamented that such unfortunate terms have been coined to discuss this problem. Whether we see the Catholic label of original sin or the Calvinist label of total depravity, this precise phenomenon I have noted and its observation by others is labeled in terms that invite refutation while simultaneously obscuring the unpleasant realization that if these terms are not quite accurate, they are nonetheless describing something that is real and genuine and that deserves our reflection.

This past Saturday night I spent some hours at the home of a couple of friends of mine from our local congregation, and as is sometimes the case I was given a book to amuse myself, a book that discussed the dialects of the United States and some of the differences that were present between one place and another. One of the funnier things, all the more humorous because it was true (at least for me), was its notation that one of the things that distinguished a Floridian from those who lived in other parts of the United States was that we were aware of the existence of drive-through liquor stores without having a special colloquial term for it. And that is what we find here when it comes to that native inborn inclination to sin and evil that we find in humanity present even before we become corrupted by the evil deeds of others that we witness or experience at the hands of other evildoers. We can see very little people who are already showing to the world their native longing for wickedness and evil and to do what is wrong simply because they are told that it is wrong. We wonder how to properly label this term. We may shrink away from a term like total depravity because we recognize that human beings have unequal and varying blends of good and evil and do not wish to deny the good even as we acknowledge the wickedness in ourselves and others. We may wonder the extent to which this evil desire is inherited by us because we are human while at the same time recognizing that Jesus Christ was human as we are, and tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. Somehow He partook of the divine nature in a way that we do not which made him immune to this desire to sin in a way that the rest of humanity lacks.

And as is often the case with such theological matters, we struggle in large part because we know a great many things that we only dimly understand in a partial and indistinct and fragmented fashion. To be sure, we can diagnose evil desire in ourselves and others, but that does not mean we really understand it well. We know that we are born with it, or at least that we manifest it very early as human beings, and yet we do not want to think of ourselves as completely lost as a result. We may recognize a bent towards particular evils within us, we may know that which lures us because it is forbidden and taboo, and not really know what to do about it except to do battle with our desire and to seek to subdue it so that it is kept from destroying ourselves and others. We certainly recognize, regularly, the bent towards evil that exists within others and their frequent lack of success in subduing those wicked longings within them, and we are not slow in condemning others for their weakness while being self-deceived about the similarities between their state and our own. And even if we are more successful than others are in resisting certain things, are we really to be praised for being able to resist some evil desires only at the cost of letting other evil desires, including the desire to look down on others, run free and unrestrained?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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