“Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Let’s start with a quick pop culture quiz: Who is the hero of the Star Wars film franchise? That’s a trick question, of course. There are several possible answers, and if you find yourself on the right fandom website, it could spark hours of vigorous debate. But if you were going to have to pick just one, who would it be? I’d personally lean in the direction of Luke Skywalker, but I could be persuaded otherwise. However you answer that question, though, do you know who you’re probably not choosing? The franchise’s most popular character. There are two primary contenders for that particular distinction and neither of them were heroes. In fact, one of them is one of the chief villains: Darth Vader. But while Vader’s story ultimately has an heroic arc (which, I believe, is a big part of why he is so popular), it begins in tragedy. Seeing someone succumb to what Star Wars calls “the dark side” is always tragic. Having made his second case about the greatness of Christ, the author of Hebrews here offers us another warning. This time it is essentially to not succumb to the dark side. Let’s talk about it.
I can’t stand the young Anakin Skywalker. Not the little kid version, but the young man version in episodes 2-3 of the franchise. The reason has everything to do with the actor who played him. For whatever reason, Hayden Christensen absolutely rubbed me the wrong way. It has nothing to do with him personally. I’ve seen some of the other movies he’s made, and they weren’t bad. I even liked his character in them. But his portrayal of Anakin Skywalker as a young man gradually succumbing to the seductions of the evil Darth Sidious was just awful. Even when he was supposed to be a naive, but genuine good guy in the second film he was petulant, brooding (and not in a cool, Batman sort of way), and whiney. It’s a good thing Lucas Films released the Clone Wars cartoon series because that completely redeemed the character.
What the films with the help of the cartoon series got right, though, is the slow, gentle, almost imperceptible path Anakin took from Jedi Master to Sith Lord. There was never a day on which he woke up and was suddenly one instead of the other. Instead, it was a series of small decisions that eased him through the transition. Over the course of his story arc, he came to several different forks in the road. Sometimes he took the fork heading in the direction of the light, but more often he took the fork heading in the direction of the dark. Yet none of those single decisions made him a Sith Lord in the moment. They were just decisions. But each one moved him, step-by-step, closer to the dark side than the light. Of course, the moment when he defended Darth Sidious against Mace Windu’s attacks was when his journey was finally complete, but his heart was given over to the dark sometime before that.
The author of Hebrews here warns against our having “an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Today we read something like that and almost instinctively think, “Well, that’s not me. In fact, that’s not even close to me,” and fairly well skim through this section to get to the next bit of good stuff. And that’s a completely understandable reaction. None of us wants to imagine ourselves as having an evil, unbelieving heart. What a terrible thing to have! No one wakes up one day and decides to be a “bad guy.” That’s simply not how it works.
Then why offer a warning like this? Because we need it. Yes, no one becomes an evil person in a moment. (Well, apart from the grace of Christ, we are all helplessly stained by the evil of sin and there is no such thing as a good person, but that’s a conversation for another time.) But each decision we make does push us either toward Christ or away from Him. And each little decision that moves us in one direction or another makes the next decision after it a little bit easier to make than the one before it was. Like Anakin’s was, our journeys are subtle. Our character development is almost imperceptible. We never notice it in the moment, but only after the fact when we have become more of one thing or another. Only then can we see the choices that led us to one place or another.
When you come to a fork in the road where the choice is between sin and not sin, and you choose the sin, that decision in and of itself isn’t going to wreck your character or make you somehow irredeemable. Anyone who tells you otherwise is using a bit of fearmongering to push you in the direction of righteousness which is a tactic that never really works in the long run. But that one decision will make the next decision to sin a little bit easier. It will make buying into the deception sin wraps itself in a little bit easier to stomach. We do it and nothing happens and find it just a little bit easier to believe the lie that sin doesn’t really have any of the consequences guys like Paul or Peter or Jesus made it sound like it has. I mean, sure, the big sins obviously are things we want to stay away from, but the occasional little thing we can fairly well overlook.
If we allow this idea to take root in our hearts and minds, though, something begins to happen. Like weeds in a garden, given enough time, if they are not rooted out entirely, they will show themselves eventually. Our kids at church fixed up a spot of dirt outside my office a few weeks ago with flowers and mulch. It looks a thousand times better than it has the previous five years I’ve been here. And then we got a bunch of rain in the last week, so the flowers really started to grow and take root. As I pulled up to the office yesterday, I immediately noticed how much better it looked even than when they first did it. But when I got closer, I could see all the weeds that were there before, also strengthened by the rain, poking their heads through the mulch.
When we allow ourselves to believe things about sin that aren’t true – namely that it isn’t so bad as we’ve always been told – our hearts gradually begin to grow calloused. Then they get hard. We start to justify our sin. We start to like our sin. We don’t want to let go of our sin, and we get a little cranky with people who suggest we should. And once we have a pretty good base of sin to stand on, the next worse sin on our list, the thing we would have never imagined doing when we started this journey, all of a sudden doesn’t seem quite so unreasonable a thing to do as it once did.
And who is God to tell us we shouldn’t be doing this anyway? There’s nothing really wrong with any of this, He’s just being a killjoy. He’s probably not even interested in what I’m doing. He’s got a whole world to run. And by the way, He’s not doing such a great job on that score anyway. Just look at all the messed-up stuff that’s happening in the world that He seems either unwilling or unable to do anything about. I’m really probably better off on my own. In fact, I don’t even know that there is a God out there. This whole “God” thing is just a bunch of stuff old people have made up to try to keep us in line and from doing the things we want to be doing; to keep us from being able to become who we really are. I don’t need all of this. I’ll figure this all out on my own.
Rise, Lord Vader.
“Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Perhaps this warning is a whole lot more necessary for us to heed than we once thought. But we can’t just heed this first part of it. The second part is just as important because in the second part we find out what our defense is. “But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.”
The way we watch out and avoid this slow, steady path to leave the way of Christ and our faith behind entirely is not to knuckle down on our own and make ourselves stronger. We don’t have the strength to avoid this on our own. Anakin’s journey was hastened when he began spending more and more time away from the community of Jedi who could have helped to watch and encourage him. In his isolation, other mentors came along and pulled him steadily down that dark path.
We need community in our lives. Specifically, if you are a follower of Jesus, you need the church community. You need to have other believers in your life who can give you encouragement and loving accountability; who can help you watch out and tell you the truth about the decisions you are making when you need to hear it. We need this community to be an active part of our lives. Fellowshipping and worshiping with them is something that must happen on a regular, consistent basis. Following Jesus was never intended to be a solo venture. We are always better together than we are apart.
So, watch yourself, but don’t watch yourself by yourself. Watch yourself and the selves around you in a community in which you are all committed fully to one another and seeing each other become more fully who Jesus designed you all to be. Then you will indeed avoid developing an evil, unbelieving heart that is hardened by sin’s deception.