[A servant of the Lord must be able to teach] so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will. ~ 2 Timothy 2:24-26
Most scholars recognize the teaching ability of Jesus and His use of parables. Parables communicate because they use familiar real world occurrences, concrete images, to reveal spiritual truths, abstract realities. In turn, homiletic professors understand the power of illustration in sermon construction. With this in mind, it suddenly struck me that everything I need to know about sin God taught me while fishing. Here are the major points (no pun intended) I learned on the doctrine of hamartiology (sin).
There's no such thing as a small sin.
Over the last five years, I have asked hundreds of people, "In your opinion what is necessary for a person to do to go to heaven when they die?" Probably ninety-eight percent of those questioned say something similar to, "You need to be a good person." In the works-oriented religious worldview of many, I am OK as long as I don't sin big. Lying on my taxes, pride, anger, etc. are not going to keep me out of heaven. After all, I am not that bad, and God loves everyone. In other words, there are big sins and little sins. The Catholic Church refers to them as cardinal and venal sins. One afternoon on a salmon stream taught me otherwise.
The Berner's River is a beautiful meandering river north of Juneau, Alaska. With clear water and sandy bottom tinted by the muskeg meadows, fishing the river is a visual joy. One summer several of us were taking advantage of the local salmon spawning runs. Walt, as many visitors do, wanted pictures of Alaskan fishing. So, being the good host that I am, I took Walt's camera and walked five yards down the bank. Walt continued to cast as I framed the shot for the best picture. Suddenly, I felt a thump on my forehead directly above the camera. More puzzled than concerned I lowered the camera only to find the three-inch-long metal lure's hook embedded in my forehead and hanging in front of my eyes. Somehow Walt had managed to cast the lure ninety degrees from where he intended. Trust me. The lure was not that big as salmon lures go, but when Walt started cranking in the line to find his lure I started yelling. Compared to the holiness of God any sin is enough to separate you from Him.
But the big sins will kill you!
As children of a holy God we need to separate ourselves from all sin; as fallen creatures we battle our sin natures until this life is over. In Galatians 6, Paul differentiates between the common burdens we all face and the crushing ones that can defeat the isolated Christian. Remembering that truth helps keep us humble when confronting our sinning brother. We will never be sinless, but we had better not be complacent about sin. I survived my experience with Walt and the salmon lure. The hook got my attention, but it wasn't life threatening. Commercial fishing is different.
Halibut fishing involves laying thousands of feet of bottom line between two anchors. Every three feet there is a large hook tied in on a short leash. Thousands of baited hooks are hung from a rack or coiled in large tubs on the back deck of the boat. To lay the gear the skipper will line up the vessel with the desired set and then hit the throttle. The deckhand's job is to make sure that the gear goes out without tangling. It is scary to be next to thousands of flying hooks. If you are snagged by one you had better hope that the other deck hand can cut you loose before the line tightens enough to drag you over. Every fisherman has gotten hooked, but there is a difference between a size 18 trout dry fly hook and a 6/0 hook suitable for landing a three-hundred-pound fish.
It seems that not a year goes by that a well known Christian minister, musician, athlete, or politician makes the news caught up in a sex scandal. Few local churches have escaped the ravages of sexual immorality. Is all sin, sin? Yes, but some sins have horrific consequences. Overeating can lead to a slovenly appearance and a premature death, but adultery destroys the individual, his family, his witness, and his church. In retrospect, I am much more casual concerning hooks when I am fly fishing than when I commercial fished. Christians need to have a healthy fear of sin and keep it at a distance.
Different sins hold different attractions for different people.
The perfect bait for catching a two-hundred-plus-pound halibut consists of a salmon head and a fist-size chunk of fish guts. A rainbow trout likes a small terrestrial, like a grasshopper, a nymph, or some other miniscule tidbit that imitates their natural food. It is tempting to become self-righteous when we hear about a Christian brother falling in sin. We smugly say, "I would never do that." We may not, but that does not mean we cannot be compromised by sin. I have never been tempted to embezzle church funds, but I battle pride. It is amazing how Satan and our own sin nature continually cast sins across our paths seeking the right combination to provoke our response. We might reject the blatant advances of a coworker, but find ourselves drawn to the person at work that often happens to sit at the same lunch table and seems to have so much in common. We need to remember the truth of human depravity. We are fallen creatures capable of the vilest sins and are not safe outside the shadow of the Almighty. That awareness leads to the next truth discovered fishing.
The subtle sins will get you.
The best lures minimize the hook's visibility. Some lures divert attention from the hook by noise or splash, others camouflage the hook as part of the bait's anatomy, and some hide the hook in the bait itself. Some people are like halibut. They are so oblivious to right and wrong they get hooked by anything the world sets in their path, the smellier the better. Most Christians are like trout or bass. Our toughest choices are not between raunchy sins and holiness, but between a well-hidden hook and God's best. The most common justification for divorce that I hear from Christians today is, "God wouldn't want me to be unhappy!" Somehow a Christian divorcing his spouse and rapidly remarrying is acceptable as long as it brings happiness. Talk about a hook! Satan has attacked God's standard for marriage and compromised countless Christians by the well-hidden hook of selfishness. What do we do when we are hooked by sin?
The quicker you clean the fish the better it is.
As a commercial salmon fisherman, the sale price depended on how well you took care of the fish. Your price could drop two dollars a pound if the buyer saw any signs of poor handling. There is a tremendous difference between a fish that is bled, gilled, gutted, and iced immediately after being caught and one that lays on the deck for awhile. Some of the best fish I have ever tasted were the ones we would catch and within minutes cook on the stove in the galley. You may want to age beef or venison, but freshness is everything for fish. Fish spoils quickly. Sin has the same way of stinking up one's life. The best way to avoid the dangers of sin is to avoid anything that does not stand the light of God's Word and flee from anything that even hints of sin. If — and when — we do sin, the quicker we confess our sins and seek His cleansing, the quicker we will minimize sin's damage in our lives and ministries.
Each year Central Peninsula General Hospital personnel in Soldotna, Alaska, will place a four-foot-long plywood salmon on the emergency room wall. At the beginning of the sport fishing season it is bare. Three months later it is a tangle of hooks and leaders, each one removed from some hapless fisherman. All it takes is once having a large hook removed from your flesh to convince you to be more careful. That is the spiritual truth of the parable of the hooked fisherman.
Walt snagging me on a salmon stream has provided many laughs over the years, but that is where the parallel ends. The Bride of Christ, His Church, can ill afford the continuing pace of Christians falling in sin. We need to abhor blatant sins and discern the snares which this fallen world so craftily places in our lives if we want to be fit for His service. Trust me — you do not want to end up like a fish.
William E. Brown, Ph.D., is associate professor of Evangelism and Church Planting and Nehemiah Project director at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.