“I never thought it would come to this.” I’ve heard those words too many times to consider it a coincidence. Too many times good people, devastated by the consequences of their own decisions and actions, naively admit they never saw it coming. They were blind to the insidious power of incremental decay.
Incrementalism is to ethical integrity what high blood pressure is to your health. They both share the label of silent killer. But there is a huge difference in the end.
If you suffer from high blood pressure your doctor can prescribe a drug regimen to control it. But if, over time, little ethical lapses congeal in your life, deadening your resistance and allowing larger and larger indiscretions to create a new normal, you will find yourself facing some difficult options.
Going back will demand you admit your waywardness and halt some actions you’ve become quite attached to. Going forward will mean eventually dealing with heartbreak and tragedy.
That’s why most just deceive themselves into thinking they can control everything in their lives, and dismiss out of hand the danger of their incremental slide into a self-deceiving, self-destroying lifestyle.
And why do we start down the path of incremental self-destruction? Here are a few of the launch pads from which we all-too-readily blast off into patterns of life that ultimately leave us in a bad place.
Pride: Pride is tricky because it comes in both positive and negative packages. When we look at our children doing well, or in a project that has been successfully and ethically completed, it is good and right to feel a sense of pride. This kind of pride comes packaged in an accompanying sense of true humility. We look and see something good and must admit we were only a small part of the success.
It is this humility that keeps the pride where it should be: anchored in someone else’s success rather than in our own selfishness.
But most of the time pride starts in our own hearts. We come to believe we are better than we are, and more deserving of others’ focus than we should. Our culture screams this at us all the time, and it is very hard not to believe we are the center of the universe and that everyone else better recognize that.
This pride builds in us a false sense of entitlement, which morphs into a perverted type of freedom. Because we’re so great, we can do whatever feels good, and this launches us out from the guardrails of integrity and discipline into the fast lane of selfishness.
Selfishness: This desire to please ourselves, if given its head, will incrementally knock over the two guardrails that line the path of ethical living. Selfishness gnaws away at discipline – ask any of the millions who buy gym memberships in January, show up through February, make excuses until June and then cancel their memberships.
Eventually, selfishness sees discipline as an obstacle to freedom of thought and action, and plows right through the guardrail of integrity. After all, you are the captain of your own ship, right? You can sail wherever and whenever it feels right!
Chances are you’ve never thought along these lines, but it is certain you’ve experienced the steady pressure of incrementalism in your life. And it is certain you’ve watched others’ lives blow up and wondered how it came to be.
Most lives, relationships, businesses, and dreams don’t blow up all at once. The forces that destroy them start small, seemingly insignificant, as ethical convictions are pushed aside “just this once.” We always think small indiscretions, momentary lapses, harmless fantasies, and one-time transgressions have no momentum – but they do.
They chart an alternate way of thinking and living, the continuation of which can pump us full of false hopes and dreams whose appetite for more and more stimulation can carry you away from the reality you always hoped for. And in the end, you may find yourself saying, “I never thought it would come to this.”
My advice is simple. Strengthen your guardrails, and your resolve, and set your face firmly toward all that is right. No one ever said, on their deathbed, “I sure wish I had lived a life with less integrity and discipline.”
And if you determine to be the person God created you to be, finding your life in him and his provision, you’ll end up with a life, and an eternal future, about which you can say, “Ah, yes, this is what I always wanted it to come to.”
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. Ethically Speaking” runs every Sunday.