Out of the South Pacific comes this story of how some of the native people capture the octopus. Two young men move cautiously among the coral rock until the monster is spotted. One plunges into the water and swims deliberately within reach of the beast. Quick as a flash the evil arms of the octopus leap out and entangle the victim completely. Then the second youth plunges in and dislodges the octopus from his rocky perch by a hard jerk. The octopus and his victim float to the surface in a violent struggle. With the octopus this is a struggle to the death, for his undoing lies in the fact that he does not know how to let go and make his escape. Knowing this, the other youth swims to the rescue of his entangled companion. Aiming accurately, he sinks his teeth deep into the flesh of the octopus exactly between the eyes, and almost instantly the beast is relaxed and limp, and is dragged ashore.
We may think of intemperance as the octopus of sin. It is an inveterate evil that can strike at the heart of even a preacher. That is why we are considering it here as a sin, even though we more often think of intemperance as related to the consumption of alcohol, dope addiction, and the use of tobacco. But intemperance is infinitely more than that. Like that dreaded "devil of the sea," the octopus, intemperance is a sinister evil capable of spreading its vicious arms around every vital function of life. It reaches into every pattern of human behavior, wraps itself around all sins, and becomes the very entanglement of sin. Eventually it robs man of his physical energy and prowess, and sucks out his vital spiritual force. If left unchecked it becomes first a supreme ruler, and finally a ruthless killer.
The wanton wickedness of intemperance lies in the fact that it overdoes everything. If temperance is moderation in any matter, then intemperance is excessiveness in the same matter. If it can be said that temperance is doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, then intemperance does the wrong thing, in the worst possible way, at the most inopportune time.
Intemperance has the quality of spoiling even good things; even goodness, when it is overdone, can become sinful. It is intemperate eating of good foods that makes for overeating; useful labor when overdone becomes overwork; adequate rest, dragged out excessively, results in slothfulness and sheer laziness. When intemperance seizes control, useful recreation degenerates into reckless sport; the desire for legitimate gain is egged on to gaming and gambling; the urge for social acceptance deteriorates into the attempt to live beyond one's means. When intemperance reigns, habits become obsessions, sensible religion drifts into fanaticism, love of popularity and the desire for power drive their possessors to overt craftiness, cliques, and crime. Even proper preferences are inflamed and turn to passionate prejudices.
How Sins Become Habits
This devil of sins which is intemperance is at its worst when it influences other sins to become habitual. There is no sin that cannot be influenced by intemperance; there is nothing bad that intemperance cannot make excessively evil and progressively worse.
We often classify sins as to kind and degree. The violation of some principle of the Decalogue or the neglect of some known duty we speak of as sin. Equally demoralizing is the sin of digressing from any path of known rightdoing (see Isa. 59:14; 1:4; Matt. 23:23; Rom. 13:9). But worst of all is the unpardonable sin, or the sin "against the Holy Ghost." This may be said to be the "sin unto death" (1 John 5:16). Intemperance adds enormity to any and all of these sins.
The enormity of certain sins may be observed in the following degrees of intent and guilt. In the Christian, faults are usually acts of sin based on errors of judgment which result in wrongs to oneself and others. One is usually "overtaken" in a fault (Gal. 6:1). Presumption, which is worse than a fault, is a known wrong that one commits but seeks to excuse because it is supposed that an emergency requires it. David prayed to be kept from presumptuous sins (Ps. 19:13). Willful sin is iniquitous and worst of all, because it is carefully thought out and planned before the wrong is committed. Willful sin induces serious trouble (see Heb. 10:26).
Turning onto one of those long, steep hills of San Francisco, a motorist, observing that the signal was green, put on a burst of speed to make the light. Just before he reached the intersection the light turned amber, and it was red when his car was only halfway across. That driver had not the slightest intention of violating the law, but obviously, despite his good intentions, he was at fault, having broken the law. The officer on duty evidently took into account the facts that the motorist was an out-ofState visitor, running a steep grade, in an unfamiliar area, and so declined to make an arrest. A repeat performance of this faulty experience, however, would produce a heavier than ordinary penalty, because what was regarded at first as faulty judgment would be interpreted now as a presumptuous if not willful violation. Yet how many of us, even ministers, have allowed similar and perhaps other faults to become so intemperately indulged in that they have become presumptuous or even willful excesses.
The danger is when any simple fault is tolerated and treated casually. Thereafter, it is easily excused and indulged in presumptuously. And in the last stage such sins are down graded into willful excesses. Sin is never temperate. There is no area in which it is safe. But in addition to being intemperate, sin becomes inveterate when by reason of excess it grows stubborn, tenacious, deep rooted, and confirmed by habit. This sort easily becomes the "sin unto death." James states it thus: "But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren" (James 1:14-16).
An essential difference between the sinful errors of the Christian and the sins of the non-Christian—the so-called sinner—needs to be observed. All men are born "in sin" and misshaped by "iniquity" (Ps. 51:5). Therefore, the Christian is a sinner "saved by grace," because even when his past sins have all been forgiven, he and his sinful nature must still live together in the same dwelling—"the flesh." The Christian, then, as long as he lives in human flesh, is liable to err, and to blunder in judgment and action; thus he sins, against himself and others. But the Christian's sin never becomes inveterate, because his errors and faults keep him conscious of his need for prayer, restitution, restoration, and forgiveness. Thus tendencies to evil are curbed. His sin never becomes his normal behavior, his way of life. He does not practice sin presumptuously, he will not sin willfully, his sin is not confirmed by habit. Because of his prayer life, and his planned conformity to the divine will, he is enabled to live the good life, overcoming the evil with good (Rom. 12:21; 1 Peter 1:5).
Hope for Every Sinner
Yet even for the inveterate sinner whose whole life is intemperate through habitual sin, there is hope—if he has not committed the "sin unto death." We know that there is hope for the intemperate sinner as long as his desire is strong enough to turn to Jesus and ask His help to turn from sin (Isa. 55:6, 7).
Constantly temptations press in upon all of us—even ministers. The unholy spirit sees to that. How to decide often poses a real problem. Each of us will admit that with every temptation to do wrong a struggle begins in the conscience. One urge is to commit the wrong, the other is not to commit it.
We need to distinguish between these urges. "It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13), and conversely, it is the unholy spirit that urges us on to evil. We, then, are caught in the middle. God, with our permission, makes us willing to do right; Satan urges our wills to do the wrong. The will decides the issue. "What will ye," said the Lord, "that I shall do unto you?" (Matt. 20:32). The decision, then, is ours to make. Neither the Holy Spirit nor the unholy spirit forces the will. We human beings have the power of choice. We decide.
If, when tempted, we yield and commit the wrong, the will has been surrendered to the unholy spirit and the sinful nature is strengthened. On the other hand, if we yield to the urge of the Holy Spirit, the will surrenders to divinity and divine power controls the nature (2 Peter 1:3, 4).
The nature one develops, then, depends upon the surrender of the will. We ourselves decide that matter. When we make it the rule and habit of our lives to yield obediently to God's Holy Word, and surrender to the never-failing urges of His Holy Spirit, Divinity takes over the contols, and the life which we then live in the flesh is patterned after the divine nature. The sinful nature is starved for want of exercise. This is living the victorious life. This is how men develop godliness. This is the formula that wins! If in every temptation you yield prayerfully to Him, you can never be overcome, you can never fail!