The real tragedy of sin is that often the one who is sinned against eventually becomes a sinner, inflicting on others what was first inflicted upon him or her. There’s something perverse within us whereby when we are sinned against we tend to take in the sin, complete with the sickness from which it emanated, and then struggle not to act in that same sick way. The ultimate triumph of sin is that, first being sinned against, we often become sinners.

We see this, in an elementary form, in the effects that certain sadistic rituals have on those who undergo them. From high school football teams to college sororities to certain schools of military training, we see these rituals as forms of initiation. The interesting thing is that those who undergo them generally can’t wait for their turn to inflict them upon someone else. Having undergone some sadism, something sadistic arises within them.

There’s an axiom within certain schools of psychology which submits that every abuser was first abused. Mostly that’s true. The bully was himself bullied, the sadist was himself victimised, and the bitter, alienated outsider (whom in arrogance we label “a loser”) was himself unfairly excluded. What produces an outsider? What produces a sadistic person? Indeed, what produces a mass killer? What must have happened to the heart of a man for him to put on military fatigues, take up an assault rifle and begin to shoot helpless schoolchildren?

Mental illness, no doubt, is often the factor, but there are others too, most of which we don’t have the courage honestly to face. Our spontaneous judgment on the perpetrator of a mass shooting or terrorist bombing most naturally expresses itself this way: “I hope he fries in hell!” What’s wrong with that reaction is its failure to understand that this person was already frying in some private hell, and this terrible acting out is an attempt to get out of hell, or at least to take as many people as he can to hell with him.

What perpetrators of violence mostly want to do is to ruin heaven for others since they themselves feel unfairly deprived of it. This isn’t everywhere true, of course, since mental illness and the mystery of human freedom also play in. But it’s true enough to challenge us towards a better understanding of why some people have bitter, sadistic hearts while others have gracious, loving ones. What shapes a heart? What makes someone bitter or gracious?

Sin and blessing shape a heart, the former deforming it and the latter healing it. Sin – our own not less than anyone else’s – wounds others and shields us from having to own what’s sick inside us, because we have now inflicted our sickness on someone else where it works at making that person ill. Blessing does the opposite. It relieves others of the sickness that was unfairly inflicted on them, helps turn their bitterness into graciousness and soothes the very root of their wounds.

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