Just in case you forgot your high school Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the ancient king of Ephyra – known better as Corinth. A devious sort of fellow, he eventually ticked off Zeus to the point that he was consigned to Tartarus. Guilty of even there of more chicanery, for his hubris and sense of great cleverness, he was eventually sentenced to an eternity of futility. Each day his task was to roll a massive boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down. Over and over and over. And that has become the very picture of futile efforts.
King Solomon mused often on futility. Most notably in Ecclesiastes. But in Proverbs 19:19 he cites a specific kind of futility.Proverbs 19:19 Proverbs 19:19 ESV “A man of great wrath will pay the penalty, for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again.”
This is the futility of moral reform, apart from the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the individual. Something we might label the “Law of Sin’s Gravity.” No matter how often or how high you lift the unregenerate person up by external means we will always roll back toward our fallen nature. It’s not that the individual, or even society doesn’t find some temporary benefit from such effort. Indeed, we do. And in times of great revivals of true religion, the external effect on a great many may bring wonderful changes in a society for generations. But like Sisyphus and his boulder, the progress is temporary at best. Sin’s influence in the soul is such that it naturally rolls back down hill.
Jesus addressed the same principle in His parable of Luke 11. (NIV84) — 24 “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.”
It perfectly encapsulates a stunning reality regarding His own influence in His generation. In John 2, early in His ministry He went to the Temple and chased out the money-changers. But in within 3 years of the very Son of God teaching, preaching and declaring the Kingdom among His own people – by the end of His ministry in Matt. 21 – He has to do it all over again. The “house” had been swept clean and put in order” – but no new spirit had come in to displace the first. And so it was Israel was not only not better for the wear, it was actually in worse shape. The first time, they merely objected to Him. Now, they would conspire and murder the King of Glory.
Even in the hands of the very Son of God, no external influence to change will produce any lasting good effect.
Step in and make good for the wicked deeds of a person constitutionally given over to anger, and you will have to do it again and again and again. You will simply be a moral Sisyphus. Even if you do it in the name of the Church or the Gospel.
Now does that mean we shouldn’t even try to do good in society? Of course not. Christians above all should be those given to doing good to those around us, and seeking to convince others of what is best for human flourishing. We want to bless those we come in contact with. But we must be realistic too. “Christianizing” society with moral reforms and political movements which are not informed and sustained by transformed natures are not an answer. We must put our greatest efforts toward that which alone can bring about true and lasting change in people, even as we know that this world as we know it must eventually fall under God’s judgment. That trajectory cannot be stopped.
It is why the “great commission” is: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19–20 (NIV84)
Discipleship, not demonstrations. Preaching, not politics. Teaching, not societal terra-forming. Christ, not “Christianization.” Transformation, not mere moral reformation. Soul-engagement, not social engagement. Power over sin and self, not power over people.
This, is the crying need of the hour. And what must be the single focus of Christ’s Church.