‘I am drinking,’ answered the drunkard lugubriously.
‘Why are you drinking?’ the little prince asked.
‘In order to forget,’ replied the drunkard.
‘To forget what?’ enquired the little prince, who was already feeling sorry for him.
‘To forget that I am ashamed,’ the drunkard confessed, hanging his head.
‘Ashamed of what?’ asked the little prince who wanted to help him.
‘Ashamed of drinking!’ concluded the drunkard, withdrawing into total silence.
– The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This is what we call a “vicious cycle” – a series of events that perpetuate a negative outcome.
We know them and we hate them. We quit smoking… and then gain weight as a result… which makes us depressed… which drives us to start smoking again. A group of people are overly competitive at work… which hurts feelings… and puts folks on the offensive… which causes more people to be competitive. A leads to B leads to C leads to D… and back around again.
Here’s another example:
Human beings sin… so the priests offer a sacrifice for their sin… and the people are forgiven… but then they sin again.
This is the vicious cycle of the first covenant – the law – as Hebrews 10:1-4 and 11 describes it:
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
“And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”
This is a bleak situation, but there’s good news: the vicious cycle is not the only kind of cycle. There’s also a virtuous cycle.
Virtuous cycles work the same, but instead of encouraging a negative outcome there is a positive benefit. I think of church youth groups when I was a teenager, back in the 90s. Adults offered fun games and devotions on Sunday nights… and youth came and had fun… so their friends wanted to come and join in… which meant the games and devotions were even more fun. Teenagers drew more teenagers and it just worked.
Hebrews offers another virtuous cycle for us to consider. But before we get to that, let’s recap some background:
Hebrews is a New Testament book written to a congregation in crisis. They’ve experienced a decrease in attendance and commitment. The letter is written to address their crisis with Christology: a clarification on who Jesus Christ was and is. Because for followers of Christ, confusion on who Jesus Christ was and is can cause us to “follow” in wrong directions.
Alright, with that in mind, back to the virtuous cycle that Hebrews presents: People sin… but Jesus has offered a once-and-for-all sacrifice… which gives to a permanent forgiveness… and that state of forgiveness frees people to love and do good deeds. And they might sin again, but if they’ve really experienced the true forgiveness of Christ, then they’ll understand that they’ve been liberated for a new life that is moving away from sin.
This is a virtuous cycle of the new covenant. Hebrews 10:11-14 puts it this way:
“And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God,’ and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”
And if we’re not convinced of the virtuous nature of this cycle, we can read on to Hebrews 10:19-25:
“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Have you ever felt caught in a vicious cycle?
Many of us have. It feels hopeless, like we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. We can’t quit smoking; we can’t stop gossiping; we can’t be good enough for ourselves, let alone for God.
If you feel that way, then friends, you’re living in the wrong cycle. You’re living in a cycle where your forgiveness only reminds you of your sin, a cycle where you can’t seem to shake the burden of guilt. It’s a vicious cycle.
Jesus Christ is offering us a virtuous cycle, one where complete forgiveness sets us free to love and do better each day.
So let’s claim that cycle. First, by saying the words from our Communion liturgy: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” Read that line aloud again and imagine that I’m saying them to you, or that someone you know is saying them to you. Whoever you are, they are 100% true – and I know that because of the perfect sacrifice made by Jesus Christ. “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
Now it’s like we’ve waded into the waters of this virtuous cycle Christ is offering us. So let’s go for it; let’s dive right in with a prayer:
Jesus, thank you for forgiving me.
I’m glad you did, because I’m tired.
I’m tired of trying to be good enough.
It’s not working.
I’m not good enough – but you are.
And you gave your perfect self as a sacrifice for me.
So I want to come into your cycle.
I am forgiven.
Lead me into a life of love and good deeds.
I won’t be perfect at it,
but with your help, I’ll get better each day.
Credit to Dave Odom for my understanding of “virtuous cycles,” which I had never heard of before my Strategy class with him last semester. Thanks, Dave!