A familiar fable tells of the hunter who lost his life to the leopard he himself had saved as a pet for his children when the leopard was just a cub. The moral of the story can be deduced easily from the title, Little Leopards Become Big Leopards; or else, sin is easier to deal with before it becomes a habitual practice that eventually defines our lives.(1) Though the story as it stands is a beautiful illustration of a profound truth, there is a deeper lesson regarding the nature of sin that is easily concealed by this line of thinking and which, I believe, lies at the very essence of the Christian call to Christ-likeness. The problem is that the parallel between little harmless leopard cubs and little harmless sins can be dangerously deceptive.
Whereas leopard cubs are indeed harmless, there is no stage of development at which sin can be said to be harmless, for individual acts of sin are merely the symptoms of the true condition of our hearts. It is not accidental that the call to Christian growth in the Scriptures repeatedly zeros-in on such seemingly benign “human shortcomings” as bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, slander, and malicious behavior (Ephesians 4:31). In his watershed address, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus placed a great deal of emphasis on lust, anger, and contempt—behaviors and attitudes that would probably not rank high on our lists of problems in need of urgent resolution. Armed with firm and sometimes unconscious categories of serious versus tolerable sins, we gloss over lists of vices in the Scriptures because they seem to be of little consequence to life as we experience it.
But when we fail to grasp the subtleties of sin, we run the risk of rendering much of biblical wisdom irrelevant to our daily life and practice. While we appreciate the uniqueness and necessity of the sacrificial death of Jesus on our behalf, his specific teachings can at times appear to be farfetched and the emphasis misplaced. Does it not seem incredible that the God who made this world would visit it in its brokenness, dwell among us for over thirty years, and then leave behind the command that we must be nice to each other? Can the problems of the world really be solved by having people “turn the other cheek” and “get rid of anger and malice”?
Unfortunately, those “little” sins are not only the mere symptoms of a much bigger problem; they are also effective means of alienating us from God and other human beings. How many careers have been ruined only because of jealousy? How many people have been deprived of genuine help as a result of the seemingly side-comment of someone who secretly despised them? How many relationships have been destroyed by bitterness? How many churches have split up because of selfish ambitions couched in pietistic terms? How much evil has resulted from misinformation, a little coloring around the edges of truth? And have you noticed how much we can control other people just through our body language? From the political arena to the basic family unit, the worst enemy of human harmony is not spectacular wickedness but those seemingly harmless petty sins routinely assumed to be part of what it means to be human.
According to a NASA scientist, a two-degree miscalculation when launching a spacecraft to the moon would send the spacecraft 11,121 miles away from the moon: all one has to do is take time and distance into account.(2) How perceptive then was George MacDonald when he uttered these chilling words, “A man may sink by such slow degrees that, long after he is a devil, he may go on being a good churchman or a good dissenter, and thinking himself a good Christian”!(3) Similarly, C.S. Lewis warned that cards are a welcome substitute for murder if the former will set the believer on a path away from God. “Indeed,” he wrote, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”(4) This is as true as much for the individual as for communities.
Now the decisive path out of this quandary is not just a greater resolve to be obedient to God. Such a response is usually motivated by guilt, and the duration of our effort will be directly proportional to the amount of guilt we feel: we will be right back where we started from when the guilt is no longer as strong. The appropriate response must begin with a greater appreciation of the holiness of God and a clear vision of life in God. It is only along the path of Christ-likeness that the true nature of sin is revealed and its appeal blunted. Yes, brazen sinfulness is appallingly evil and destructive, but it only makes a louder growl in a forest populated by stealthier, deadly hunters masquerading as little leopards. It is no idle, perfunctory pastime to pray with King David:
Search us, O God, and know our hearts;
Test us and know our thoughts.
Point out anything in us that offends you,
And lead us along the path of everlasting life.
J.M. Njoroge is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Nairobi, Georgia.
(1) For example, Paul White’s, Little Leopards Become Big Leopards, published by African Christian Press.
(2) John Trent, Heartshift: The Two Degree Difference That Will Change Your Heart, Your Home, and Your Health (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2004), 17.
(3)George MacDonald, in George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (New York: Dolphin Books, 1962), 118.
(4) C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, in A C.S. Lewis Treasury: Three Classics in One Volume (New York: Harcourt & Company, 1988), 250.