In his 1991 work Needful Things, horror novelist Stephen King tells the story of how the devil came to a small town in Maine. Under the guise of a man named Leland Gaunt, the devil opens a small shop that sells…well, just what your heart most desires. Gaunt’s first customer was a young boy named Brian Rusk. In Gaunt’s shop, Brian discovers a 1956 Sandy Koufax baseball card—a must-have for his collection. Gaunt sells him the card for the unexpectedly low price of eighty-five cents—but also for the promise that Brian would perform a small task on Gaunt’s behalf. Brian is asked to throw mud at his neighbor’s sheets while they hang on the clothesline. Brian complies. But when the neighbor discovers the ruined sheets, she blames not Brian (who remains undiscovered), but another, rival neighbor. Things escalate quickly. Harsh words are exchanged. Rocks are thrown through windows. The feud culminates in a double homicide. King’s novel contains dozens of such stories, as the town of Castle Rock visits Gaunt’s shop, performing these small “tricks” that spiral into town-wide anarchy. As Gaunt tells young Brian, “when you slung that mud at [your neighbor’s] sheets, you started something. Like a guy who starts an avalanche just by shouting too loud on a warm winter day.”
Though we won’t find the gospel contained in horror fiction, King is onto something altogether basic—almost echoing the words of James. Unchecked desire, writes James, “gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown leads to death” (James 1:15). The compromises we make to secure our desires may seem small, but they “avalanche” into something demonic and unstoppable.
This is essentially what happened to King David. His desire for his neighbor’s wife quickly spiraled out of control—to an extent that would bring desolation and destruction.
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
In his analysis of 1-2 Samuel, Victor Hamilton notes that this isn’t the first time David sent others to fight in his stead (cf. 2 Samuel 10:7-14). But here it seems to take a sour note—suggesting that trouble began when David neglected his duties in favor of resting in security.
2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. 3 And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” 4 So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. 5 And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
It’s tempting to cast blame in Bathsheba’s direction. Surely she should have been more discreet about bathing on the rooftop. But not only does this reek of victim-shaming, it fails to account for some basic practices of the ancient world. First, bathing typically took place outside—and it’s reasonable to think that only those with rooftop access (like David) would have had a vantage-point to see her bathing. But secondly, bathing—in that era—did not necessitate a removal of clothing. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that Bathsheba had been giving herself the equivalent of a sponge bath.
Nevertheless, David saw something he wanted—and took it for himself. Now, the Bible uses a variety of words for sexual activity. The most common—and most intimate—is the word yada meaning “to know.” But here, we’re told, David “took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.” He took her. Now, I’m not suggesting that this was an outright example of sexual assault. But I’m also not clear that Bathsheba was in a position to refuse, either. And it brings to the surface one of our culture’s most dangerous myths about sex.
THE MYTH OF “CONSENT CULTURE”
The Bible describes marriage as a relationship of radical unity. Married partners literally become “one flesh”—united in both body and soul. So marital intimacy is about sharing one’s whole self: thoughts, feelings, dreams, passions—and yes, our bodies. But this is equally why Christianity has traditionally reserved sex for marriage. We should never say with our bodies what we’re unwilling to say with our souls.
Today’s world insists on what I frequently hear referred to as a “consent culture.” This “myth” (as I call it) insists that what goes on between two consenting adults is no one’s business but their own. Religion has no place in the bedroom.
The problem is that it simply doesn’t work like that. There’s a reason we feel profound guilt over our sexual history. There’s a reason we tend to label sexual brokenness as being “dirty:” dirty bookstores, dirty movies, dirty websites. There’s a reason young people refer to the return home after a one-night stand as the “walk of shame.” But surely, the reason must only be a sense of “residual Catholic guilt,” right? Surely we’re past the age of Leave-it-to-Beaver style sexual values?
Shame and guilt fall under the umbrella of “moral emotions.” Contemporary psychologist Richard Shweder says that there are three different types of ethics. If I accidently curse during a wedding toast, I feel embarrassed for having violated the “ethics of community.” If I fail to receive the promotion I sought, I may feel frustrated or angry for having failed to meet my personal standards of “the ethics of autonomy.” But if I violate some deeper law, I feel ashamed and ever dirty for having violated “the ethics of divinity.” Shweder is an atheist, but his work in this area made him more fully appreciate man’s religious impulse. Why else would sexual guilt and shame be common across all cultures unless there was some deeper principle at work? Surely we recognize the profound gift of human sexuality—just as we recognize the way it’s been so repeatedly vandalized.
THE MYTH OF INVULNERABILITY
With Bathsheba pregnant, David now risks exposure. So he seeks a solution.
6 So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David.7 When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab was doing and how the people were doing and how the war was going. 8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9 But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10 When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” 11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” 12 Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. 13 And David invited him, and he ate in his presence and drank, so that he made him drunk. And in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.” 16 And as Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant men. 17 And the men of the city came out and fought with Joab, and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite also died. 18 Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting. 19 And he instructed the messenger, “When you have finished telling all the news about the fighting to the king, 20 then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, ‘Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21 Who killed Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? Did not a woman cast an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?’ then you shall say, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.’”
22 So the messenger went and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell.23 The messenger said to David, “The men gained an advantage over us and came out against us in the field, but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. 24 Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall. Some of the king’s servants are dead, and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.” 25 David said to the messenger, “Thus shall you say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter displease you, for the sword devours now one and now another. Strengthen your attack against the city and overthrow it.’ And encourage him.”
Do you see the irony? Not long ago King Saul had sought to eliminate David in a similar way—by sending David to battle seemingly impossible odds so that he’d be killed (1 Samuel 18). Now David becomes the thing he once ran from.
The mysterious author of Ecclesiastes says that “because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). We might call this the “myth of invulnerability,” the lie that says I’m only as bad as my consequences. I can hide. I can deflect. I can wear a religious mask. David believed himself impervious to consequence—even though all around him lay in shambles:
26 When the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she lamented over her husband. 27 And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.
Does your sin grieve you like it grieves God? Or—like David—have you become numb to it? Have you bought into one of the myths above? The good news of the gospel can only be fully experienced by those who realize the bad news of their own condition. Sin is a powerful, corrupting force—one that penetrates deeper than mere behavior to the very core of our souls. And nothing that you and I do can possibly stem the tide of uncontrolled desire.
Paul writes that “Godly sorrow brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Sometimes the healthiest thing we can pray for is for God to make us sad. Do you have the courage today, to pray for Godly sorrow? For earnest and honest conviction of your own sin? Because to do so may be the start of a larger journey toward repentance, toward faithfulness, toward renewal.