Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.
Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.
So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,Psalm 103:6-12 (ESV)
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. But every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.
One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.
Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which starts out singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse. Surely God would not punish us for so small a thing…until one small thing leads to another…and another; a bigger rebellion; a numbing complacency; loss of perspective; a heart of stone; isolation; starvation; imprisonment; death.
What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey? Do I comfort myself that my rebellion is really just a matter of “preference,” and will not be consequential? That God’s Holiness is less important than my comfort or convenience?
Many people coast through life in the belief that God is SO merciful and SO loving that He can’t also be Holy and Just– that His commands are really suggestions; that His wrath is mythical; that our own wisdom is sufficient for living a “good” life and pleasing Him. But God isn’t concerned about whether we live a “good” life– He wants us to have an abundant life– filled with joy and peace, love and relationship, both now and forevermore. In fact, He would “prefer not to” punish us. He is not “willing” (i.e. desirous) that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but that everyone would some to repentance. That doesn’t mean that He won’t punish those who refuse to obey Him, or those who refuse to turn from their rebellion and trust Him; only that He will continue to give us the opportunity to recognize our need for forgiveness.
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com
God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. We don’t have to respond to God as Bartleby responded to his boss– though God has the ultimate authority to demand our loyalty and obedience. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! When God gives us commands, like “Love one another,” they are still commands. But His heart is that we should trust that all of His commands are righteous, life-giving, and in our eternal best interest. But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”