Many years ago in the United States, when I was teaching religion to some secondary students, a sixteen-year-old girl got angry with me.
I had just finished explaining that sex before marriage was wrong. The emphasis was not on the evil of fornication but on the beauty of marriage, that is, on the total commitment that a man and woman need if they really want to be in love — and stay in love.
The girl said I had spoiled her whole life. Why did I have to go around telling people about God’s commandments? Why couldn’t I just leave people alone and let them enjoy whatever made them feel happy? I was making her life miserable precisely where it was supposed to be delightful. She said, “Now I’ll always feel guilty.”
I felt sorry for the girl, but not because I thought for a moment she was right — that I had “spoiled her fun”. I felt sorry for her because she seemed incapable of grasping the truth.
Amazingly, once she heard somebody say it, she seemed to agree there was something about having sex before marriage that would make her feel guilty.
She didn’t deny the obvious once someone made it obvious to her. But she seemed incapable of looking ahead to a time when she would be unhappy as a result of not knowing the difference between good and evil.
This is the problem with the Law. I am referring, of course, to the Law as we read it in the Bible and, especially, as we read it in the Letter to the Romans.
St Paul gives his own experience: “Once, when there was no Law, I used to be alive; but when the commandment came, sin came to life and I died. The commandment was meant to bring life but I found it brought death, because sin, finding its opportunity by means of the commandment, mislead me and, by means of it, killed me.”
Simply knowing the commandments will not help people overcome evil. It is a necessary first step. More than knowing something written in a book — as holy as that book may be — we need to know Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we end up like that girl, thinking that religion will make us miserable.
I don’t know what happened to the girl. Lessons learned in a classroom only go so far. But many students have come back to me later in life to tell me, “I didn’t believe you. You made it sound so difficult. But now I have seen it all with my own eyes. There is no other way. Without Jesus I would be lost.”