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You asked for a sermon on Psychopaths


1 Timothy 1:3-5

Are They Responsible Or Have They Consciously Chosen Evil?

[1] When the fifteen year-old boy rode his bicycle across a corner of the man’s lawn, the man pulled the youngster off the bicycle and broke his leg. When a golfer disagreed with the man over a golf-score, the man dropped his club on the spot and punched his fellow-golfer in the face.

But the man wasn’t always this aggressive. He knew when a frontal assault would get him what he wanted and when a frontal assault wouldn’t. When a frontal assault wouldn’t he became charming. He could charm anyone into anything at all. Not surprisingly, he charmed a few emotionally needy, vulnerable women into doing what would have been better left undone. His charm, of course, was only one aspect of his cunning manipulation. One instrument of his manipulation was lying; bald-faced lying. Another instrument was contrived weeping; tears could be turned on and off, tap-like. In fact, when he was finally caught and publicly exposed he wept buckets and thumbed his bible and pleaded to be given a second chance to preach the gospel.

I was secretary of the denominational committee formed to assess the man’s fitness for ministry. I came to a quick conclusion: psychopath. Could anyone doubt that the man was an out-and-out psychopath?

Yes. Several church-folk on the committee thought he should be reinstated. They told me I was harsh. “After all”, they told me, “no one is beyond God’s grace. Furthermore, since you are always talking about mercy, why don’t you show him some mercy?” Carefully I replied, “I have never suggested that he’s beyond God’s grace; I have never said that he’s a greater sinner than the rest of us; I have never said he can’t be a beneficiary of God’s mercy. But I am going to insist that the man is a psychopath. He’s dangerous; he’s exploitative; he’s conscienceless. And he ought never again to be entrusted with a congregation.”

Since my opinion was so manifestly amateurish, a psychiatric consultation was arranged. The psychiatrist wrote a two-page letter that wandered here and there, and then in the last two lines said it all: “This man cannot be trusted; this man ought never to be readmitted to the ministry.” I thought that everyone would get the point now. Not so. One person exclaimed, “If only he would repent we could find another congregation for him!”

[2] What is psychopathy? Psychopathy is one instance of what psychiatrists call personality disorders. People with a personality disorder have a huge “kink” at the core of their personality. In this case (psychopathy) the personality disorder is blatantly anti-social.

Psychopaths display many characteristics. They are impulsive; i.e., they have diminished impulse-control. They are poor at delaying gratification; i.e., whatever they desire they insist on having immediately. They crave greater and greater stimulation; i.e., it takes a huge amount of stimulation to get them minimally excited. (Think of Paul Bernardo. He abducted a woman from a church parking-lot in broad daylight, and then violated her unspeakably, all in the interests of increasing his excitement.) Psychopaths lack empathy with other people; someone else’s suffering leaves them entire unaffected. They have no concern at all for the wellbeing or the happiness of others. They are superficially charming. They are manipulative. They are conscienceless. They have no feelings of guilt, and no feelings of remorse.

And they are dangerous. The worst psychopaths are incarcerated in Penetanguishene in super-maximum security wards. They are incurable.

How did they get this way? Are they helpless victims of an evil that overtook them, or are they self-victimized through their own sin?

It would be easy if we could find evidence to suggest that they are helpless victims of brain-disease. But there is no evidence to suggest this. To be sure, there are physical correlates (not causes, correlates) found in psychopaths. For instance, they exhibit diminished electro-dermal reactions. (In other words, where our involuntary responses would find us failing lie-detector tests, they sail through such tests as innocent-seeming as new-born babes.) They exhibit diminished autonomic nerve-reactions. That is, where you or I will blush when accused or find our heart beating more quickly or grow pale or gasp for breath, they exhibit none of these involuntary traits.

Then are there any environmental factors common to psychopathy? One of the best predictors of adult psychopathy is having a father who is himself psychopathic, alcoholic or anti-social. As parents (anxious parents) you and I react swiftly and energetically to situations where we think our developing children (adolescents) might be heading down the wrong road. If our thirteen year-old comes home at 2:00 a.m.; or comes home intoxicated; or comes home with a twenty-year old woman draped around his neck; in any of these situations we “go into orbit.” The psychopath, however, characteristically comes from a home where his parents didn’t react at all. His parents were blase about everything connected with the youngster. He said he was going to quit school? How important is school, anyway? He brought home a thousand-dollar stereo when only last week he complained of having no money? Where he got the money is his business, isn’t it? He impregnated a fourteen year-old girl? Boys will be boys.

It’s plain that in such an environment there is nothing to encourage moral discrimination, moral formation. Then it should not surprise that nothing becomes formed. “But is there not still a residual, inalienable moral `sense’ and therefore an inalienable moral responsibility in every individual?” To ask this questions is simply to ask, “Is the psychopath a victim of an evil that overtook him, or is he self-victimized through his own persistent sin?” I’m not going to answer that question for you.

[3] Instead I’m going to tell you what my friend Bob Guiliano mentioned to me one day. Before Bob came to minister at Erindale United Church (1982–85) he was a prison-chaplain for ten years. He told me that when he began his work in the jails he found 10% of the convicts with serious personality disorders, and about 40% with mild-to-moderate personality disorders. When he left prison-work (ten years later) he found 30% of the convicts with serious personality disorders, and 70% with mild-to-moderate. He felt this shift indicated that our society as a whole was losing its moral sense; our society was sliding into consciencelessness. He felt that the slide reflected a shift in our society: no longer concerned with what is true and what is right, children from infancy absorbed one thing — “How does one survive?”

I should like to discuss this matter with schoolteachers and police officers and probation workers. When Maureen and I were newly married and living in Toronto, Maureen came home one afternoon from her teaching-job and noticed that the offering from her Explorer meeting the night before was missing. Then she noticed a nine year old girl’s grade four speller on the kitchen table. The girl’s name and phone number were on the speller. Maureen phoned the girl’s mother and told her two things: (i) “Your daughter’s speller was left on my kitchen table”, (ii) “You will find, I think, that your daughter has stolen church money.” Whereupon the girl’s mother exclaimed, “Can you imagine my daughter being so stupid as to leave her speller behind?” There was a mother (not a father this time) who did not respond appropriately. Would anyone be surprised if the daughter grew up with inappropriate responses (non-responses) that could only be labelled “anti-social” or “psychopathic”?

[4] Let’s examine more closely the matter of conscience and the formation of conscience. The first thing we note is startling: there is no word for conscience in the Hebrew bible. There is no one Hebrew word that translates the English word “conscience”.

Because where we 20th century westerners speak of conscience as the “moral governor” of human beings (a moral governor independent of God), the ancient Hebrew people knew only God’s immediate voice, God’s immediate address; they knew only the living voice of the living God. This “word”, the writer of Deuteronomy hears God say, “this word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deut. 30:14) Our Hebrew foreparents didn’t understand human beings to be equipped with an independent moral governor; they understood us to be within hearing of the living God himself. His word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Now while there is no Hebrew word for conscience, the phenomenon of conscience (a bad conscience, a troubled conscience) is found everywhere. When Joseph’s brothers finally grasp the enormity of the cruelty they visited upon Joseph they cry out, “Therefore is this distress come upon us!” (Gen. 4:21) When David finally grasps the enormity of his sin against Bathsheba (adultery) and Uriah (murder) he cries out, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin….Create in me a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:1-4)

Centuries later the word “conscience” entered the Christian vocabulary, no doubt because by this time Christians were speaking Greek and the Greek language had a word for conscience: suneidesis. Even so, Greek-speaking Christians didn’t equate conscience with the voice of God. They didn’t pretend, “Whenever conscience speaks it’s God speaking”; neither did they pretend, “Whenever God speaks conscience is aroused.” Conscience cannot simply be equated with the voice of God. The apostle Paul knew that his conscience could be unaroused and he himself still be doing what is wrong. For this reason he wrote, “My conscience is clear. But that doesn’t make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor. 4:4 NIV) The fact that Paul’s conscience is clear doesn’t make him innocent. At the same time, if his conscience were troubled he wouldn’t necessarily be guilty. Neurotic people have a troubled conscience (i.e., they feel guilty) when they are not guilty at all. On the other hand, insensitive peopled don’t have a troubled conscience when they are guilty. Then how do we come to have a right conscience? How do we come to have a conscience that is neither neurotic nor insensitive? How do we come to have a conscience that reflects the voice of God? We must acquire what Paul calls “the mind of Christ”. (1 Cor. 2:16) Acquiring “the mind of Christ” is everything with respect to the matter we are probing today.

The mind of Christ has to penetrate us, seep into us, saturate us, root itself in us and bear fruit within us until we think with the mind of Christ. Only then is our conscience formed rightly. Only at this point is our conscience neither neurotically sensitive nor frigidly insensitive.

The mind of Christ is not acquired overnight. It is acquired gradually, through constant and consistent immersion in the written gospels. I stress the written gospels in that it is here that we learn the specific details of discipleship; it is here that we learn what situations may befall us, how we are to react immediately, how we are to respond subsequently, what we are supposed to do and think and feel.

You must have noticed that most Christian preaching (outside of S.U.C.!) arises from the epistles. The reason is simple. The epistles contain brief, pithy (pithy but abstract) assertions that readily supply the outline of a sermon. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1) The structure of the text readily supplies the structure of the sermon — abstract ‘though the sermon is likely to be. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19) The statement is true, glorious even. But it won’t tell you how a reconciled person or a justified person is to react, respond, do, think, feel. To learn this we have to go to the written gospels where we see the mind of Christ operating in the midst of all life’s subtlety and turbulence.

Think, for instance, about evil. Christians are urged to resist evil. Of course we are! After all, the purpose of Christ’s coming, according to John, is to destroy the works of the evil one. Then we resist evil we must and we shall. Then why, Matthew 5, does Jesus say, “Don’t resist one who is evil”? The context of “Don’t resist” is a prohibition against an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It’s possible for Christians to resist evil only to find that our opposition to evil has subtly become a vendetta against an individual; our right resistance to evil has become an unrighteous occasion of hatred heaped on the evildoer; our tenacity in resisting evil has become an excuse for revenge. If this happens, then our right and proper resistance to evil has become the occasion of sin. Furthermore, to become preoccupied with resisting evil is to lose one’s proper preoccupation with the kingdom of God. To become preoccupied with evil is to end up according greater power and persistence to the evil one than to Jesus Christ himself. Simply to grasp all the dynamics concerning this one matter; simply to take them all to heart is to acquire something of the mind of Christ.

Discipleship requires renunciation; membership in the kingdom of God requires self-renunciation. Yet even as our Lord insists on our self-renunciation he insists as well that we must never advertise it, let alone boast of it. (Matt. 6:16-18) We must never create the image, “Are you aware of what I have given up for the kingdom? Do you know what sacrifice I have made?” Jesus says, “When you are making that kingdom-renunciation which is required of all disciples, do it cheerfully. Don’t flaunt it. Don’t look dismal doing it. Put on your make-up (yes, our Lord said it: “Anoint your head”); put on your most attractive outfit. Look as if you haven’t made any renunciation at all. Anything else means you are trying to exploit your so-called sacrifice in the interests of religious superiority, and to do that is to render yourself a spiritual phoney.”

We 20th century westerners are careless about speech. We assume that words are merely empty sounds. But Jesus, with a Hebrew mindset, knows that a word is an event; an event which, once rendered operative, can never be undone. Where we modern types use words very carelessly, he insists, “On the day of judgement men and women will render account for every careless word they utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt. 12:36-37)

And then there are the gospel-incidents that are just that: incidents rather than teachings. Think about Jesus and the meals he eats, the homes he enters, the people he eats with. Whom do we have in our homes? Who eats with us? With whom do we want to eat? And what does it all mean?

It is only as we immerse ourselves in the written gospels that we learn the mind of Christ and acquire the mind of Christ. And it is only as we acquire the mind of Christ that conscience is formed aright.

[5] Unquestionably Christians are to have what Paul calls a “good conscience”. (1 Tim. 1:5-6) But a “good” conscience isn’t merely an untroubled conscience, a conscience that lets us sleep. A good conscience is something more; a good conscience is one that moves us not out of fear but out of love. A good conscience moves us to act out of the love Christ has for us and the love we have for him and the love we have for one another. You must have noticed that virtually all secular discussions of conscience, virtually all textbooks in Psychology 101, discuss conscience in terms of fear. When Paul speaks of a good conscience he has more in mind than the absence of self-condemnation; a good conscience is one that recognizes and responds to love’s obligation. Paul writes to Timothy and speaks of “…love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” Note how all the factors are related: love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. In his second letter to the congregation in Corinth Paul exclaims, “Christ’s love compels us”. (2 Cor. 5:14 NIV) It isn’t fear that compels us; it’s Christ’s love — which love evokes our love for him and our love for one another.

In other words, Jesus Christ is the conscience of Christians; he governs us from within as we come to recognize love’s obligation.

[6] Then what about the formation of conscience? As our conscience comes to be formed by the mind of Christ our conscience should never be silenced or ignored. Neither should we fall silent publicly when those who aren’t Christians themselves violate a Christian conscience. Greater diligence in our inner lives and outer lives alike will do much to stall the creeping psychopathy of our society.

                                                                       Victor Shepherd

February 1996