Insanity is often a long road that can be avoided.
Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, "Why should he be put to death? What has he done?" But Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. So Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death. (1 Samuel 20:32-33)
This week's Haftarah (selected reading portion from the Prophets section of the Hebrew Scriptures) documents the downward spiral of Israel's first king, Saul. Having been chosen by God, he began well, but after two occasions in which he chose his own way over God's directions, God was no longer with him. Even though he didn't know that God had chosen David to succeed him eventually, Saul sensed this to be the case and began to be jealous of David.
Saul's son Jonathan was slow to accept how spiteful his father had become to David. Under normal circumstances Jonathan would have succeeded his father, but had no issue with David, who had become his best friend. David came up with a plan to determine Saul's feelings toward him. He would absent himself from a special occasion of which his presence would have been expected. Should Saul mention it, Jonathan would speak for David. David figured that Saul's reaction would make his attitude toward him clear. He was right. When Jonathan spoke up for David, Saul went into a rage. He was so upset; he even tried to kill Jonathan with his spear.
Saul's emotions had so taken over him that he had become completely unreasonable. One moment he is expressing grief over loss of his dynasty, the next he is willing to murder his own son. But why? How did he get here? In law, there is a defense called, "not guilty by reason of insanity," whereby the perpetrator of a crime is deemed to be not in full control of their reason, resulting in medical treatment instead of the standard punishment. The justification of such a defense is based on an understanding of human behavior that removes responsibility due to their inability to understand right from wrong.
Have you ever been so upset that you a made terrible decision? Maybe you weren't as violent as Saul was toward his son. Maybe it was worse. Do you remember saying in your heart, if not out loud, "not guilty by reason of insanity!" - not that you really thought you were insane, but because you knew that your emotions took over against your better judgment, and somehow in your own mind, your insanity plea exonerated you.
The belief that lack of control absolves us of responsibility in the moment fails to take into account all the previous misguided moments that led up to the current situation. I mentioned that Saul had been on a downward spiral. It would actually get a lot worse before his final demise. But did he have to go this route? Was it inevitable that his life would go from bad to worse?
Saul's refusal to humbly accept God's correction in his life, but instead responding to it with excuses and react with jealousy, created a larger and larger cloud over his mind. He could have accepted the seriousness of his wrongs, and faced the pain of his failures, which while uncomfortable, would have enabled him to see clearly and make the best of his situation. But the more he justified himself and his actions, the more he villainized those closest to him. Eventually, the world of his skewed imagination became the only world he knew, and he lived out his evil fantasies.
We could discuss whether or not someone such as Saul, driven by his false perceptions, is responsible for their actions. But, if you are reading or listening to this message, you are probably not in that place right now. Maybe you have been or will be. The lesson? You don't ever need to get there. As we face disappointments in life, however they come, whether they be due to our wrongs, the wrongs of others, or life just not going the way we expect, we don't need to allow ourselves go down the road of jealousy and bitterness. If we refuse the temptation of giving into the lies of self-justification and blame shifting, insanity will have a hard time taking hold.
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