The Thrill of Transgression

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As children grow into adulthood, they often are tempted to rebel. Young children push their parents’ limits—refusing to eat or get dressed—trying to see how far they can go. Teenagers, of course, rebel—breaking curfew or talking back, for instance—in an attempt to assert their independence.

We may think that these acts are performed for their own sake. But the truth is that it is often not so much the act that is enjoyed but that the act crosses a boundary. It is the transgression that thrills.

In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine of Hippo writes of an incident from his adolescence. He and some friends steal some pears from a neighbor’s orchard. As he reflects upon this incident years later, Augustine is filled with shame. He recalls that he had no need of the pears, and in fact, he had access to better pears. Indeed, he threw away the stolen pears and feasted “only on the wickedness” of the act.

Sometimes we think we can get the thrill without the transgression, because the rules do not apply to us. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the character Raskolnikov thinks this way. He sees himself in the mold of Napoleon, a great man who will do great deeds. His greatness puts him beyond good and evil. But he is a poor man, so he hatches a plan to murder and rob a crusty old pawnbroker. But upon being discovered, he is forced to murder the pawnbroker’s sister as well. His guilt then gnaws at him through the course of the book.

Examples like those of Augustine and Raskolnikov bear out the truth of the Bible’s teachings. When we sin, we like to think that we are our own master. But the very act of sin shows that we are not.

Our sin shows that we are under authority. The Apostle Paul says the law of God is written on every heart, and our conscience testifies that everyone knows the law (Rom. 2:14–15). Everyone knows also the One who has issued the law, the God whose invisible attributes are plain to us in creation and conscience, the knowledge of whom renders us without excuse (1:18–20).

When we break a law for the enjoyment of it, we witness to the fact that we are under that law, for otherwise there would be nothing to transgress. When we claim we are not under God’s law, our guilt demonstrates our folly.

Our conscience is a gift from our holy God to show us our sin and drive us to Him. The good news is that there is forgiveness in Christ, who paid the cost for our sin—for our childish outbursts and our raging rebellion. Let us give thanks to God for the gift of conscience and for forgiveness through faith in Christ when we transgress.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.