Comment by Harborough churches: Why do people do things that are totally out of character?

Every week, the Harborough churches write a column for the Harborough Mail. This week, it is the turn of Derek Williams, communications officer for Churches Together in Harborough

By Derek Williams
Tuesday, 16th March 2021, 10:24 am
Derek Williams, communications officer for Churches Together in Harborough
Derek Williams, communications officer for Churches Together in Harborough

Viewpoint by Derek Williams, communications officer for Churches Together in Harborough

“What?!” Just as Oprah Winfrey gaped open-mouthed at Meghan Markle’s revelation of a royal racist comment, so I stared at the text I had just received. It was unbelievable. But it came from an impeccable source.

It told me that someone I had once worked with had been arrested and jailed for a serious offence.

He had been trusted and respected, so his crime seemed totally out of character. “Why?” was my next thought. What on earth was he thinking of?

It’s probably how most of us react to stories of people we know, or of people who are in the public eye, who deviate spectacularly from the straight and narrow.

It was a question I gave some thought to when I wrote a book focused loosely on the character of Judas Iscariot. As Easter approaches, we recall Judas’ betrayal of Jesus’ whereabouts to the authorities who wanted to silence him. That, too, was an unbelievable, unexpected action. It seemed to the other disciples at the time to be totally out of character.

I concluded that there was not one single factor that drove Judas to become a reviled traitor.

Rather, he was like all of us: a complex mix of thoughts, emotions and drives welling up like molten magma from beneath the surface and fuelled by genetic dispositions, past experiences, the influence of others, and the ups and downs of life. Perhaps added to the mix was a blind ego driven by a sense of inferiority, a desire to prove himself.

It’s this kind of mix that can prompt us to act “out of character”, to fail our own standards. Even the apostle Paul confessed that “I do not do the good I want to do, but I keep on doing the evil I don’t want to do.” To err – in small ways and large – is human. So we can never fully understand why someone acts as they do.

But even a partial explanation doesn’t excuse the deed. Back at the dawn of history, when Cain was plotting the murder of his brother Abel, he was warned that “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” He couldn’t claim that he was driven by some uncontrollable force. Nor can any of us. We are responsible for our actions.

Many people were damaged by my former colleague’s crime. But so was he. He’s out of prison now, having lost everything, a broken man battling hopelessness, depression, guilt and much else. We correspond, but there’s little I can do except pray for him and remind him that God never writes anyone off for good.

For that is the hope-filled message of Easter. The possibility of a human and spiritual fresh start is always there. It’s what Jesus offered the thief on the cross next to him.

Derek Williams is communications officer for Churches Together in Harborough.