When I was first introduced to the practice of Lent, I thought that six weeks of pre-Easter penance seemed a bit much. Why spend so much time thinking about and repenting for all of my sins?
This week, however, Jordan Belfort - the real-life Wolf of Wall Street - taught me a lesson about the nature of sin and reminded me why six weeks of Lent may be very necessary. In an interview with The Globe and Mail’s Grant Robertson, Belfort talked about his one beef with the Oscar-nominated film that is based on his story: that his descent into depravity was a much longer journey than the movie suggests.
"We tend to get sucked into things slowly, insidiously, and it's so easy for it to happen. And that's the one misgiving I had. I really wish they would have shown it as a slower descent because that's more accurate," he said. "When I have to face young people, I want them to understand how slowly, in incremental steps, you start to lose your ethics. It's not all at once."
As I read his words, I thought about the many events of my own ethical descent when I worked as a young real-estate developer in Toronto. A small cut corner here, an omitted truth there and then - seven years in – I ended up a hard-nosed, morally unanchored SOB who’d do anything to make the deal. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how thoughtlessly I made those choices.
But such is the way of sin. Wall Street’s lobbying efforts move the regulatory line just a bit. I choose to act a little bit more selfishly for that one moment. A pump-and-dump stock broker fails to tell the whole truth about the financial product he or she is selling. I convince myself that I deserve the obscene bonus I’ve just taken home because I work harder and am smarter than the next guy. And away we slide…
Sin works on us slowly and over time. In the shadows. Beneath the surface.
Sin works on us slowly and over time. In the shadows. Beneath the surface. Sometimes seeing it takes a patient eye, trained on the self for a prolonged period of time. Maybe even six weeks! At minimum, this may be what it takes to begin to undo sin’s insidiousness.
And the truth is, we can’t get there on our own.
In the interview, Belfort acknowledged that his wounds are self-inflicted but, like all of us, he’s still in denial about his culpability. “He doesn’t like being called a stock swindler, insisting on the past tense,” wrote Robertson. Belfort added: “Any time they say, ‘former’ I’m cool with it. I’m not a swindler right now, I’m a former swindler. We all have our own little trigger words.”
And we all have our own little ways of continuing to live in denial. Belfort will always be a swindler in his heart, just as we all have hearts that are deceitful above all things.
Acknowledging our ever-lingering unholiness during this Holy Week is the only way we will ever understand what Good Friday and Easter Sunday are about. While we were yet swindlers, Christ died for us.