In the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta promising young men were taken from their homes at age seven and assigned to a barracks to begin their training as soldiers. One of the facts of barracks life was that soldiers were expected to forage for their own food; there were no mess halls. Another fact of life was that a soldier who was caught stealing or otherwise obtaining food would be disgraced, and possibly demoted to the status of helot—made a serf working to grow food rather than serving the state honorably. A story is told that a young Spartan had captured a fox, which he intended to be his next meal. Unfortunately, he heard some of the older boys coming. He knew that, at best, they would take his fox. At worst he would be disgraced. So he stuffed the fox inside his tunic as the older Spartans appeared. These fellows may have suspected that he had food, or they may have just been indulging in their normal baiting of younger boys. In either case, they stood talking to the young Spartan for a long time. He stood at attention in front of them, showing no emotion, until he fell dead at their feet. The fox under his tunic had eaten out his stomach and intestines as he stood talking. Like a good Spartan, he had expressed no pain as he was being eaten alive.
There are many people who are just like that Spartan youth. They express no pain, or in many cases feel no pain, as they are being eaten alive. What is their fox? It is called sin. The fox of sin comes in a variety of species and sizes. Some are cute as foxes; others are ugly as sin. All share one characteristic, sharp teeth that will kill you.
Not all foxes attack in the same way. Hatred, for instance, disguises its approach, attacking the person while it looks like it is attacking others. Those others get hurt as well, but not as much as the one doing the hating.
Fornication and adultery are closely related species of fox, and do serious damage. “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.” (1 Cor 6:18) While fornication is a sin against one’s own body, its relative, adultery, has been known to damage families, communities, and even churches.
Samson once caught three hundred foxes and tied their tails together in pairs with a firebrand between them. “And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing grain of the Philistines.” (Jdg 15:5) We sometimes think Samson’s was a clever trick, but it is not so clever when we set fire to whole congregations by our foxes. “And the tongue is a fire: a world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell.” (Jas3:6) When we tie together gossip and backbiting, slander and lashon hara (evil speech), we use foxes to destroy God’s crops.
The Spartan boy had a fox that ate his insides. We have that fox, too. It goes by the name of anger. Anger is a fox that eats us from the inside. Actually, anger can be a useful fox, but when it is held inside, it begins eating at its owner. This type of anger has its own subspecies, vengeance. “Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God.” (Rom 12:19) If “vengeance is a dish best served cold,” it is a dish composed of the server’s own intestines.
Many people try to make pets of foxes; we show a good face, but in the back yard we harbor our own pet sins. It is also hard to hide a fox for long. Just when you think you have it hidden, it raises its voice, to be heard by the whole neighborhood. Worse yet, foxes stink. Even if you silence your sin, it will raise a stench that attracts attention. Soon the neighbors are wondering, “what is that smell?” They begin to investigate and find your pet sin. Even if they don’t, the fox begins to stink, literally, “to high heaven.” God wants the pleasing odor of our prayers, not the stench of our foxes.
Not everybody keeps the same variety of fox. What is yours?