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The Sunken Unsinkable
We can learn a lot from the mistakes that led to the demise of the Titanic.

On the night of April 14, 1912, the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic ended in the worst way imaginable. Numerous mistakes were made by captain and crew before the right side of the Titanic scraped against a 65-foot-tall, 400-foot-long iceberg for eight seconds, blowing wide open the ship’s forward compartment, three cargo holds and two engine rooms. Mistakes made before, during and after the sinking of the “unsinkable” ship mirror some of the potential pitfalls before, during and after our battle against sin.

Before

The Days of Unleavened Bread this year last from March 28 to April 3, the first and last days being holy days. This annual festival pictures the complete removal of sin from our lives. Before this festival begins, we spend weeks totally deleavening all of our property: homes, vehicles, offices, lockers, trash bins. All leavened products must be removed from our land and personal spaces, permanently discarded.

This destruction of leaven, a type of sin, reveals God’s attitude: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

Just like we prepare well in advance for the Days of Unleavened Bread, we should also gear up meticulously in our battle against sin—before temptations strike.

Sin always starts with a wrong, lustful thought: “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:14-15).

The late Philadelphia Church of God minister Tim Thompson addressed the subject of replacing bad thoughts with good ones in his March-April 1999 Royal Vision article, “Teach Thought Stopping.” He quoted an author who recommended the practical step of wearing a rubber band and flicking ourselves with it when a wrong thought arises (very effective). He concluded with four points:

1. Recognize sin early. “Ask yourself: Am I dwelling on or fantasizing about sinful acts? Am I making excuses in my mind for a particular weakness? Do I sometimes argue or fight with myself about whether to do or say something which I actually know I should not? Do I justify my actions in spite of my guilty feelings? Do I manipulate and plan circumstances to work out in sinful ways? Do I fear getting caught? If so, these things should be our first clue that we are heading into sin” (ibid).

2. Think on lawful things. Study Colossians 3:2, Philippians 4:8 and Joshua 1:8 for help coming up with alternatives to evil thoughts.

3. Be content. Thank God for your many blessings instead of lusting for more (Hebrews 13:5). Put God first, and you will receive many of your physical desires anyway (Matthew 6:33).

4. Avoid temptation. For young people, this often means spending less time with peers who tend to get you in trouble. Those friends might not even be particularly ill-behaved, but sometimes the wrong combinations of people just naturally lead to more mischief.

I am taking up the most space on the “before” part of battling sin because this is the part that allows us to avoid sin in the first place.

The story of the Titanic ought to be a sobering reminder of the importance of preparing beforehand.

In the early 20th century, the shipping industry contributed greatly to the United Kingdom’s dominance on the world stage. The White Star Line, founded in 1845, delivered the royal mail and provided the most luxurious first-class accommodations—the most luxurious of the luxury line of ships being the Titanic.

The Titanic was a marvelous spectacle—the largest man-made moving object in the world. Yet, as the date of the maiden voyage approached, half of the rooms on the 882.5-foot, 46,328-ton, $180 million (by today’s dollars) craft remained unfilled. So White Star hired “The Millionaire’s Captain,” Edward Smith, out of retirement to boost ticket sales. The History Channel series History’s Greatest Mysteries portrays Smith as more of a celebrity than a qualified seaman. He and most of the crew on the Titanic had worked together before on the Olympic, during which their ship collided with both a tugboat and a British naval cruiser.

None of this dubious past seemed to matter because the Titanic was perceived as invincible. As the ship prepared to set sail from Southampton, England, for New York City on April 10, 1912, literally no one thought the ship could ever be in any danger. Why hire the most qualified crew when reaching the destination safely and on time was a foregone conclusion?

The crew didn’t bother to fully test the 20 lifeboats onboard—only half the number needed to evacuate the 2,200 passengers and crew. The lines and pulleys on the crane system weren’t checked. Only two lifeboats were lowered by crane, but not even all the way into the water.

At 7:30 p.m. on April 14, four days into the journey, the Titanic’s second officer attempted to plot the ship’s position using a sextant and a hack watch. His faulty reading would soon prove fatal.

The Titanic was equipped with a world-class wireless communication system called Marconi. Marconi operators weren’t part of the ship’s crew, which didn’t care to deal with essential maritime communications. Instead, they focused on communicating by Morse code on behalf of wealthy passengers to their friends on land. When operators from other ships sent ice warnings, Marconi operators angrily told them: “Shut up! Shut up!” because the warnings were jamming their lines of casual communication.

Nine other ships traversing the North Atlantic along the same shipping lanes all sounded the alarm when reaching the danger zone, detailing the size of the icebergs witnessed: small floes, piano-sized growlers, and eventually large icebergs over 20 meters long. The Titanic sped along at about 25 miles per hour, never reducing speed despite passing floes and growlers.

At 11:39 p.m. on April 14, a crew member spotted the iceberg of death from his lookout perch and rang the alarm bell three times. But it was too late to completely avoid a collision.

The pre-crash story of the Titanic—the arrogance, lack of preparation and many avoidable mistakes—reminds me of times when I was convinced I had permanently conquered a particular sin and didn’t have to worry about it popping up in my life ever again. But that’s exactly what Satan wanted me to think so I would let my guard down!

The Bible has something to say about such overconfidence: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

During

When we fail in the “before” phase of our struggle against sin, we then enter the emergency “during” phase. The fleeting wrong thought has swelled into a prolonged wrong thought or even a wrong action. It is now time to stop sinning immediately.

In his book Biblical Manhood, Joel Hilliker writes about the uncompromising example of Joseph. Even while enslaved in Egypt, Joseph rose to the highest level of authority within his master’s household. He was a trustworthy young man, but his master’s wife repeatedly attempted to seduce him. He told her no (Genesis 39:8-9), but she persisted.

One day, Potiphar’s wife pulled off his garment, but he escaped and ran! “Human nature tends to want to entertain temptation, to walk close to the line, to linger on the edge of the cliff and admire the view,” Mr. Hilliker writes. “God, knowing the weakness of the flesh and the human proclivity for compromise, rationalization and justification, commands that we instead follow Joseph’s example—and run” (op cit).

We all need an emergency plan of action when caught by temptation. “War is serious business! Do you have a system to deal with your major problems?” Gerald Flurry asks in How to Be an Overcomer:Chance will not cut it. What are you doing to ensure success in your war against them? How systematic are you in wiping them out of your life?”

The above quote applies to all phases—”before,” “during” and “after”—of our battle against sin. But our system for dealing with sin during sin is often overlooked. It can be easy to rationalize, Well, I already started sinning this time, so I’ll indulge in it for now and then try to avoid it next time.

As with the “before” phase, the “during” phase involves replacing evil with good. Before sin, fill your mind with good thoughts. During sin, replace the negative action with a positive one. Flee from the bad environment. Cry out to God for deliverance. Go for a walk. Exercise. Open a book­—whatever it takes to cease from sin right away. Every person is different, so different systems will work for different people.

The Titanic had no system in place for the “during” phase. The response to the collision has since been described as “improvised.” When the lives of thousands will be lost in about two hours from the point of impact, the last thing the response should be is improvised.

Watertight doors were lowered and sealed to wall off flooded areas from the rest of the ship so neither side of the ship would become too heavy and start to sink faster. But then, crew members raised the doors so they could move pumps and hoses. After this, no one ever closed the doors again.

The extent of the detriment to the ship’s seaworthiness wasn’t immediately clear, so Captain Smith kept the Titanic moving forward at half-speed for another 20 minutes. This disastrous decision increased the influx of water, exploited weaknesses in the ship and caused it to sink faster. The flooding was too rapid for the pumps to keep up.

The crew waited until midnight on April 15, 20 minutes after impact, to prepare the lifeboats. Inexplicably, lifeboats weren’t filled to capacity. Despite the chivalrous aim to prioritize women and children over men, one lifeboat carried away 61 men and just seven women and children. Only two of the 20 lifeboats stopped to collect passengers who were still alive and floundering in the icy water.

Desperate for help from nearby ships, the crew turned to the Marconi operators, who sent out the wrong location of the Titanic based on the inaccurate sextant reading from earlier in the evening.

After

On April 17, 1912, two days after the crash, the Mackay-Bennett cable repair ship ventured east from Nova Scotia, Canada, to retrieve hundreds of frozen corpses from the death zone. The crew picked up 51 bodies on the first day, only to look out and see more bodies floating everywhere.

Rebounding after sinning is similarly daunting and devastating. When you know you have disappointed someone, are you eager to speak to that person right away? Of course not. The same is true when we disappoint God by sinning. But we cannot hide from God by staying silent for a while—as if He won’t know exactly what happened unless we tell Him.

A prime example of this carnal tendency is King David after his sin with Bathsheba. He stole Uriah’s wife, then made sure Uriah died in battle so he could conceal the fact that he had committed adultery and conceived a child. “God had let nine months go by before doing anything about David’s sin,” Mr. Flurry wrote in Repentance Toward God. “Why? Because He was giving David a chance to repent. But David never did. He began to think, God thinks just like I do—I’m right on target. But God doesn’t think like us! We must put our thinking in line with His. He will often wait on us to repent, just as He did with David. We want to make sure that we never make Him wait too long.

“God was patient with David, and He is patient with us. If you really see your sins, you know that is true. He is patient and forgiving. But you are not above the law. None of us is! David had been thinking that he was. But God corrected that attitude. Everyone is subject to the law. That is why Christ died—because a penalty always must be paid to the law” (ibid).

Our first instinct after sinning is to avoid contact with God. David did so for nine months. As we must run from sin, we must run to God to repent after sinning!

However, once confronted with his sin, David took full responsibility. He realized whom his sin had hurt most of all: “And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die” (2 Samuel 12:13). David pinpointed the biggest victim: not Uriah, who died; not Bathsheba, who carried an illegitimate child; not the child who ended up dying; but God! No excuses. No blaming others.

By contrast, the aftermath of the Titanic crash was a pathetic embarrassment of excuse-making and blame-shifting. More than 1,500 people had died, but the crew seemed more concerned with avoiding culpability. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, attempted to meet with crew members to dishonestly square their stories before the media and the governments of America and Britain could question them.

A U.S. inquiry into the demise of the Titanic led by Michigan Republican Senator William Alden Smith turned much of the world against Britain by strongly condemning the ship’s crew. An inquiry in Britain by Lord Mersey scapegoated a nearby ship, the Californian, with much of the blame. Upon entering the ice field that later downed the Titanic, Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian sent out an ice warning to other ships in the vicinity, then shut off communications and the ship itself for the night. Situated 19.5 miles north of the Titanic, the Californian allegedly could have saved many lives if it had been “awake.” (Recall that Marconi operators aboard the Titanic had told operators on other ships, including the Californian, to “shut up.”)

However, the Titanic wreckage discovered in 1985 was 13 miles northwest of its reported location on April 15, 1912, placing it much closer to the Californian than Captain Lord could have ever known. Even if he had rushed to the reported site of the collision, he would have found nothing at all. Another ship, the Carpathia, surged toward the reported site and only stumbled across survivors at the actual site because its crew members spotted flares lighting up the night sky.

The destruction of Captain Lord’s reputation was not part of a criminal trial. No one was jailed. Very few lawsuits were ever filed. Captain Smith sank with his ship, and the crew was largely absolved of responsibility. It wasn’t until 1992 that a subsequent inquiry into the Titanic crash completely exonerated Captain Lord.

The Titanic collision produced some useful regulations, such as more lifeboats per ship and 24-hour radio communication. The International Ice Patrol, founded in 1914, has prevented all ships that heeded its warnings from suffering a similar fate.

Richard McMichael, a historian at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic was “the combination of pride, hubris, playing fast and loose with the regulations at the time—and it’s an incredibly tragic event the world will never forget.”

May we never forget the sobering spiritual lessons of the Titanic, the sunken unsinkable.