Until he got himself shot and killed, Charles Augustus Milverton may have been the most despicable human being on the planet. He was certainly the foulest man in London.
According to Sherlock Holmes, Milverton took the infamous designation: “King of all the blackmailers.” Inspired by a real blackmailer (Charles Augustus Howell), Milverton became the unforgettable villain in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1904 short story.
And Milverton was devilish.
“Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation,” Sherlock asks Watson, “when you stand before the serpents in the zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to deal with 50 murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow.”
Milverton’s work was sly and subtle and sustained. Over many years his reach stretched out in a network of maids and valets and spies of any sort with access to letters or notes, or within proximity of undercover eavesdropping on the town blabbermouths. Milverton paid top dollar for dirt, and everyone knew it. If there was dirt to be had, he would have it at any price necessary. “Hundreds in this great city turn white at his name.” He was dirt-rich, and patently patient with his secrets. “He will hold a card back for years,” says Sherlock, “in order to play it at the moment when the stake is best worth winning.”
That is why, compared to a murderer who lunges and kills with one swing of a blunt bat, this man is more coldblooded, “who methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in order to add to his already swollen money-bags.”
With a growing storehouse of vile secrets, and a heart set on endless wealth, Milverton waited for the right moment to pounce on the wealthy, and “with a smiling face and a heart of marble,” and just like a snake, “he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.”
“He is,” says Sherlock, “as cunning as the Evil One.”
To this day the great extortionist Milverton sporadically appears in books and movies and television shows. He’s iconic. Using our past debaucheries to extort is devilish, as Arthur Conan Doyle seemed to understand.
Satan is your accuser. He has all the dirt on you. He knows what you did. And what if he told your church or your friends what you’ve done? That little secret you try to keep hidden from everyone, even from God. Satan knows about it. Satan has a dirt-file on you, and he will not let you forget the fact.
Sinclair Ferguson exposes this devilish intent in his new book Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (159–160).
As the masters of the spiritual life have believed, there may be times in our pilgrimage when Satan engages in blackmailing us. We have secretly given in to sin. He whispers that we have failed; we are unworthy. He will keep our secret—so long as we keep it a secret too, and hide or disguise it. No one else must be told.
In this offer, what’s he doing?
We are already ashamed, but now in addition we fear what others will think and say. The result? We become isolated within ourselves; we feel there is a secret nobody else must know, we fail to deal biblically with our sin; we develop habits of despair about it. We thus hide our sin; we do not admit it even to God.
This, insinuates the evil one, is the only safe way.
All very subtly we have begun to lose sight of the fact that there is forgiveness. Satan will make sure that we continue to feel our guilt and shame. What would others in the church think of us?
In our unrepentant guilt and isolation, Satan slowly tightens his grip around us until we begin to spiritually suffocate.
Keep Calm, Stop Running
Ever since Adam’s first sin, we have shielded our shame behind a veil of shrubs from The Great Eye of God (Genesis 3:8–9).
But such a theology is deadly wrong, and for it, we pay a dear price at the hand of a patient and persistent blackmailer. Christians don’t know God as a sovereign searchlight of vengeance scanning back and forth, looking to pick off escaping prisoners with a rifle. No, we have a merciful Father, coming after us, calling out, “Adam, where are you?”
There’s no point in hiding our sin from God—he already knows it and is eager to forgive (Psalm 86:5); and no need to hide our sin from one another.
Until we get this theology right, we are easily played by Satanic extortion.
If we are able to share our failure, our sense of guilt and bondage with a fellow Christian whom we can trust absolutely, and to whom we can open our heart—then we break the power of the blackmail, the truth is out in the presence of God, we are able to pray together honestly, and forgiveness once again flows into our hearts. Yes, there may be shame, and sorrow, and tears—but there is also pardon, forgiveness, a new beginning, and the blessing of stronger bonds of fellowship.
Chains of Spiritual Bondage
In our repentance, in God’s open forgiveness and in our forgiving of one another, we are delivered from Satan’s ploy (Matthew 6:12–13).
“Part of the reason Satan manages to keep us in such a bondage state spiritually is because he convinces us that he alone knows our secret. It is a lie,” Ferguson writes. This is the demonic, self-destroying slavery of silent sin. “The heavenly Father has long known it.”
God knows, and because God knows our sin, “whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).
Freedom at the Foot of the Cross
Your heavenly Father is calling out to you, by name: “Where are you?”
Until we call back in repentance, Satan methodically, and at his leisure, tortures the soul and wrings our nerves. But while our sin is kept inside, silently, the body crumbles. Our joy in God is extinguished. Freedom and joy will only flourish in acknowledged sin (Psalm 32:1–5).
We have a way of escape from this demonic, self-destroying slavery of concealed sin. And Satan knows it. He knows our freedom is in repentance. He knows our freedom is not found in isolation, but at the foot of the cross of Calvary.
In Christ we walk in the light of freedom that repels back into the shadow the greatest blackmailer this world has ever seen (1 John 1:5–10).