Every so often, one’s faith in the basic goodness of human nature takes a hit. People whom we thought we could trust disappoint us. For example, a policeman is caught dealing drugs; a politician is exposed as an abuser; or a clergyman is convicted of paedophilia.
While there is good in the worst of us, there also seems to be bad in the best of us. Even Hitler, Stalin and Jack the Ripper were once rocked in the arms of mothers who saw only beauty and innocence!
So are we all potentially thieves, murderers and sexual deviants?
Perhaps, as the Bible is extremely unflattering in its assessment of true human nature. The psalmist said, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no-one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2, 3).
And along the same vein, the apostle Paul states that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22, 23).
We all fall short of God’s ideal.
Of course, it is possible to read the Ten Commandments and give yourself a 10 out of 10. After all, you don’t steal, kill or commit adultery. So you’re OK—until you read what Jesus said about a real observance of those commandments. In His famous sermon on the mount, He shocked His audience when He declared, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The Pharisees got rather bad performance assessments from Jesus, yet in many ways they were the best people in the nation of Israel. The word Pharisee means “one who has been set apart.”
At Christ’s time, the Pharisees were an exclusive sect of never more than 3000 at any time. They prided themselves on being a cut above most every other follower of God. They took their religion very seriously. They were exacting in their keeping of the law. They focused on keeping it in its minute details as bequeathed to them by centuries-worth of spiritual leaders seeking holiness.
Yet Jesus startled everyone by saying, “That’s still not good enough. You’ve got to do better than that!”
He didn’t mean that their list of good works was short. He meant that it was shallow. For example, He quoted the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), but then He said, “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement. . . . Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22).
By Jesus’ definition, we break the sixth commandment not only by actually taking lives but by denigrating and belittling others. We kill their person-hood and self-worth. We attach degrading labels to them and then treat them accordingly. We carry anger, scorn and contempt in our hearts. That, Jesus said, is as bad as the act of actual murder.
Then there is the seventh commandment, which says, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). But Jesus expanded on the meaning of adultery when He said “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
So the sin problem lies not just in our actions but also in our heart. We can appear to be good from the outside, yet be corrupt on the inside. And we all know how, like a dormant volcano, evil can suddenly erupt, leaving both us and those around us shocked by our uncharacteristic behaviour. Yet what we did was simply allow the outburst of our natural selves—an expression of the evil in our own hearts.
While years of practise might enable us to modify our behaviour, we can’t cure our evil natures. We can’t change who we really are.
But how did we get this way? How did the seed of evil get planted in our human psyche? Since our basic human nature has been the same from the beginning, we have to go back to the beginning for an answer.
God made Adam and Eve to live in a trusting, obedient relationship with Him and a loving, serving relationship with each other. A time came, however, when they fell out of their relationship with God and chose to listen to and obey the prompting of God’s enemy. And the effect was immediate. Fear entered the equation of relationships for the first time.
Our first human parents tried to hide from God; and they blamed each other, God and circumstances for their wrong actions. And having changed their allegiance, they experienced a mysterious change in their thoughts, attitudes, motives—and behaviour. From that time forward, their basic starting point for decisions about what to do was self-interest, self-preservation and self-advancement.
And we, their children, have inherited this same mind-set. We are born estranged from God and distanced from each other. Hence, our natural tendency is to care for Number One, ourselves.
This is what lies at the root of our wrong behavioural choices. Even our highest of altruistic endeavours conceal motives of self-interest.
that fateful day
After God created the earth and formed Adam out of dust, He placed him in the Garden of Eden. “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).
It was a place of beauty and wonder, and God left Adam in charge of the Garden. It also was where God formed Eve, Adam’s companion.
However, while God gave both of them freedom in the Garden, He also had strict instructions: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die” (verses 16, 17).
So pure, so untouched and so sinless were their states, that even though both Adam and Eve were naked, “They felt no shame” (verse 25). Unfortunately, things didn’t remain perfect. The serpent (Satan) came to Eve one day, tempting her to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to her, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4, 5).
Convinced by the serpent’s argument, Eve ate the forbidden fruit and shared it with Adam. From that moment on, fear and sin entered the hearts of Adam and Eve. When God came looking for them in the Garden, they hid from Him (verse 10). And this fear of God, this introduction of a sinful nature, became a condition that we continue to pass down from generation to generation.
Jesus put His finger right on the problem. He diagnosed why the Pharisees, those outstandingly moral, religious men, would end up murdering Him. “If God were your Father,” He said, “you would love me, for I came from God. . . . [But] you belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire” (John 8:42, 44, emphasis added).
We have switched fathers, and our bad behaviour reflects the impact this has had on our human nature.
So the problem goes way deeper than the bad things we do. They are just the symptom of our inner brokenness, which, in turn, is due to the loss of our essential relationship with God. And we are powerless to fix the problem at its core. It’s bad news all the way.
The good news is that Jesus came on a mission to set right what went wrong. He claimed that He “came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). He didn’t just give us a good example of how we should live. He came to make a way for us to change the way we think and feel.
Jesus announced His mission with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18, 19). His ministry to people touched them at the point of their pain and released them from their demons, metaphorical and literal.
Above all, He assured them of forgiveness and restoration to God. He took upon Himself our sins that had separated us from the Father, and then He died the death we deserved for those sins. Justice was done in such a way that mercy could be freely extended to us.
Hundreds of years before Christ’s time, the prophet Isaiah disclosed the meaning of Christ’s death: “He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. . . . But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4, 5).
When we believe this good news and apply it to ourselves, it becomes a reality for us. We are “spiritually born again”—born into God’s family. Of Jesus it is said: “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent . . . but born of God” (John 1:12, 13).
Our restoration starts with knowing that God accepts and loves us as a true Father, even if we still see ourselves as unacceptable and unlovely. When that core relationship is established, there is an outward flow that heals our broken lives, distorted relationships and destructive behaviours.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands” (1 John 5:1, 2).
The Pharisees worked in the opposite direction; believing that if they could only get their behaviour right, they would be right with God.
But Jesus confronted them with a disconcerting and revealing truth: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).
God starts with us as He finds us, but He doesn’t leave us there. The change is nothing short of a complete miracle. “The old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18).