100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Problem of Human Nature

I read an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, an agnostic, called “Ten Thousand Acts of Kindness” which basically said that people aren’t really all that bad, it’s just that we focus more heavily on the bad things we do, which are actually an exception to the norm. If we stopped to take notice, he says, the good things far outnumber the bad things! He concludes “The solution to our woes lies not in overcoming our 'nature' but in fracturing the 'great asymmetry' and allowing our ordinary propensities to direct our lives.” This statement directly opposes Christianity which says that the essential problem with humanity is our corrupt nature. The Bible says, for example...

The intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. (Genesis 8:21).

Now, if the Bible is true we should be able to identify with that statement. Why is it that we don’t feel as though the intentions of our hearts are evil? It’s because what we’re reading here is God’s own words, spoken from God’s perspective. In another passage of Scripture it says, (again from a writer who understands God’s perspective),

All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6)

A “polluted garment” has the Biblical significance of something that separates us from God, yet it’s not talking about our sinful deeds but our righteous deeds! Those “ten thousand acts of kindness” which Stephen Jay Gould speaks of can be, to God, a “polluted garment”. How so? There are a number of ways we can do something good and yet offend God. Whenever we do something out of selfish motives, for example, the act itself is tainted. People can appear to be very kind but their real motive may be self-serving. Perhaps they want to impress others with how good they are, or maybe they’re expecting a “you owe me one” debt from the other person. We can also do things which appear good only because we feel compelled to do them. If, for example, I asked my son to clean his room, he might do it but he might hate doing it and do it reluctantly. This taints the whole act; what a father wants and appreciates is a son who cleans his room out of a motivation to do the right thing and to please his father. Motivation is everything, and in Christianity the motive must be love. And so Jesus explains...

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Love for God and love for others must be the motivation for all our righteous deeds. The “Law and the Prophets” refers to all of Scripture. At the time Jesus said this there was only what we now call the Old Testament, but I believe He’s speaking of all Scripture, whose purpose is to show us how the world ought to be, and how Man ought to think, feel and act (James 1:22-25). So, then, the way we are supposed to act is out of love for God and love for others. This is why our righteous deeds can be seen as “polluted garments”, when they are not done out of love for God and for others.

As I said earlier, we can do things which appear righteous but, because of our motives they are tainted, even to a fellow human being when they learn of our true motives and judge the act in that light. However, I’m not saying that fallen Man can’t be genuinely righteous in acting out of genuine love for others; we can. But even when we have love for God and man, our righteous deeds are still going to be tainted by other factors. We simply cannot be perfect in the way that God is. But can an atheist or agnostic like Stephen Jay Gould ever do anything at all out of love for God? Again, from God’s perspective, the heart of a man like Stephen Jay Gould is “evil from his youth” because he never, in his heart, expresses love for God let alone acts out of love for God. How can he? He doubts whether there even is a God.

The most righteous people alive in Jesus’ day were the Pharisees; members of a sect of Judaism dedicated to upholding the Mosaic Law. They had, however, missed the point of the Law which we have stated above when we quoted Jesus... the deeds of the Law are not pleasing to God unless they are done out of genuine love. Even the deeds of these Pharisees, then, were utterly corrupt from Jesus’ perspective. He said of them...

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. ... They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long [essentially making conspicuous their piety by arraying their garments with religious symbols], and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues. (Matthew 23:2-6)

Jesus, who is also God, was displeased with their righteous deeds because their motivations were selfish and prideful. Instead of focusing on their service to others, their mind was on their own ambitions; to be recognized as authority figures. This is our very nature, according the Bible; that we do not seek to glorify God in what we do, but to glorify ourselves. Stephen Jay Gould was wrong... our very nature is the problem because we do not love and glorify God by nature. The Bible tells us that when we put our faith in Christ we are given a new nature which is able to glorify God out of a genuine love for Him. This is why the Bible says we must be “born again”; we must be given a new start with a new nature. If we are truly prepared to forsake our old nature, which is ultimately selfish, and put our faith in Christ, He will give us this new nature. He will take away the self-glorification which characterizes so much of what we do, and passages like Philippians 2:3-4 will characterize our lives instead...

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

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