John’s message – unpopular but true?

Perhaps the most uncomfortable, unpopular idea of Christianity to the modern mind is the concept that people are bad. We do not like this proposition. Especially when it is applied to ourselves. We generally do not see ourselves as bad. Rather, we like the idea that the nature of humanity is basically good. That’s why we say that a person who does bad things is “inhumane” – since we understand humanity to be good, inhumanity must therefore be bad. A humanitarian organization is one that cares for others, a charity. A “humanistic” person is a person who displays virtues of kindness, care and compassion. To the modern mind human and goodness are two words that belong together.

How then do we explain the evil we see around us? How do we explain our own moral failures? If people are good then why does evil exist? These are interesting questions that have exercised much better minds than mine. For evil does exist in our world, there is no doubt of that, and there is no doubt either that the source of the evil we see is almost always human beings. Certainly, there are natural disasters, catastrophes, and perhaps they could be seen as evil. We are quick then to blame God, even if we don’t believe in him. Though nowadays even natural catastrophes are often put down to human evil – think of global climate change…

Whatever the perceived source of the evil we see, we have a natural tendency to blame others, rather than ourselves. We accept that we ourselves have problems, that we make mistakes, even that we do wrong things. But we are quick to defend ourselves: there is so often, in our minds, a reasonable excuse for what we do wrong. We are experts at explaining away our mistakes, our wrong deeds or thoughts or words; we are experts at justifying our actions. We blame circumstances, we blame other people, we blame the weather, lack of sleep, sickness – the list is long. We recognize that we do wrong, but we are quick to point out that “it is not my fault.”

Much modern psychology is built on this premise. If a person does something bad it is because something bad was done to him, and he was damaged or scarred. Using this approach, badness in people becomes redefined as “sickness” or even “injury.” A sick or injured person is seen as a victim, affected by circumstances or events beyond his control; his illness is not his fault. He may be pitied, he will hopefully be treated, but he is not to be punished.

Just as we are quick to blame others for the bad we see in ourselves, we are quick to take credit for the good we see in ourselves. We are inconsistent creatures, giving the credit for our good deeds to ourselves, while blaming others for our bad deeds. We have a hard time accepting that the bad we see in us comes from us, but it is easy for us to accept that our inherent goodness is responsible for our moral successes. We also want to believe that others are inherently good, even when they do bad things. We struggle to understand the evil we see in other individuals or groups. It clashes with our belief about the nature of humanity.

Another interesting human characteristic is our pride in ancestry. Family history is a hobby of mine and a fascination of many. Nothing excites us as much as to find someone famous, or rich, in our background. We look for “good genes,” because then even if we have never achieved anything great then we can ride on the backs of our famous ancestors, we can point to them as evidence that, as ordinary as we might appear, we are descended from heroes. We like to see ourselves as good people, and we like to think that we come from good stock.

People were no different two thousand years ago when John the Baptist preached his message, a message that is diametrically opposed to the natural belief in our own goodness. He stated categorically that the badness we see in ourselves and others is because of the inherent badness in all humans. He does not exhort us to find the good in ourselves and live that out, but challenges is to accept and acknowledge our inherent badness and consciously turn from it. Look at Luke’s description of John’s ministry:

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. ’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Luke 3:3-9 (NIV)

Given our natural belief in our own goodness, and our reluctance to accept that there might be anything wrong with us, how did a preacher like John become so popular? Why did all the people of the area go out to hear him preach this message of fire and brimstone? How should we respond to such a message?

I believe that he spoke to people’s deepest fears, and their deepest longings, fears and longings that affect us as much as they affected John’s listeners. I believe that for all our bluster, all our trumpeting of our own goodness, our achievements, our ancestry, that deep down we know that we are flawed. There is a deep anxiety in all of us that we are not good enough, and there is a deep fear that someone will find us out. There is a deep need, a desire, a longing, to be loved, to be accepted, to be cherished. But we know in our heart of hearts that we do not deserve these things, and we are terrified of being exposed, because we will be left vulnerable and helpless. We will be shown to be unworthy and unloveable. We will be abandoned.

John came with a message of hope in the context of the reality of sin that we all recognize, albeit reluctantly. He recognized what we know ourselves to be – failures – but said that we could be right with God, loved by God, prepared for coexistence with God, in spite of ourselves. By simply acknowledging the truth about ourselves and publicly turning away from it, we will be prepared to meet God, because God wants to love us as much as we want to be loved. But we cannot be loved on the basis of our worthiness. If we insist on parading our goodness as the basis of our acceptance we will be rejected. Only by acknowledging our lack and turning away from it, can we be prepared for God’s saving work. But this goes against the grain for us. We do not like it. We would rather depend on our merits, our ancestry, our achievements, our success. We don’t like to be reminded of our failure.

Although this teaching is painful, it is also a relief, because it is real. It explains the bewildering evil in the world in a more satisfying way than popular psychology. The bad that we see comes from within each one of us and is rooted in our desire to be God, and not to submit to him. This evil within us does not need to be the thing that controls us, but if we deny its existence it will control us by default. Only by acknowledging its existence and consciously turning from it can we be free of its power.

Helping people to recognise that there the problems they see in both themselves and the world around them are the result of the inherent badness in them and others is not traditionally the role of doctors. Making people right with God is not seen as our role. Human badness is not our issue. We deal with sickness and disease. Badness is seen as a moral dilemma, not an illness.

But doctors are students of humanity. We seek to understand the reasons for the suffering and sickness in the people we meet, and not just to understand it but to relieve it. If we are really to help people (and ourselves) we need to base our diagnoses and treatment on right premises and not on wrong ones. If we are to grow in understanding and wisdom, we need to draw on God’s explanation of the world and not the popular philosophers of the day, or our own theories about things. How we are to do this is our life work. The very first step requires the humility that John demanded of all his listeners, from the learned to the uneducated – the willingness to see the lack in ourselves, to turn away from our own inherent badness, and determine to live in another way.

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