human nature: the agony and the ecstasy

I just returned from a two-week trip to London. In many ways the trip felt like a step back in time. Attending church in a building people have worshipped in for more than 1,000 years is a surreal experience. Medieval history saturates London (and the rest of Europe). It’s everywhere. Europeans live with a sense of the past we Americans know little about.

The several medieval castles I visited posed a kind of paradox to me. Their architectural and artistic creativity, design, and genius, amazed me. The religious devotion poured into each of them was clear, and beautiful. In the same building, though, not far from the chapel, a room would be set apart for torture, wherein that same ingenuity was used to design sickening devices meant to cause insufferable pain.

The juxtaposition reminded me of James 3:9-10: “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things should not be so.”

Human beings have incredible capacity for both kindness and cruelty, for beauty and horror. God created us in the pattern of himself, in his image. Psalm 8:5-6 says, “You have made [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…”

Humans create art and music and poetry that draws our souls up to heaven. We perform acts of self-sacrifice and courage that inspire awe, as many soldiers, police officers, and first-responders know firsthand. We are complex and multi-layered, able to love another with love that lasts a lifetime. We are stunning creatures, the pinnacle of God’s handiwork on earth.

At the same, the depth and extent of our depravity is horrifying. The worst suffering we experience is at the hands of one another. Entire societies are completely given over to idolatry, sexual perversion, oppression, exploitation, the destruction of nature. We construct devices for causing pain, like the ones I saw in English castles. We are apathetic toward the God who designed the night sky and gives us life and breath and everything. With the same mouth, we bless and curse. Can you understand these words of the Teacher?

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3
And the words of the Apostle:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves… And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. Romans 1:21-24, 28

American culture believes human nature is basically good and is, at the fundamental level, inclined toward decency and harmony. The truth is that from ancient barbarism to modern progressivism, none of us decline to take part in humanity’s corporate guilt. In modern America the blows are softened by a wealthy society and a history of forward progress. But our immorality is rampant and the seeds for unleashed cruelty are all there. Human nature does not change.

The thing that is really beyond me, that truly inspires awe, is that God freely chose to condescend into our human state, taking on our flesh and blood in the person Jesus. He experienced the greatest cruelty and evil of all, being the Son of God yet hated by his own people, tortured, and murdered. But not without purpose, not without a divine, a heavenly cause. His condescension is the one legitimate hope that exists in an evil world, with the pull of temptation on our souls being so deadly and strong.

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God… For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 1 John 4:14-15, 5:4-5
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