None of these seem to really satisfy the intellect or the soul. The first, that humans are inherently evil, completely takes away our value. Something cannot be pure evil and have any real value at the same time. Every beautiful act of kindness or altruism would have to be seen as a product of the individual acting for their own gain. It just doesn’t sit right in our guts, it doesn’t make sense with what our souls know to be true – there’s something beautiful about us.
The second idea, that humans are inherently good and it is only the social problems that create bad outside circumstances that cause people to engage in bad behavior. There are a few problems with this. One, who created the bad circumstances if people are inherently good? Social and family problems might be contributors to evil behavior, but don’t people make up societies and families? People are also capable of choosing their own actions and behavior and are not a mere product of their societies. Inherently good people choose good regardless of the outside influences. I also believe that as individuals, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we can feel that we are not completely good, we can sense that there is some sort of ugliness to our nature, something that makes us desire that which is evil. It’d be nice if we were purely good, but there is something nasty in our hearts.
The idea of human behavior being morally neutral and their behavior is only a product of the natural world has some similar problems. If human behavior comes from conditions outside of the realm of control of the individual, then the individual is not actually personally responsible for their actions. An individual must have true free will, the ability to make decisions in a manner that transcends conditions, for the individual to be responsible for what they do. Otherwise, the responsibility lies on the external conditions. That seemed like a tangent, but I’m just making the point that if people are morally neutral, then no one can be held responsible for what they do. Our souls don’t sit well with the idea that we don’t have real control over our own lives, only an illusion of control. It’s because the ability to choose what we do is real and is influenced by, but not determined by, the environment.
Scripture’s picture of the nature of human nature is a little different and similar to these other views. Everyone is sinful from birth. People are born into sin and their tendencies are toward dishonoring and hurting themselves, God, and others. The individual has this part of them that is really dirty, really ugly, and really messes with their lives. This part of us makes us capable of knowingly injuring, sometimes destroying, the lives of others. No one is exempt. There is no one that is righteous, not a single one. All have done wrong and have an inborn capacity to sin that comes from inborn desires for the wrong things. We are screwed up people.
And then, there’s this other story. People are beautiful beyond words. We sometimes have a hard time seeing this in ourselves because we are more likely to see our crap instead of what is wonderful about us. We can see it in others though. Everyone of us knows someone whose heart is breathtaking. Others can see it in us too. It’s there. We are amazing creatures, made in the very image of God with immeasurable value. Just so it’s clear, the value of the splendor God placed inside of us far exceeds the nastiness of the sin that resides in us.
Um, so, that’s complicated. That’s difficult. The way that works out in real life is confusing. It’s true though. Awing wonder and awful horror are aspects of every human being. This is relieving and frustrating. Why were we made with these two natures? Why were we not created beautiful alone? The answer is that we were, but the world is not as it once was. What do we do now? How do we get rid of that which dirties us?
This is where Jesus comes in. For those of us who have decided that the way of the Messiah is to be the way of our lives, Jesus has offered separation from the crap inside of ourselves. For those that believe in the Messiahship, divinity, and power of the death and resurrection of Jesus, may also be free from the part of them that is sinful. Romans lays this out a little bit for us… “through Jesus Christ the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death… and so he condemned sin in sinful man” Jesus frees us from the law that works within us and, avoiding condemnation of us, condemns the ugliness inside of us. If the law of sin that works within us is condemned to death by God, then, well, it’s as good as dead. Therefore, because we have been freed from that part and it is doomed to death, that part of us no longer is a real part of us. Who we are, and the sin inside of us become separate. Humanity left to their own nature is stuck with both the splendid and atrocious aspects of their nature. Through God, those who are being saved have only the splendid. They are only defined by the wonderful parts of who they are.
Still, for us who pursue God, the sinful nature is still within us. Also in Romans it says, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members… Now, if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I that do it, but sin living in me that does it.” So, there is still sin within us that works against us, but because of the work of Christ, the sin within us is no longer a part of who we are. We are not sinful by nature, but our very nature has been changed so that we are by nature creatures of the law of the Spirit of life. We still have the option of being sinful though. We can still choose to live from our sinful nature.
This is the difficulty of the Christian life. We are by nature beautiful and pure, but have within our bodies a nature that is ugly and full of impurity. We can choose to live out of our sinful nature, but we have to remember that “we are not controlled by the sinful nature, but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in us.” All who belong to Christ have this Spirit and this Spirit destroys our sinful nature but brings the righteousness to our spirit that brings life. Because of the work of the Spirit in purifying us and so remaking us into creatures of unfathomable beauty, we have both an obligation and a freedom to live from this Spirit.
We have to recognize and believe that the sin within us is no longer a part of us and no longer has any power over us. Because God has placed His Spirit within us through the death and new life of Christ, the power is now all ours. We’re free from sin: its guilt, shame, condemnation, chains, power, influence, and pain. It is our choice then whether to live from sin, and so give it power, or live from the Spirit and the power the Spirit has. We have beauty inside of us beyond what we can ever comprehend. The more that we manifest this beauty through our actions of obedient love toward God and others, the stronger the power of the Spirit of life becomes, and indeed, the more alive we will be. Living well ultimately comes down to living as a child of the God of Life: pure, righteous, free, powerful, and with a beauty that comes from the God of Beauty.
A lot of people would agree with me that selfishness is a negative thing, but a lot of people live in a world that is centered around themselves anyway. Most of our thoughts are self-centered. We may not be thinking about how we can best manipulate others to benefit ourselves or specifically how to optimize how much we can best satisfy ourselves, but our thoughts and desires often reflect a world where we are the center. We think about what we’re going to eat, what we’re going to wear, what we’re going to say, how people will respond to us, whether our finances will be okay, who we’re going to hang out with, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to spend our time, etc. etc. I make too many lists.
These things aren’t inherently bad things to think about, but it’s when we think about them in such a way that we are the focal point of everything, where we are first and foremost concerned about how things will affect us. When we are the center of our lives, we have a very small world. When I am the focus of what I think, say, and do, my world is only as big as I am. Which isn’t very big. The meaning and purpose of our lives is found in how to get the most pleasure and the least pain. In this small world, everything that happens in relation to us is a big deal, creating problems that seem overwhelming Our lives then often become full of worry and our fears hinder us.
I like what Erwin McManus recently said about fear. “Whatever we fear establishes the boundaries and limitations for our life.” If we’re in a self-focused world, there is so much to be afraid of because there is so much around us that can have negative effects on us. If we chose to stop focusing on ourselves, the size of our world increases dramatically. If we chose to focus on people, then our world is as big as everyone around us. Our thought focus is then not on how to best look out for ourselves, but to look out for others. Our problems become a lot less small when our goal is not to acquire the maximum amount of pleasure for ourselves.
What if we chose to allow our lives to be centered around something bigger, say, God? That’s a huge world that includes others, but also includes a Being that is bigger than others. If we place God at the center of our lives, we free ourselves from so many limitations. No problem is big compared to the infinite Creator God. Everything that once worried us and seemed overwhelming is now insignificant. Our lives also become loaded with purpose and meaning because the goal of our life is so much bigger and so much more important. No goal is bigger than the glorification of God. There is nothing as freeing and beautiful as living with God-centered lives in a God-sized world.
The problem is typically not that we don’t know, but that we don’t do. Most of us want to be good, and for those that claim Christ as Lord, they want to follow Him with their lives. Desire isn’t the problem either. When it comes to hypothetical situations, a good portion of people would say that they would act in a way that was honoring to God. If our Master Jesus Himself came to us and made a request of us, most of us would say “Yes” without hesitation; however, even when we have said, “yes” to God and know what we would do in a hypothetical situation, when reality hits and we are in the thick of life with a lot of conflicting wants and felt needs, we so often don’t do what we said and thought that we would do.
Jesus tells us an illustrative parable remarking on something quite similar.
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. De went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Isn’t it obvious? Picture yourself as the father. Although it would be disappointing to have your son reject you and speak disobediently, all would be easily relationally remedied if the son then showed his regret of his vocal disobedience by acting in obedience. The other son’s words would be welcome at first, but when it was found that the other son didn’t follow through, the words would be meaningless lies because of the disconnect between what the son said he would do and what he actually did. Actions speak sometimes what words alone cannot. Words are important, but have no foundation without a life that reflects those words.
Scripture often links loving God with obeying God. This is quite sensible. You don’t love someone by talking nice about them, nice to them, thanking them for what they’ve done, and then living a life that dishonors that person. That’s not love. You don’t love someone by telling them you care about them and having strong feelings for them, but then acting in ways that hurt them. That’s not love. Love toward God includes words and feelings, but is primarily founded on a life that reflects those words and feelings, driven by a heart that truly wants to actively love God.
Sometimes, like those that Jesus told his parable to, we think that because we know what the right thing to do is and because we, truly, most of the time want to do that right thing, that then we are good, healthy, wise, loving, and obedient people. Words and action are not the same though. Having a deep understanding of right and wrong, good and evil, God’s way and the way of sin, doesn’t mean a whole lot without a life lived according to these realities. James puts it this way: Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him or her show it by his/her good life; by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. He doesn’t say to show it by good advice, articulate thoughts, demonstrating knowledge, or reciting Scripture. Wise living proves wisdom. Righteous living proves right beliefs. Goodness proves that one understands what good is.
Join me. Let us never be content with having knowledge, wisdom, or understanding alone. Demonstrate your comprehension of these things with your behavior. Living well necessitates thinking well, but thinking well is not adequate. Live a life of love toward God and others. Let us get rid of any disconnect between our wise thoughts and our foolish behavior. Let what we would do in a hypothetical situation be what we actually do in a real life circumstance. The more we do this, the closer we become to being who we want to be: people that live well.
Referencing the last post, taking control of our own lives is a beautiful, difficult, and necessary first step toward living well, and something that must be done with a degree of regularity, because I guarantee that if you’re human, sometimes you’ll lose control over your own lives and find yourself thinking things you don’t want to think and doing things you don’t want to do. You will lose control sometimes. It’s okay. You have to have the drive and desire to take your life back no matter how many times you lose control or how impossible it might seem. The motivation for controlling and maintaining control of our lives comes from our ultimate goals, our ultimate pursuit.
What are you living for? What is the purpose behind what you do? Where do you find meaning for the humdrum of the everyday? Humans inevitably search for some sort of ultimate meaning and purpose in their lives. I think this is why we find religion as a centerpiece and inextricable component of every human culture known to man. An essential intellectual pursuit of the philosophers across history, that has led to many different conclusions, is the quest for discovering what the ultimate goal of life is – or if there even is one.
The question of what the meaning of life is an important question to ask because the answer determines whether what we do is actually of any importance. If there is no answer to the question, if there is no ultimate purpose in life, then that means a few things for us. One, we can do absolutely anything we want without hesitation or fear of doing something wrong. Since it really doesn’t matter what we do, then we feel free to do any whimsical thing we please because we don’t have to feel guilty about the important things that we are not doing. The second thing it would mean for us if there were no ultimate goal, is that nothing we do is of any significance. We are insignificant, our actions are insignificant, and when all is said and done, it really doesn’t matter if we initiate a genocide or end human trafficking. If there is an answer to the question, and we don’t know it or have the right answer, then we aren’t living the way we should be. If we have the right answer to the question and choose not to live by it, then we’re living lives devoid of meaning. We might as well not believe in any meaning at all.
There is a pretty common philosophy in modern American culture about finding meaning in life. Summed briefly, the philosophy is that every individual needs to create their own meaning in life. There is no absolutely ultimate meaning, there is no overarching, supernatural purpose that includes all. The “ultimate” purpose for the life of the individual is for that individual to do what they think is meaningful and purposeful. In this way, one can believe that there is no grand meaning to our existence but still have a sense of purpose in their lives, and in that way find fulfillment. That ideas seems pretty nice, but then, even if we a sense of purpose and meaning, in actuality our lives don’t have any real purpose or meaning – we’re living in a false, self-created reality. If indeed there is no higher reality than our meager lives, then this way of personal meaning is sensible, but one must deliberately forget the fact that they are merely pretending to have meaning in a life that is truly meaningless.
Living well means living for something, but not just anything. It’s about living for something that is true, for something that satisfies personal meaning because it is full of ultimate meaning. My views are probably pretty clear by now. I believe in ultimate purpose because I believe in an Ultimate Creator that loving endowed us with the responsibility of carrying out tasks that contribute to the formation of something that is ultimately good. To participate in this, what we need to live for is not a thing, goal, or idea, but a Being. A life of obedience to the One that loved, designed, created, saves, and sustains us is the way to real meaning. This obedience is why we have to take control of our own lives. We are not to take control of our lives so that we have control, because this will lead us nowhere worthwhile. We take control of our lives so that we can give them up, and live obediently to the God who knows how we are to live, to the God who loves us so much that He wants to fill our lives with a purpose beautiful beyond imagination.
There’s a lot that can be said about what we’re doing right now, living. It’s a thing of such opposites. Many people hate their lives. Many people love their lives. It’s such an individual thing. Some of it is perspective. Some of it is goals. Much of it is the way that we choose to live. Loving life and being full of it necessitates living life well. This is one of those difficult tasks that is so worthwhile. One thing that we must do to live well is to assertively engage with the world around us.
Often our modus operandi in this world is to get caught up in the current of life and gently swim with it. There is so much movement, so much going on, and so many alternative behavior choices. Many forces in our various individual environments affect us and are drawing, pushing, pulling, compelling, or some other word that means the world around us is an influential force. These forces can be categorized as external social forces and internal individual forces.
The culture has its way of doing things and the vast majority of people in this nation are living their lives as a part of the mass movement of culture. There is a particular way of doing things, of living and functioning socially that is deemed correct and acceptable to the culture. It’s very easy to get caught up in whatever this way of doing things is (which changes depending on age, location, and time) and simply live this way. Doing so means that we are socially accepted members of the majority. There are many socially mediated consequences of moving against the cultural norm and social acceptance is often only granted by living by some sort of cultural norm. Often the way that the large culture as a whole actually has an impact on the individual person is through the smaller social group(s) of the individual.
The force exerted by a small group of friends is stronger on the individual than the large scale culture. Every different grouping of people has different sets of implicit rules and regulations of proper beliefs, attitudes, and conduct that persons within the group should adhere to. The broad culture impacts these cultural subsets and it is mainly these cultural subsets (often can be read “groups of friends”) that exert a force over the individual, for it is the individuals within the group that socially enforce the implicit rules of the culture. Terms like “peer pressure” explain this cultural enforcement. The internal understanding of the rules of a particular group of friends or others is necessary in order to feel the social pressure exerted to behave in a particular way. This pressure can be felt by groups ranging from 2 to infinity, not necessarily of a stronger pull with more people. The pressure is real and often so are the consequences of acting out of line with the principles that guide the behavior of particular groups. Thus, there is good reason to live life according to the culture that one is within, moving along with its flow, avoiding the pain and difficulty of moving against the current.
Then, there’s us and our own internal reasons for living our lives a particular way. We’ve got our own issues. One of the reasons that we tend to move along with the flow of everything is because we have always moved along with the flow of everything. We choose not to change our lives because we have always done things this way. Sometimes, there is no better reason than that. Our habitual thoughts, beliefs, actions, and reactions can become like a rut in the road. Turning out of the rut is difficult and it’s much easier to stay within the rut than to break out of it and move the vehicle in a new direction. Our habits of all sorts become so deeply ingrained in our lives that they become the way that we naturally do things and it’s really hard to change habits. There are many other internal factors (like laziness or fear of change) that make it difficult to change and easy to keep living life with the flow of the world around us and in the rut of how we’ve always done things.
So, all that was a little long, underdeveloped, and not written with much clarity or depth, but the point is simple: it’s easier and simpler to passively move through life than it is to live differently. That’s why we tend to go with the flow. I think that the reason we do this is that we just don’t quite get it. We don’t have an answer to the question of why we should live differently. Living passively isn’t actually going to get us anywhere but right where everyone else is going, and most people have no idea where that is. If we do not assertively engage life, then we are doomed to float along the river on our way to nowhere. The ease of floating through life is a benefit far less significant than the cost of missing out on life. The things that are most desirable and satisfying in life are those things that take work to get and require living differently than everyone else and differently than we’re living now.
Living well means taking an active role in our daily lives. To live well we must master our own thoughts, beliefs, words, actions, and reactions. We have to engage the world instead of being compelled by it. So many of us want a good life. It is a natural human longing to want a life full of meaning, where we, happy and whole, act according to the purpose that brings meaning to our lives. Only when we take control of our own lives can we actually live well.
How do we do this? It’s already been given to us. Humans are created such that they have power to decide what they do. We have the capacity to choose to do whatever we would like to with our own lives. It’s not easy to grab hold of ourselves and start breaking habits and moving in a direction opposite of the flow of the culture, but it’s necessary. It’s worthwhile. As we become the acting rulers over ourselves and take responsibility for our own actions, we become capable of moving our lives in whatever direction we want. To be who we want to be and do what we want to do we must first have the freedom that comes from being able to move in any direction, regardless of how much opposition is in our way. We already have the ability to do this, we just have to do it.