Self-introspection is part of the human condition. From the Ancient Greek aphorism to “know thyself,” to the latest self-help book on helping you on your path to “soul searching,” we clearly desire for some sort of spiritual enlightenment on the inner labyrinthine nature of the human mind and heart. Connected to this are other questions such as, “Are humans basically good or evil?” These questions are good and needed ones; knowing yourself and the nature of humanity can impart valuable wisdom on those that seek it. However, this path to wisdom is narrow. Many of the self-help routes and colloquial proverbs cannot lead to a true knowledge of what lies in the heart of man. They simply start in the wrong place.
Starting from man to evaluate man cannot give the full picture of who and what we are. If our moral goodness is compared to that of other humans, we may get a subjective understanding of how we relate to an arbitrary standard of goodness, but this view cannot provide us with the standard of goodness itself and how we measure up to it. Any insight intoman’s importance or lack thereof, or how he relates to the universe around him, cannot be seen fully from our limited cracks into reality that we peer out from in our five senses,examining others who, like ourselves, look out at the universe with the same limitations.
16th Century protestant theologian John Calvin understood this problem. In his opening chapter of his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes, “It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also-he being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced.”
For Calvin, knowledge of God and knowledge of self, in addition to being the fountains of all true wisdom, formed an epistemological circle. We cannot truly know ourselves apart from our relationship as creatures to a Holy creator, from whom our being subsists. Likewise, we cannot truly understand the love of God, His goodness, and His holiness without seeing these attributes juxtaposed against our own wickedness and radical depravity. For the Christian, this knowledge is increased through sanctification and the means of grace. More knowledge of God results in more understanding and grieving over our own imperfections. Likewise, the depths of our sin results in a higher and higher view of God’s goodness and mercy.
Is man basically good?
Therefore, when we have the right starting point, an honest investigation into the human condition reveals unpopular truths regarding our nature. It seems from childhood we are taught to believe that most people are good. It is a fundamental axiom of modern progressive political philosophy that people are basically good, and the ones that are not just need to be educated with better ideas. This is why many progressive ideas tend towards the Utopian; to them we are getting ever closer to a humanity free of the dangerous and radical barbarism of the past. Part of this purge includes the replacement of antiquated religious values and morals with the enlightenment progress of reason over superstition. Never mind that the enlightened 20th century was the most brutal and genocidal century in humanity’s dark history.
Truthfully, any Utopian enterprise is doomed for it does not really understand man’s heart. Sadly, even many evangelicals do not understand the full depth of depravity that Scripture teaches resides within man after the Fall. Paul understood and wrote the following in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Scripture teaches that the thoughts and intentions of man apart from the Holy Spirit are entirely evil from birth. David wrote in the Psalms, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).
Scripture is clear that the idea of a truly “good person” who is righteous before God by his own merits does not exist. Many of us presume to be better than we are because we compare ourselves to the wrong standard. Sure, if you compare yourself to evil men in movies or history, you may come away with some notion of your own goodness, or even when you think back to that truly nasty person you used to work with. If that is the standard, then you are living in blissful ignorance concerning the thoughts of your heart. For the standard of holiness is not found in man.
Many people give themselves a pass and downplay theirs sin. But if we have the courage to look honestly at our own lives, the wickedness that pours out from the chasms of our heart becomes clear. We all have skeletons in our closets that we pray are never opened. We all think thoughts that are so horrific that we know that if other people could see inside our minds and behold the true reality of who we are apart from the façade of politeness, they might never speak to us again. We may learn to ignore the anger and jealousy that bubbles up when our friends share their successes or the feats of their children, but these true intentions of the heart are there regardless. The secret sexual deviancy or use of pornography may be justified or rationalized as “normal” behavior, and if the culture were the standard, it may be “normal,” but in the eyes of a holy and righteous God who sees all things, it is never acceptable.
The reason many cannot understand how a loving God could send people to Hell is because they know neither themselves nor God. We may think ourselves fine when we compare ourselves to arbitrary standards. But when compared to the true standard of goodness, we not only see that we fall short,but we also see that we deserve the wrath of God. God does not send good people to Hell, but that should not comfort us when we realize what truly lies in the heart of man, and that Scripture says no one is good.
What we need
Many moderns might find that this idea of God is unfair, but we do not want fairness. If God were fair to what we deserve, then we would all be subject to eternal torment. But luckily mercy and grace transcend the concept of fairness, and God in his goodness and for his glory saves sinners to the uttermost. Many false professors seek forgiveness simply to escape the fate of Hell. But they do not seek freedom from their sin; they cling to it as the real gods of their hearts. This is a result of the fall of man and our inability to seek God or that which is truly good. But God grants repentance and forgiveness to his people, not simply from Hell but from the totally depraved sinful nature that permeates our entire being. This does not mean the Christian is sinless in this life but is no longer a slave to sinand is finally free to do good, as Scripture says that whatever does not come from true faith is sin (Romans 14:23). To seek Christ is a gift that man is unable to attain on his own, as Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). But part of this drawing is a realization of our own sin and need of reconciliation with God. To seek God with sincerity depends on us first beginning to know ourselves. The soul-searching methods of the world may seem appealing, but they do not reveal the truth to us. What lies in the depths of the human heart is wickedness and deceit. “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3: 14-18).
Our first birth on this earth was of the flesh and it only brings deeds of wickedness. This is why Jesus said you must be born again (John 3:3). Repent and believe in Jesus Christ, not just for an escape from Hell, but for an escape from what lies in your heart, and seek Christ for his own sake. As the incarnate God who came to earth to save his people, he deserves all your praise.