So, how bad are we? Now that is a dangerous question. Do we really want to ask that? Imagine putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and doing something outside your comfort zone. Then you turn to someone, someone who is really good at what you just tried and ask them that question. How bad did I do? What if they tell you the truth?! Just a few months ago, I spent a month on basic training. Most of us were middle aged pastors and there were certain things that did not come easy. I often found myself with the question of “How bad are we, really?” ready for our instructors. What stopped me was the fear that they might tell me the truth. What about as Christians? If we were to go to God and ask him: “Now tell me the truth, how bad am I?”, what would he say? There are basically two ideas on this. There are some people who believe that humanity is basically good. Sure some people make some mistakes now and then but as a race, we are pretty good. Human nature is generally compassionate, charitable and peaceable. The exceptions just prove the rule. There are other people who believe that humanity is basically wicked. Left to our own devices, we would tend toward evil, we would seek our own good, no matter who we had to hurt to achieve it. Where is the truth? I would hate to take either extreme, but on a continuum between good and evil, I would say that we would be about three quarters of the way toward evil. Is that being pessimistic? I don’t think so. I am not saying each one of us is a murderer waiting for an opportunity. But as a race, we tend toward evil. Imagine if the government decided that they were going to disband the entire legal system and all police agencies with it. If people wanted to murder, steal or rape, they could do it without any fear of legal repercussions. Do you think society would stay as it is now? Would people still be good without fear of police and jail? We have seen examples, both in Canada and in other countries, where the removal of police and/or law has resulted in complete anarchy. We know that today. But Paul knew that two thousand years ago, even with the Pax Romana, Roman peace enforced by military strength. If the Romans were wondering how bad they really were, Paul had a clear answer for them. The answer is bad. Very bad. Paul pulls together a collection of Old Testament passages to describe how bad humanity is. The fact that Paul uses Scripture to make this point tells us how serious he is about this. Humanity is sinful. But what do we do with this? There have been preachers throughout the years that have used it to make their people feel guilty. We should weep loudly and curl up into the fetal position out of the despair of our wickedness. I don’t think that is healthy. Nor do I think it is good to just pretend everything is okay. I believe there is a positive message that comes out of the knowledge of human wickedness.
Even Playing Field
The first place we need to start is with Paul’s purpose for writing this passage. It is not as if Paul was feeling cranky and so he decided that he would vent by expressing the evil of humanity. What we find here is closely connected with what came before and leads in nicely to what he will say later. What has Paul been saying? Paul has demonstrated that the Gentiles, despite natural revelation (that is what we learn about God from nature), have disobeyed God and have sinned. In the same way, Paul has demonstrated that the Jews, despite special revelation (that is the Law revealed to Moses), have disobeyed God and have sinned. In some ways, this passage is summing up all that has gone on before. Basically the only people who are sinners are those who are Jewish and those who are non-Jewish. So what, if everyone is a sinner? In the case of the church at Rome, it removes any boasting or condemnation between groups who think they are better than others. You can almost imagine a parent between two fighting children and then screaming “You’re both wrong!” This is what Paul is saying. Forget the fighting, everyone is sinning and no one has a place from which to either boast or condemn. This is just as relevant today. Name a group that Christians may want to attack. Atheists? If we were honest, all of us at some point have lived as if God did not exist. Muslims? Christians have abused religion as much as Muslims and there are fanatics in every group. Homosexuals? Jesus says that even to look upon someone with lust is to commit a sexual sin. This does not mean we cannot speak to truth issues or teach upon biblical values. But it does mean we cannot feel superior as if we were righteous and the other people are the dirty sinners. Paul reminds us that we are all sinners.
A self-righteous attitude can be used to condemn other people but it can also be used build oneself up in an unhealthy way. A few good successes, victories and accomplishments and you can feel pretty good about yourself. That is not to say that it is wrong to feel good after succeeding at something you put your mind to. But it is very easy to lose perspective. Soon you can see all of your strengths and none of your weaknesses. This is true of individuals and of societies. In the nineteenth century, there was a tremendous feeling of optimism. Technology had greatly improved in the areas of industry, transportation and communication. There was a feeling that society could overcome every obstacle if we just applied reason and rational investigation. It was at that time that people began to call for the end of religion. The thought was that in the nineteenth century we were so technologically advanced that science would easily replace religion as our source of hope. Of course today we have much greater technology and yet not only is religion alive and well, there is much less optimism among people. What happened? World War One. Just before World War One, many people thought we were at the dawn of a golden age. However, World War One saw 15 million killed and 20 million wounded. Human intelligence that was supposed to end war, ended up inventing the technology that allowed armies to kill more people, faster. This shattered the optimism of previous decades and the wars that took place during the rest of the twentieth century confirmed this. What does this mean? Before we get too prideful at our accomplishments, we need to remember human sinfulness. This is true on an individual level as well. How many times have we seen people successful in their careers, people who have all the right gifts, and who have a moral failure and lose their families? Sometimes success can make us feel invincible. A reminder of human sinfulness can bring some much needed perspective. Enjoy those successes and accomplishments, but just remember there is some sinfulness always just below the surface waiting to wreck your celebration.
Longs For Grace
Is this depressing? Does it bother you that the only thing we have in common with the rest of the human race is that we are all sinners? Does it bother you that we cannot enjoy the pride that comes with being really good at something because our strength is matched by our weakness? This is not meant to be depressing. But it should help us see our limitations. This could get depressing only if this was the end of the story. It would be a sad story if the sum total of human existence was sin, sin, sin. But that is not the end of the story. The picture that Paul gives us here is of a humanity who cannot make it on its own. There is no picking ourselves up by our bootstraps in order to overcome evil. We cannot will ourselves out of the problem of human evil. This message of human wickedness is not meant to make us feel hopeless but to push us into God’s grace. Let us face it, we ill never be perfect enough for God’s standards. Unless God has a way of bypassing our sinfulness and granting us life aside from religious accomplishment, we are doomed. There is a way and that is the grace of God. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and we can receive the benefits of that sacrifice. However, those benefits are not received by being good enough. God’s grace means that it is a gift of God, something that is not earned. However, unless we understand human wickedness, we are never going to want God’s grace. In most areas of life we value things more if we have earned them rather than being given them. What is better, to earn a gold medal in the Olympics or to have some athlete just give you one? It goes against our nature to value what is free. But if we realize there is no possibility to earn God’s salvation, there is no climbing out of the pit of human wickedness. Then, we might be willing to receive his free gift.
So, how bad are we? Really, don’t hold back, tell it like it is. Pretty bad. Wicked. Evil. We might not feel evil. We might not think of ourselves as particularly wicked. But there is no place in our life that is not touched by sin. It is not about depth but of breadth. The entire human experience has been corrupted. But it is not all bad news. Sinfulness is the lot of all humanity. There is the potential for some compassion and tolerance here when we realize that we are no better than those other people. We are all in the same boat. The understanding of human sinfulness can bring some much needed perspective to our life and to our society. There is much that we can accomplish with our knowledge and skills. But we dare not let that develop into pride. Human wickedness is always just under the surface. Let that knowledge bring balance to the rest of life. Finally, accept the fact that we are sinful. We might not be deeply evil. But at some level, we are corrupted and we will never be able to achieve moral perfection. Thankfully, God is offering us grace. But this grace is something that we will accept only once we have surrendered self-reliance. The only way for a sinful people to be reconciled to a holy God is through the perfect sacrifice that is offered to us as an undeserved gift. I would suggest that we accept that gift.