Truth and lies about humanity

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What we believe affects how we live.  We’ve seen in previous discussions that we can choose to believe either truth or lies about God, Creation, humanity and New Creation.

We can choose to believe either the truth that God is good, love, sovereign, holy, eternal or we can believe that God is unloving, weak, finite and therefore not good. Similarly, we can believe that the creation around us good and order, created by the good and great God, made for us to fill and to subdue or we can choose to believe that it is a world of permanent chaos, that it is either itself eternal or that it came about by chance, the accidental by-product of warring gods or selfish genes.  The conclusions we come to about those things will affect the decisions we make about life.

So, let’s start to identify some of the lies we can believe about humanity.  First of all, we can believe that just like the rest of creation, we are here by chance, that we are the accidental by-product of our genes or of battles between gods.  Alternatively, we can believe that we are in effect robots subject to fate.  You will notice that both of those views about humanity also relate to our understanding of God and the world around us.  The first presents us with gods that are near (our genes in effect become god because they are in charge of our destiny) but are weak and limited. The second presents us with the distant, all powerful but unknowable God.

We can choose to believe that humanity is at heart evil and that we are the problem. Increasingly, we hear those at the radical end of environmentalism arguing that we are in effect a parasite on the planet and that plagues, natural disasters and pandemics are the planet’s way of controlling, culling or even getting rid of the parasite.

However, another equally dangerous lie that has been increasingly propagated over the past few hundred years is that humanity is at its heart, in and of itself primarily good and that we as human beings are in effect invincible. Of course, we may face our challenges along the way but through a mixture of scientific progress and our underlying concern for the well-being of each other we will get through the challenges we face in order to create  a better world for our children and grandchildren.

The lies we tell and believe about ourselves therefore push us to one or other extreme either to an overconfidence in our own abilities or a belittling of humanity.  We can either see ourselves as no more than animals, brute beasts with the ability to make fire or we can see ourselves as gods, in control of our own destinies.

What we believe about ourselves in general also extends to what we believe about ourselves in particular.  How do you see yourself?  Do you see yourself as essentially good? Do you carry with you an optimism that you will be able to get through the day and the week ahead able to overcome whatever difficulties you might face? Do you see yourself as in some way entitled to expect the respect of others and that good should come your way?  Of course, no-one would put it those crude narcissistic terms. However, take a moment just to think back even on the last few days or week? What was your reaction when things didn’t go well and when others didn’t show you respect?  Was there frustration, anger, resentment, disbelief? What about when you did get treated well by others, given gifts, helped where you needed it, showered with praise. Was your response one of surprise, thankfulness and gratitude or did you see those reactions as the least you could expect?

Then there are those of us who tend more towards a form of self-pity. Instead of carrying with us a sense of entitlement and over confidence, we tend to see ourselves in negative terms. Do you see yourself as likely to fail?  Is your natural instinct to assume that the world is against you, the universe is angry with you and that God could not possibly love you?

Now, most of us won’t hit the extremes. Indeed, we would see the outer extremes at both ends as suggesting that there is something wrong with a person, either indicating a mental health crisis or a personality disorder.  Indeed, there is a likelihood that we will be bombarded with mental thoughts and images, our own self-talk and what others are saying to us including family, friends, the media each day so that we might move across the spectrum switching between a sense of entitlement that I deserve good things and a leaning towards self-pity regarding myself as a failure and underserving.

As with our understanding of who is God and how we got here, our doctrines of God and of creation, it is important that we turn to the Bible, to special revelation from God’s Word to understand who we are and to discover truth.  John Calvin argued that there are really, two important things for us to know in order to live well, God and ourselves. Right at the start of his seminal work, Institutes on the Christian Religion, he says:

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”[1]

You will see there, that not only do we need to know these two things but that there are linked. One tells us about the other. So, if I start to look at my own life and discover the truth about who I am, then that truth will point me back towards the creator in whose image I was made.

“For in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.” [2]

  However, if I am truly to know myself then I need to look at and learn about God. 

“On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until have 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 which the application of which this conviction can be produced.” [3]

Calvin would also be clear in his methodology that the way in which we discover these truths is not through psychological introspection or philosophical speculation but through Scripture. That is the place where the creator reveals the truth about himself and about us, the creature. 

It is in Scripture that we discover the truth about us.  We will discover that we are made in God’s image.  There is goodness there. We will discover that we have a purpose, we were made to fill and subdue this earth and that we have a hope and destination, we were made for eternity.  We will also however discover that not only are we fallen like creation but that we are the cause of that fall. We are sinners and this means that outside of Christ, we are dead in our sin.  We will see something of our selfishness and the danger we cause to others.

The good news is that the hope we have discovered remains, hope of a future in eternity, of resurrection and that hope arises out of the Gospel.  So, in knowing ourselves, we need to hear the vital truth that God himself became a man in the person of Jesus. Therefore, if we want to see what perfect, unblemished humanity should look like, then we need to look on Christ.  The truth that brings good news is that Christ’s death and resurrection gives us new life and reconciles us to God with a renewed purpose to fill the earth with worship of God as we make disciples from every nation.  The truth is that God does not leave us to get by on own but that believers in Christ are filled with the holy spirit and are knitted together into one body, the church.

Knowing this truth is what enables us to live as we were intended to. It helps us to navigate the twin dangers of self-centred self-confidence and self-centred self-pity. It is what enables us to live good lives.  It is what enables us to find real happiness as we enjoy and glorify God.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.1. (Beveridge, 1:37).

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.1. (Beveridge, 1:37).

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.2. (Beveridge, 1:38).

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