There are two ways of seeing humanity and the state and our current condition. These views are both opposed to each other and give different solutions. One view is that humanity can save itself by human means. The other view says that humanity is trapped; we're all broken and have no real hope. The only solution has to come from somewhere bigger than us—from God.
God's view of humanity
At one time in our nation, we would start the day with the Book of Common Prayer's 'Morning Prayer'. The values and assumptions in this prayer dominated our culture's thinking and self-understanding for centuries. Whether it was in churches, Parliament, schools, universities or town halls, everyone knew and said the prayer. Some of the earliest lines read, 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. And the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'
In that prayer, we find a straight and clear recognition of the state of humanity and the underlying problem—our rotten hearts. We need help.
This view from the Bible is given to us from the earliest chapters and runs throughout the biblical narrative. We all have broken hearts which ruin everything. Humanity is unable to save itself and needs God. Without him, there is no hope.
There is another way of seeing humanity—which our culture accepts as truth.
Humanity's view on humanity
It goes something like this: while we may not always be the best we could be, we're certainly not far from the mark. We are generally good. The vast majority of us—apart from one or two particularly bad apples—need a bit of a 'leg up'. We can fix the problem ourselves. We don't need God.
This lie has been around since the beginning and has gripped our culture. Particularly since the second half of the 20th century, this human view has become the norm and established convention.
Our culture has completely bought into the external solutions to fix the internal problems. The opening words of the Second Humanist Manifesto drives this thinking even further. 'No deity will save us. We must save ourselves.' This other way of seeing humanity has seen the rise of the progressive movement as the answer. Self-advancement, self-improvement, self-help are the buzzwords of this movement. It's all about 'self'.
Our culture has completely bought into the external solutions to fix the internal problems.
So, pick your favourite remedy to your problems—meditation, life coaching, well-being exercises, positive thinking, mindfulness or charitable work. For the very keen it might mean a pilgrimage, a religious programme or penance.
But if the problem is internal, our external remedies will not help.
Biblical truth on the human condition
The Bible tells us God's view of humanity's condition. Each of us is contaminated by what is known as original sin. It's not that we're incapable of ever doing anything decent or good. But even these generous acts we do are tainted by flawed motives. So even our very best moments are marred.
Our rotten and deceitful hearts mean we are against God. We all face judgement one day. The verdict: eternally guilty. Jesus' assessment in Matthew 15:18-19 is clear, "What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander."
The word 'defile' is to contaminate or pollute. Imagine one drop of black ink or poison in a glass of pure water. It becomes contaminated—one drop ruins the whole. If our hearts are not clean, what comes out of the mouth is also not clean. None of us is pure; we're all contaminated.
The heart in the Bible is the source of our real character. It's not only our emotions or how we feel. It refers to the true person as they really are—the heart is what makes a person tick. It is the source of our moral and spiritual nature, our reasoning, imagination, purpose and our will. It's what makes me, me.
The heart in the Bible is the source of our real character.
But a closer examination of Jesus' teaching to his disciples in Matthew 15 gives us even more answers. Here in this conversation are the social and religious elite—the Pharisees and Scribes. They criticise Jesus and his disciples. Jewish law demanded external cleanliness. The Pharisees added additional requirements to the original law to make themselves super-spiritual. The charge was simple: "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders, for they don't wash their hands when they eat?" (Matthew 15:2).
That charge went something like this. We can protect ourselves from harmful external influences when we stay clean. Keep yourself pure by making yourself clean by washing and avoiding contamination. If you're clean on the outside, then you'll be clean on the inside. It's a classic human-made solution.
Jesus answers that no amount of external cleansing—no matter how rigorous—can ever clean you on the inside. He then says: "Hear and understand this, that it is not what goes into the mouth, that defiles a person but what comes out of the mouth. This defiles a person." (Matthew 15:10-11).
In other words, it's the filth on the inside that matters. No amount of external washing, self-help, pilgrimage, human rituals or anything else will help. It's like putting a sticking plaster on a severed artery. Follow Jesus' logic. What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Our damaged hearts continually pollute every aspect of our lives. We are all defiled, and we can't fix that.
The solution has eternal consequences
Why does this matter? You may feel like your life is fine as it is, with everything going well. Context always matters. To be defiled in this setting has a reference to God. It carries far greater weight—to be defiled before God is to be unacceptable to the creator and judge of the universe. To be unacceptable is to be cut off from him.
It is an unbearable sentence—bleak and isolated loneliness. To be on the wrong side of God in life is bad enough. To be on the wrong side of God at death on the day of judgement is to face eternity in unbearable, pitiful, painful, unending torment.
This teaching is hard for us to hear. It was hard for the Pharisees when they heard it from Jesus—they were offended! (Matthew 15:12). But Jesus' teaching is both firm and clear: "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit." (Matthew 15:13-14)
This whole system of human-made religion is trying to make ourselves acceptable by protecting us from pollutants on the outside. Jesus' verdict is stark on that line of thinking. It's all rotten to the core—it can achieve absolutely nothing and God is going to root it up. Your self-help guru? They're a blind guide who will lead you into a pit.
The Morning Prayer says: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. God's truth is not in us". As Christians, let's pray we would be saved from blind guides who teach or offer solutions other than God alone rescuing his people.
The only solution is the Lord Jesus Christ. Our perfect saviour who was obedient to God and lived in a way that pleased him. By dying on that cross and taking the punishment for our sin, God has poured out his Holy Spirit into his people. While we're not perfect, our hearts are renewed day by day by his grace. One day we'll be made perfect. It's a beautiful truth.