An Honest Assessment of ‘Good’ People

World Challenge Staff

Although they obviously never met, Sigmund Freud, agnostic and slightly demented psychologist, agreed on one point with the eminent theologian John Wesley: people are terrible.

Freud made an admirable, life-long habit of responding personally in letters to anyone who wrote him, even if they were not a fan. Pastor Oskar Pfister was a friend of Freud’s, but he also qualified as a critic. While he agreed with some of Freud’s psychoanalytic philosophies, others disturbed him.

In one such letter, Freud was responding to one of Pfister’s books, commenting on his “enthusiasm” and “love of humanity.” He then wrote, “One thing I dislike is your objection to my 'sexual theory and my ethics'. The latter I grant you; ethics are remote from me, and you are a minister of religion. I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is 'good' about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash…”

John Wesley, it would seem, had a similarly dim view of humanity when he wrote about the torments that nature and animals suffer at our hands. “The lion, the tiger, or the shark, gives them pain from mere necessity, in order to prolong their own life; and puts them out of their pain at once: But the human shark, without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice; and perhaps continues their lingering pain till, after months or years, death signs their release.”

A self-proclaimed “godless” psychologist said that he’d witnessed almost no ‘good’ in people, and a reverent, God-fearing pastor called people “human sharks.” Not only that, but both would’ve agreed that this warped bent in people is evident from the very beginning of life; even the newest infant expresses this depraved human genome.

That’s not exactly a glowing review of humanity from the two sources we might hope would take a more benign view of us. The difference between them, though, was that Freud only saw ways to alleviate the symptoms; Wesley saw a cure.

Making Sin and the Bible Friends

Christianity gets a lot of grief for having the audacity to claim that every single person, no matter how well-behaved, is a sinner. When you get down to brass tacks, though, almost any honest agnostic or believer will admit that something is terribly wrong with humanity. All the old horrors about vampires and zombies were born out of this dim recognition of dreadful ‘wrongness’ inside humanity. There’s a rotten smell in the room, a relentless scratching on the wrong side of the basement door, but only a few of us will admit in a rare moment of truth that it’s our own tell-tale hearts. 

Some of us want to defend the disease by supposing it gives us some kind of benefit. “I’m glad we had sex before we got married because it helped me realize that I wasn’t really in love with him/her and we just weren’t compatible.” Or “I have much more profound conversations and evangelize more effectively when I’ve had a few drinks or a little marijuana.” Or “I’m not being selfish right now; it’s called self-care.”

“It’s possible to sit under the Word of God and actually know what God is speaking — a clear view, as it is— but inside wonder ‘How close to the fence can I come before I’m outside?’” Carter Conlon noted in a sermon. “’How close can I walk to the line before I’m rejected? Do I have to really walk the way God says? Do I have to really do it the way God says that I need to do it? How much do I really need to obey God?’“

Knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily protect us from indulging sin. Carter points out that Satan was created perfect and had “an unhindered view” of God and holy perfection. “But even with the pureness of that light before him, he chose to follow his own reasoning. See, that was the downfall of Satan. He chose another pathway. He believed that he knew a better way…. ‘I can know what is right, and I can know what is wrong. Why do I have to dwell in this narrow place?... I believe I was created for something more than this! I believe I have a destiny to occupy something bigger than what God’s given me to do.’”

Carter sadly noted, “Folks, you see this repeated in the human race over and over again.” We can define morality based on the situation: “Abortion is the correct action in cases of rape or incest.” We are permitted to decide our own gender, regardless of biology: “I feel like a girl, therefore I am, even though I was born a boy.” Our own feelings become the voice of God: “A church leader confronted us about some of our behaviors, so God called us to leave that church.”

Like the narrator in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous story, we far too often glimpse the grotesque reality of our own sins and then turn away to claim, “True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them.”

The Power in Your Heart

Some of us don’t try to excuse our sickness at all. Instead, we eagerly believe that it has been completely (or nearly) cured. If we are already so free from any clutching sins, we can excuse anything we do as the guidance of God.

How else did Korah and 250 leaders in Israel rationalized their rebellion against Moses when they said, “For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3, ESV)? They stood in front of the presence of God, seemingly without the faintest clue that God’s wrath was about to turn them into ash. Even after God’s glory quite literally appeared, burned up the 250 rebels and made the earth crack up to consume their families — You would think that made God’s thoughts on the matter abundantly clear — the people grumbled against Moses, “You have killed the people of the Lord” (Numbers 16:41). They mutinied again and justified it by accusing Moses of murder.

Carter Conlon described it this way: “They were straw-stomping slaves in Egypt, but God brought them out. In that bringing out, giftings were given and leadership ability was imparted by the presence of God to them, and yet there’s an inner corruption. All it took was that strategy of Satan to say, ‘No, no, no…. You were meant for much more than this. You’re in a confined place, but just think of the glory that could be given you! You’re meant to lead. You’re not meant to follow.’

“So here they are with their censors, 250 men of renown, almost inconceivable unless you understand that there’s incredible power in the deceptiveness of the human heart. There’s power in your heart to deceive you! Do you understand? I’m not talking about how some exterior prophet comes into your house and leads you astray. There’s power in your own heart. Each one of us has that inner capability to walk away from God and to develop a scriptural reasoning around it that’s completely corrupted. Keep in mind that it’s the most religious nation on earth that cried out for the death of the Son of God.” 

All the religious leaders ‘needed’ was someone to give them political power and autonomy, more money, more freedom. They didn’t need a Savior for their sins because the sins were already taken care of by their law. They were already perfected, in their minds. Christ alluded to this mentality when he pointed out, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Their claims that sin was no longer an issue for them had left them wandering in the dark.

“There is no greater darkness,” Carter Conlon said, “then when that which is inwardly corrupt takes on the covering of religion.”

Transcending the Darkness

We are only free of this deceitful heart that is the shark inside us all — Can’t you almost see its flat, black eyes and endless, hungry striving? — when death finally arrives and hammers a stake into it. In the meantime, we must never lose sight of its cold predatory nature that will follow us all through life.

We might be the most patient and generous soul on earth, but a traitorous nature lurks in our chest. Every motive must be stopped and interrogated at the border between heart and mind. The Cold War rages on, and we relax our guard at our own peril.

Ironically, if we embrace this reality, we are less likely to be shocked when others sin against us or be disillusioned when we ourselves fail. We’re also more likely to be forgiving because we recognize the same dismal potential for destructiveness in ourselves and that God himself has forgiven us for it, over and over again.

As John Wesley joyously wrote about God, “He will have mercy, not because thou art worthy of it, but because his compassions fail not; not because thou art righteous, but because Jesus Christ hath atoned for thy sins.”

The Holy Spirit faithfully urges us away from those base, sinful instincts as we clumsily walk through sanctification. Upon death, the work is complete, and we will see our Father’s face. There and only there lies our eventual cure to the heart of darkness within us all.