4 Things to Know About Human Nature

What drives us? 

In November of 2017, Devin Kelley walked into a small church in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas, and shot and killed 26 parishioners. Though all of the mass shootings grip my heart, this one especially shocked and horrified me, because I grew up in Northeast Texas. The slaughter of men, women, and even children, is simply heart-wrenching. What in the world could have driven this man to commit such carnage? What makes one human violently take the life of another?

What drives people to do what they do? Understanding human motivation leads us back to some of the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

And what drives you and me? What are the deep-seated feelings, needs, and beliefs that make us say this and not that, choose this job, marry that person, follow that path?

To answer these questions, we must journey outside the realm of science. Science can observe and quantify data; it can tell us some facts about human behavior patterns. But it cannot really answer the biggest questions about the human psyche, such as truth about origin, meaning, morality, or destiny. Truth, it turns out, is much more than science.

My Beliefs About Man

My personal quest for truth has led me around the block a few times and back to faith in the God of the Bible. For the last two decades, I’ve grappled with the biblical teachings about man. What do they mean? At the same time, I’ve been challenged by the experiences I observe in my therapy clients. I would like to use this post to unfold my present understanding of the nature of man. What I have come to is a synthesis of biblical teachings and my own observation after coming face to face and soul to soul with other humans. Here are four ideas for consideration:

1. We are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27, Gen. 5:1-2, Gen. 9:6, James 3:9, Matt. 5:22).

I don’t know exactly what this means, but I know it makes us treasures of the most spectacular value, like sparkling gemstones that only millionaires can afford.

The Bible shows us our worth in part by illustrating how we ought not to treat each other. For instance, murder or cursing a brother are outlawed.

Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood will be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” Murder violates the sanctity of human life. We have no right to destroy each other.

James 3:9 says, “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God.” To curse our fellow man is a grave sin. We can see how, despite the corruption that spread through mankind as the result of the Fall, God still deems us as having profound worth.

Matthew 5:22 says, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” This seems like a harsh judgment against calling others names in irritation, and we could debate the meaning of this passage, but what I think it shows us is how respectfully we are called to treat our fellow man.

In summary, it seems as if our treatment of each other ought to mirror our reverence for God Himself.

Have you been treated like trash instead of a treasure?

Many of us have been treated by others, even our own families, in a way that does not honor the image of God in us. Some of us have had scathing insults hurled at us that left us feeling worthless. Others of us have been physically harmed, even by those who were supposed to care for us. Still others have been violated sexually in the most intimate of ways that deeply confuses our sense of ourselves.

Please hear this: such abuse and injustice offends God’s good father heart. God knows our worth, even when others or we ourselves forget it. Affronts to our personhood are affronts to God’s own holiness, since we are created in His image. If your selfhood has been wounded, God wants you to experience healing.

One of the primary ways God heals is through relationships with others who see our inherent beauty and treat us with respect. Therapy can be a great place to experience this.

(Please contact me if you are interested in going on a journey of therapy to experience healing from a wounded selfhood. (626) 351-9616 ext. 143 or email me at jennifer.camareno@laviecounseling.org.)

Going back to Devin Kelley, the brutal gunman in Texas, we have to ask, what value did other human beings have in his eyes? If he placed his own agenda, whatever it may have been, over and above these human lives, what does that tell you?  We see how he dehumanized the men, women, and children he slaughtered. He did not uphold the image of God in them.

2. We are obsessed with our identity.

Let’s get to observation #2: as humans, we want to know who we are. We get caught up with two complimentary questions, “Who am I?” and, “Am I enough?”

We want to know who our parents were, what we’re good at, each of our personal quirks. In short, we are obsessed with our own identities or our sense of self.

And one fascinating aspect of humanity that is clear to me is our obsessive need to see ourselves as good. Nothing matters to us, at the end of the day, so much as this question. And…most of us don’t. Our shame consumes many of us and leads us to live lives of self-protection, often putting up masks to hide our true selves.

I think our deep need to know who we are speaks of God’s image in us, because it points us to Him. Our drive to know who we are can lead us to find the fullness of our identity in our relationship with Him.

The band Gungor produced an amazing song that illustrates our desperate need to know who we are. Watch it here.

When we look at the little we know of Devin Kelley, there is a lot of evidence he was drowning in his own shame. Journalists have highlighted evidence that Kelley’s brutality was motivated by a domestic dispute. Consider how badly a person must feel about himself to indiscriminately slaughter congregants at your parents-in-law’s church. Almost certainly, the hatred and rage seething inside of Kelley were an outflow of seeing himself as scum.

3. Prior to Christ, we are dead in our sin. (Romans 6, Ephesians 2).

The third concept I have come to accept as part of our humanity is our sinfulness. While I think humans wrestle with sin and brokenness throughout our lives, prior to knowing Christ, sin actually shapes our very nature. Prior to being adopted into the family of God, sin is a big part of what makes us tick.

Ephesians describes what happens when we put our faith in Christ as a transformation from death to life. Without Christ, we are dry bones without a pulsing heart, crunchy brown leaves on winter streets. Because our sin has separated us from the source of life, we cannot be fully who we were meant to be while in this state. We are shells of people, grasping for some sort of meaning or significance in a harsh and confusing world.

Other descriptors are used of our state prior to Christ – we are under the law (Rom. 7), and in the “flesh” (Gal. 4).

Being “under the law” has to do with seeking our salvation through being good enough. The law referenced is specifically the Law of Moses, given by God in the Old Testament to raise up a holy people unto Himself. The Law of Moses was infinitely detailed and nit-picky and dealt out harsh punishments to those who failed to obey its demands. Some people think that in the Old Testament, people were actually saved by obeying the Law of Moses, but this is quite misguided. Salvation was always by faith (see Gal. 3:11). Nonetheless, as time elapsed, the Jews around the time of Jesus and Paul came to think of intricate obedience to the Law as the answer to all their problems – salvation, as it were.

Nowadays, most of us don’t actually try to follow the Mosaic Law to a tee. But we might bust our butts trying to be “enough”. We might slave away trying to create a certain image of ourselves. We might fret and overanalyze what people are thinking of us, yearning to gain others’ approval. We might lay our heads on our beds at night worried that God thinks we should be doing more. This is a fearful way to live, because how do we ever know if we have made the cut? The perfectionists among us know that no job is ever done well enough – can I get an amen?!

The “flesh” refers to our self when it is devoid of God’s Spirit. It’s just me trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps. I might do this by trying to be a goody-goody and follow the law perfectly… Or I might live out of the flesh in the sense that I throw the moral law to the wind, give in to all my evil, base desires and live a lifestyle full of excess and destructive to all.

The law and the flesh go together. If we put ourselves under any kind of “law” that we must follow to feel like we’re “good enough”, we are living out of our flesh.

Tim Keller speaks of how sin makes us grasp desperately for an identity:

Sin is a willingness to throw anybody else under the bus to justify yourself. Sin is justifying yourself at the expense of other people, to feel superior to other people. In order to have a self-image, I have to feel superior to other people. I have to expose other people. I have to exploit other people. Sin is saying, “Your life to enhance mine,” not “My life to enhance yours.”…

“Your life to enhance mine. I will suck you dry. I will drain you dry. I will disadvantage you so I can feel good about myself, so I can justify myself, so I can have the significance and security I want.”

Returning once again to the sad saga of Devin Kelley, it’s not much of a leap to say he was operating out of evil, base motivations. As Kelley’s shame consumed him, he acted in desperation and elevated self as center of his universe. He set his own agenda over the needs of anyone else, and over the preciousness of human life.

4. When we believe in Christ, God makes us new creatures with a new identity.

The fourth thing I believe about human nature is that our identity is radically transformed when we come to know God – and to be known by Him.

When we let go of our own frantic attempts to build an identity with Self at the center of the universe, when we put our faith in Christ rather than ourselves, God renews us from the inside out. He actually gives us the nature of Jesus. With our new “Jesus identity”, the same things that happened to Jesus apply to us. Just as Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected, so those things describe us! As Jesus is a Son of God, so we ourselves become sons and daughters of God, as if we had God’s own DNA.

Ezekiel 11 prophesies in vs. 19-20:And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”

The image of stone to flesh is powerful (and completely separate from the discussion of “flesh” in Paul’s writings! These two uses of “flesh” mean totally different things.) God foretold how He will make the dead, stone-cold hearts of His people into living, responsive human hearts. It is the great transformation from death to life. These hearts naturally walk in love and mercy.

It’s important to understand, however, that when God transforms us, it’s not a fully automatic work of God that happens while we watch and wave from the sidelines. Rather, for transformation to be realized, we co-labor with the Holy Spirit by actively listening to and believing God’s words about who He is and who we are. We have to let His words sink deep into our hearts like a tender plant growing deep roots, protected and nurtured over time. Letting God change how we think about things, lining our thoughts up with His reality, is key to experiencing the fullness of our new selves in Christ. We must actively “renew our minds” (Rom. 12:2).

Understanding our part in sanctification helps us grasp why so many so-called Christians continue to act “worldly” – seeking their identity in all the wrong places, using and manipulating other people to feel better about themselves. We all know Christians like this, and wish we didn’t. Although God is fully available and waiting to cultivate the new life inside of us, it is definitely possible to stall our growth as new creatures by passively allowing worldly philosophies to control our thought processes, will, and desires.

There isn’t much evidence to suggest Devin Kelley has had a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. Yet despite the abhorrent nature of his crimes, we know that God offers His mercy to Kelley just as He does to each of us, with open arms and kind eyes full of love. God has the ability to take the self loathing and unbridled hatred in Kelley’s heart and turn it around, replacing it with the gentleness, humility, and compassion of Jesus Himself. Will Kelley give God this opportunity? Only time will tell.

These 4 points outline my musings about human nature and what drives us. Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

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