Chapter 3: HUMANITY
Why human beings are at once so glorious and so broken. Why we long for more. Why our story contains some very bad news.
They wheeled the small, painfully white coffin out of the sanctuary and into the street. My pastors and I followed the hearse through the unpaved roads to a small cemetery.
The boy had only been two years old.
There was no grass, just dirt, and the shovels the men were using to dig the grave rang on the rocks. All of them were dressed in their best clothes–collared shirts, pants, a tie. When the sweat began to show on their backs they’d hand the shovel off to another waiting worker. The mother simply wailed until she was breathless. The father drove his fist into the dirt, again, and again.
Those of us not from the small Mexican town stood to the side, heads bowed. I don’t think we could think of anything else to do. Those close to the family openly wept with a ferocity I’d never seen before. Often we in America weep a fraction of what we feel—with soft sobs at quiet funerals. But at this funeral they didn’t restrain their grief—it rolled down their faces and poured out of their mouths.
The boy’s parents worked at a Christian home for orphans. His parents loved God and loved helping the kids at the ranch. The director of the ranch was a friend of our church. Churches all around the country sent kids to serve at the ranch throughout the year. Things were good at the ranch––kids were being helped and healed. And yet, this boy was being buried.
Almost from birth the boy had fought cancer and other physical ailments. He endured terrible pain when his body turned against itself, and more pain during treatment. When Jair’s parents couldn’t afford a surgery, the money would unexpectedly appear. There would be good news. Followed by bad news. Followed by another surgery. Until, at age two, death took him.
At the funeral, they played music. The songs were about Jesus and his goodness. They were sung with dead earnestness. Carlos, a pastor in nearby Juarez, didn’t try to pretend this wasn’t a nightmare for the family and friends. But he preached hope to all gathered.
The wind whipped around us as we watched the casket lowered from the hearse, lowered over the ground. They held it there for a long moment. Then it sank slowly.
There have been few times in my life I’ve known anything so clearly as when I stood in the dirt watching Jair’s casket be lowered into the hole they’d dug.
This is what I knew: This should never have happened.
Fathers shouldn’t dig a child’s grave. Mothers shouldn’t scream their lungs out at a casket. Something with this world has gone very, very wrong.
In the Image of an Infinite God
One of the problems we have with understanding the true gospel is truly understanding the problem with humanity. We get too used to the world we live in. Things that should not be normal become normal. We have religious categories for the world—little boxes we put the events of the world in. But these boxes can keep us from truly seeing what’s around us. We need to see it all—the good, the bad, the beautiful, the cruel—if we’re to see correctly.
Here's what I desperately need you to see: Humanity is at once both far more glorious than we think and far more broken than we think.
The first chapter of Genesis tells us many things about God: That he is sovereign and infinite and creator and good. But it also tells us something amazing about ourselves: "Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…. So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27)
But what does that mean? To be in the image of something, means to be like it, to reflect it, to be made in a similar pattern. Now this doesn't mean we are the same thing as God—we've already been over the Creator/creature chasm. What it does mean is that in our being, we bear resemblance to God, that there are things about us that correspond and reflect the infinite God of the universe.
It means that there is something of the glorious Ft. Davis skies about us all. That when we rightly stand in awe of God, we learn that we are a tiny tiny tiny reflection of Him. This glory doesn't come from ourselves, it comes from the fact that God is glorious and we reflect him.
Religion goes off the rails when we downplay how gloriously good God's design for humanity was. So much of religion and human effort is spent trying to "elevate" humanity, to make it divine, to make it amazing. But humanity is already amazing. In fact, humanity's design is far more amazing than many religions or systems of philosophy dare to hope.
Here's an example: Women spent decades just trying to find their dignity acknowledged in the public sphere—even legally. This is grieving. But it illustrates the problem: if women find their value in society's acceptance of them, they’re subject to the norms of the society. If their value is tied to something that fickle, there's reason to fear. But if their value is tied to something unchanging, then it can never truly be taken away. When rightly understood, the Bible says women (and men, and all human beings for that matter) have inherent dignity and worth that can’t be taken away by society. Human beings are made in the image of God and in this there is glory. God said he made them “male and female…in his image” meaning both have unique dignity value and worth.
This image of God is why humanity is amazing: It is why we could sail around the world in wooden ships, it is why we could launch rockets out of our own atmosphere, it is why we cured diseases that consumed whole generations, it is why our hearts thrill watching someone new break the 100m sprint record. Even feeding the baby a bottle, cooking dinner, playing music, and doing taxes we have something of God's image about us.
Humanity is extraordinary because it bears the very fingerprints of God.
An Image Shattered
But what about the rest of our human experience? What about the pain of breakups and the pain of deep poverty and the frustration of a simple 9-5 job?
What about graves for two-year-old children?
If we were created so perfect, what has gone so wrong?
The Bible has an answer we don't like. And here's where religious teaching often flinches. The answer, it seems, is just too uncomfortable and too unacceptable and too offensive to be true.
But this is what the Bible says: The problem with the world is us.
There’s an old story that a British newspaper once sent out a question to several authors and writers with the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” The paper wanted essays from different perspectives. But one well-known author, G.K. Chesterton simply responded with the following: “Dear sir, I am.” Chesterton meant that we often want to find the problem with the world outside us but the real problem is staring us in the mirror.
We are the problem. Humanity has wrecked everything. And we can't fix it.
In the familiar third chapter of Genesis we see that old Sunday school scene with a snake and shiny red apple and laugh. But that garden was humanity's Chernobyl. Evil entered the world God had made in the form of a snake but we know it was Satan—an angel created to serve God that had rebelled. He comes to earth to try to wreck what God has done.
But we should have been immune. Our first parents Adam and Eve had every good thing in the garden. They were glorious. They had all they needed. They walked with God. But Satan tempted them with more than fruit. He said that if they ate the fruit they would "be like God" that God was holding out on them and that they should seize the reigns of the universe themselves (Genesis 3:5).
In that moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God, defying his good rule. But they also sought to displace God from his throne. This was no peaceable separation; it was an act of war. And a perfectly holy God opposed to sin had to act.
In that moment, the world shattered. You see the carnage everywhere in those first chapters of Genesis: Adam and Eve are suddenly filled with shame and hiding from God (Genesis 3:8). The guy singing love songs a page earlier is blaming his wife on the next page (Genesis 3:12). The good act of bearing offspring is filled with pain (Genesis 3:16). The creation itself begins to turn against humanity (Genesis 3:18). The good act of work is corrupted and frustrated (Genesis 3:19). One of Adam's sons kills in cold blood the next son because of jealousy (Genesis 4:8).
All of this because humanity embraced sin and rebellion in the garden. But we can’t be self-righteous. After all, we make the same choice all the time.
Romans 1:18-25 brings blunt honesty to our situation: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men….For [God's] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
All of us, whether born in New Delhi or New Hampshire, see God's fingerprints all over the universe. We can't make excuses that we don’t know there was a Creator or that we’re accountable to him. The best we can do is suppress what we know deep down. And because of our sin God's wrath, meaning his just punishment, is progressively being revealed against humanity.
If God is perfectly good and perfectly sovereign he can’t allow sin to continue unpunished.
While we're on earth one of the ways God exercises his justice is in letting us experience the consequences of sin. The phrase "therefore God gave them up" is devastating. It means God removes his restraining hand and allows our sin to wreck the world. But the Bible also tells us that once we die and face judgment there's far more justice yet to come. The nature of God requires his infinite, terrible, wrath against sin.
The Deeper Problem
But what exactly is sin? The Bible defines "sin" as either doing the evil God commands us not to do, or not doing the good God commands us to do. It means that if we know even the basics of biblical teaching and we commit adultery or envy we're sinning. It also means that if we don't show compassion and mercy we're sinning. And we all sin. Every single one of us. We're all implicated in the destruction of the world.
How bad is sin really? It's worse than we can imagine. We are so used to living with it that we're desensitized. But I shared the story of the young boy’s funeral to make a point: sin's effects are absolutely devastating. If that cancer and that grief are the outworking of our sin, if they are the result of sin, then how terrible must sin truly be? We can't fully grasp how offensive sin is to God, but we can grasp how horrific its consequences are. If we could grasp how morally offensive sin was to God even the horrific symptoms would pale in comparison.
In the Old Testament God requires the people to sacrifice the blood of animals when they sin, even though this blood can’t take away their sin. Why? It was meant to point to several things but one important one was that he wanted his people to see the terrible state of the universe. Sin equals death. It was true for them, for their nation, for the world around them. The universe groans under the weight of sin and death and so do we.
This isn't easy, but we must grasp this if we're going to get the gospel.
Here's the problem with many religious views of humanity, even views that call themselves "Christian": They make us out to be better than we are. Now that's hard to believe especially since we often view religious people as the folks you don't invite to really good parties out of fear they're going to kill the vibe. But they all contain the subtle and slippery idea that if we just do a few certain things we'll put this all back together.
Here's one of the deadliest lies: We can dig ourselves out of this hole.
Every religious worldview must answer the questions "What is wrong with the world?" and "How can it be fixed?" Many contain some variation to the acknowledgment that, really, we are basically the problem with the world––either us individually or us collectively or our society, etc. Then they prescribe some three or five or hundred step process to get it right. For some people the cure for the world is found in all of us buying incense and breathing deeply. For others, the cure is making sure no one drinks, smokes, or sleeps around, because--God forbid-- all that could lead to dancing. For most people in America, I think if we're honest, we sort of make up our own moral code that we try to live by (strong on stuff we're good at, a little more permissible about gluttony or pornography).
I once took a college class where the professor's whole argument was in essence that if we stopped eating meat and milk products altogether the world would be fixed. Without eating meat we'd have a deeper connection to the innate divinity inside us. Wars would cease. We'd be healthy. We'd see a golden age. Now look, I'm a fan of taking care of our bodies, and of the earth, and of our animal friends, but I’m not naive enough to think being a vegan is going to cure cancer or stop wars in the Middle East.
Why do we do this? We continue this path of self-made religion? Why does every generation spin off religions and sects and cults? We believe that our steps will lead us to being restored to God. We believe if everyone followed our steps we'd all get along and have peace. We believe if everyone followed our steps the world would be good again. We believe that somehow, someway, we can get back to the garden where everything was perfect. But we can’t deal with the sin that shattered the garden in the first place.
For all of us, religious and non-religious alike, Paul unloads the following string of Old Testament quotations in Romans 3:10-12 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” For all our efforts, Paul says, we're all corrupted by sin and can't please God.
The Test Results We Don’t Want
But what about trying to follow the Ten Commandments? What about people trying to follow God's laws laid out in the Old Testament? If we do that will we fix the world? Romans 3:19-20 says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
The law of God is good. It reveals what God is like. It resets our moral compass to the true moral compass of the universe. It shows us that things we think are okay are really not okay. But ultimately the purpose of the law is to give us "knowledge" of our sin.
The law is like a set of lab tests to prove to an unruly patient that surgery is necessary. The doctor says he has gangrene. The patient claims his arm is feeling fine. The doctor prescribes a set of tests to show the patient is in denial, starting with a sight test ("Is it gross looking?") and the smell test ("Is it putrid?") moving on to blood work and lab results. Eventually the patient can’t deny it anymore. He has a serious problem and something must be done, even something radical.
That's the law: It's meant to show us how bad our condition is and to show us that ultimately we can't do enough good simply to cover over the bad.
In many ways, the scene at the funeral in the desert is a perfect picture of humanity's condition: There is still goodness and glory about us in the love shown to the family, in the arms around shoulders and the tears of sympathy. But there is a ravaging disease we cannot stop for all our skill and effort.
And yet, there is hope.
There was hope even in the Garden as God foreshadowed a son of the woman that would come to put things right (Gen 3:15).
Help was on the way.