In the first century, Hebrews believed that they would be defiled by the things they ate. In the twenty first century, many Americans believe that people are generally good, and they learn to be prejudiced and hateful from their environment. I hadn’t seen the parallel until I spent some time meditating on the following words Jesus spoke to his first century audience:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” …. Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” …. And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”Mark 7:15, 18, 19, 20-23 ESV
Modern Americans may not agree with the list of evils Jesus mentions here, nor would they agree with ancient Hebrews’ list of evils, but I find it interesting that they might both generally agree, perhaps, on the source of evil – coming from outside the person. Modern Americans popularly believe that all people are good, that we only learn to be bad. It’s pressure from outside of us that influences us to do evil things.
Jesus said that isn’t true. It’s what comes from within us that defiles us. Jesus might have been echoing the Prophet, Jeremiah, when he said the human heart is deceitful (and “desperately sick”). (Jer. 17:9) We fool ourselves when we think that we are basically good.
James says, “[E]ach person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire …” (and, “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin….”). (James 1:14-15) Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13), and all people have sinned and fallen short. (Rom 3:23) The thread of sin runs through all people.
I think that Scripture is correct in this. The human heart tends toward evil. We have to learn to be good. Evil is what comes naturally, but good has to be learned.
But what is the essence of goodness and evil? This is where we find agreement (it’s not good to kill babies for fun) and disagreement (on issues like abortion).
Jesus breaks “being good” down to two things: loving God above all else, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. (Matt. 22:36-40) If these things are the greatest goods, then the greatest evils are what is contrary to them: not loving God and not loving our neighbors.
I think modern Americans can agree about the goodness of loving others, but we tend to reject (or are agnostic about) loving God. Ancient Hebrews generally subscribed to both precepts, but there was a disconnect for them. They got caught up in the commandments (the do’s and don’ts) and didn’t understand that those commandments pointed to something greater. Thus, they focused on what they took into their bodies instead of what came out of their hearts.
Jesus focused on the heart of the matter – human hearts. We would do well to refocus our attention in the twenty first century on human hearts as well, beginning with our own hearts. We search for ultimate truth within ourselves, but the hateful things that we detest in others come from within us also.
I think we get confused when we “look inside” ourselves. God made us in His image, so we see inside us the reflection of God that is imprinted there, but that image of God, who is love (1 John 4:8), is not always what emanates out of us. If we are being honest, our actions and reactions don’t always reflect love.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”1 Corinthians 13:4-7
We often take credit for the image of God that we see in ourselves (even as we fail to see the image of God in others). When we are impatient, unkind, irritable or selfish, we make excuses. “I was having a bad day”; I don’t know what got into me”; “that isn’t like me”. Meanwhile, we are often quick to think of others that they are just “like that”.
Scripture tells us that the human condition is flawed. I think we have to agree (if we are being honest about it). “To err is human.” John simply says that no one is without sin, and if we think we haven’t sinned, we are fooling ourselves. (1 John 1:10)
Not that God made us that way. He imprinted His image in each one of us, but it’s only His reflection, and He gave us the agency to go our own ways. We see His reflection, but we are under no compulsion to walk in God’s way. We also have the ability to value the reflection of God within us without embracing God Himself!
“God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us ….”1 John 4:16-17
Modern Americans tend to think that we can be good by discovering our own godlikeness. We do have the image of God imprinted on our hearts, but the source of that image is not in us. We are like the pool of water reflecting the mountains and the clouds.
We aren’t truly connected to the source of love and goodness until we allow God to abide in us. Sure, we can reflect and imitate the image of God we see without actually being connected to God, but we are just putting on a façade when we do that.
In the first century, Hebrews took for granted that people should love God, but they failed to love their neighbors. Thus, John said to them, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
In the twenty first century, we take for granted that we should love our neighbors, but we tend to reject or ignore God who is the source of love. Thus, we protest (and sometimes riot); we pass laws, and educate, and cajole, condemn and judge; we argue and get self-righteous; we fight against “hate”, and punish and sometimes we get even all in the name of love.
But these things are only a façade of the love that we can see in the image of God within us. We can’t truly love (from the heart) without loving God, because God is love – He is the source of love.
We do need to turn within, to our own hearts, to see the image of God, but God, the source, is transcendent. So Jesus prayed for those would accept him:
“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us …. that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one….”John 17:21-23
We must believe and receive Christ within us, within our hearts, but we don’t receive the God of the universe on our own terms. We have to make room for Him.
We must die to the sinful tendencies within us (those things that emanate from us that fail to love God and love our neighbors) and abide in Christ as he abides in the Father. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he instructed his followers to pick up their crosses and follow him.
Paul boasted, “I die daily.” (1 Cor. 15:31) “Paul saw his life as a daily death to himself” and spoke often of dying to sin (Rom. 6:11; Rom 8:13; Gal. 2:20 (dying to self); Gal. 5:24 (the combination of sin and self that Paul called “the flesh”).
This concept is pretty accurately described in the following Cherokee adage:
“My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
When asked: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
To be sure, the tendency to gravitate toward sin has a corresponding reality outside of us, just as the good we see in us is a reflection of God who is transcendent. The tendency toward sin is represented by the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve. Paul called it “the spiritual powers [elemental spirits][basic principles] of this world” (Col. 2:20).
But we shouldn’t blame the temptation. We are lured and enticed by our own desires. We see the image of God imprinted in us, but we have the ability to go our own way and fail or refuse to recognize and love God who made us. John says that God came to us in human form (Jesus), but we failed to recognize Him. (John 1:11)
Thus, we are tempted to take credit for that imprint, and we refuse to acknowledge or love the One whose majestic reflection we see in our hearts. At the same time, we are tempted to look past the evil (lack of love for God and people) that is also reflected in our hearts.
We identify the evils we see “out there” without recognizing the tendency toward evil within. We judge and condemn those evils we see in the world without making a candid assessment of our own hearts. For this reason, Elie Wiesel said that we will never effectively combat the evils in the world without recognizing that same capacity for evil existing within each of us.
Just as the evil within is a reflection of the evil in the world, so the love we recognize within us is a reflection of love which has its source in God. We are image bearers – bearing both the image of God and the image of evil that stands in opposition to God. Both have a transcendent source outside of us and a corresponding reality we can see within us.
It isn’t the food that we take into us that defiles us, but the evil that we allow to exist and flow out of our hearts. It isn’t just the evil “out there” that we must combat, but the evil within us – the evil that is expressed in our impatience, unkindness, arrogance, irritability, self-absorption, selfishness and sometimes worse.
Unless we are connected to God, the source of love, we are just putting up a façade. We don’t generate love within us. We have to allow God to abide (reside) in us by embracing relationship with Him for that love to become part of us. That means dying to the desires to follow our own way contrary to God, and making room for His presence and leading in our lives.
We do not abide in God, and He does not abide in us, if we think that we are the source of the love that we see reflecting in the image of God in us. Like the mountains and clouds reflecting on a pool of water, the reflection of God that we see is not the real thing: it’s only an image of the real thing. We need God, Himself, to abide in us and take His rightful place as the Lord of our hearts.