After some 6,000 years of human history, I think we should all be able to agree: Humanity has no idea what it’s doing.
There are some who would argue that point, though. And understandably—just look at all we’ve accomplished in six short millennia! We’ve harnessed the power of flight; we’ve created an information superhighway that connects the entire world; we’ve literally eradicated some diseases; we’ve launched objects far beyond the pulls of earth’s own gravitational field to explore the starry abyss of space. Every day brings us into a new age of unrivaled technological and scientific prowess as the smartest men and women on our planet dissect the universe and unravel more and more of its secrets.
And yet…and yet we still have war. It can be easy to forget when we don’t have direct contact with it, but even as you read these words, there are no doubt men, women and children on the front lines of some needless conflict, ending the lives of others before losing their own to a bullet or a blade. We still have shootings. We still have poverty. We still have hunger. We still have greed and oppression and corruption prominent in the highest branches of man’s governing bodies and the smallest of corporations. For all our advances, human nature hasn’t changed at all—we just have bigger, shinier toys to satiate it with.
We may be climbing mountains in the realm of science, but in the world of morality we are flinging ourselves into chasms. As the main antagonist of the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale gleefully remarked, we are simply “committing the oldest sins in the newest ways”—and even a precursory examination of human history agrees. Despite our accomplishments, the fundamental flaws in our nature are as prominent as they ever were.
That’s not a new concept, either. The prophet Jeremiah was inspired thousands of years ago to write, “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). For literally our entire existence, mankind has proven that left to our own devices, we will make life difficult for ourselves. If you’re in need of proof, look at the world around you. Look at governments and bureaucracies. Look at the top news stories of the day. Look at everything that’s going wrong and falling apart because it was built on a system of humanity deciding for itself what works and what doesn’t. Instead of a sturdy mansion on a strong foundation, we’ve wrought for ourselves an elaborate house of cards, ready to collapse at any moment.
A learning curve
When God sent the prophet Isaiah to warn Judah of its impending destruction and to plead for its repentance, He provided a simple checklist of what He wanted to see from His people. You can find it in Isaiah 1:16-17—two simple verses that, if Judah had internalized, might have saved them from obliteration and dramatically rewritten the course of history. While they ignored it and reaped the penalty, we as individuals can choose not to make that same mistake.
Among that checklist is the instruction to “Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17). The wording of this verse is integral to understanding human nature. Notice that God doesn’t instruct, “begin to do good,” which is the logical complement of “cease to do evil.” Instead, the verse tells us to learn to do good. The implication?
Human beings don’t inherently know how to do good.
That one statement flies in the face of almost every self-help book or inspirational poster on the market today. As a society, we’ve convinced ourselves that somewhere, buried deep within ourselves, lie the answers to all our problems—that if we only listen closely enough to our own hearts, we can find the keys to true happiness. The Bible says, no, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). We don’t have the answers we’re looking for, and that very idea ignores that some of history’s greatest atrocities came about from tyrants following the desires of their own hearts.
We must begin by understanding that how to do good is a process we must first learn before we can do.
Just about every course you can take in college is going to have some required reading, usually in the form of an outrageously expensive textbook. The course of learning to do good is no exception, save that the textbook is dirt cheap, available online for free, and you’ll never require an updated edition. Still, if you want to have any idea what you’re doing, you have to read the book. It’s only the most important written work you’ll ever encounter in your entire life, so it’s worth one thousand times over whatever time you invest in studying it.
So, okay. If you’re a seasoned Christian, there’s a good chance that little to none of what I’ve said so far has been particularly earth-shaking for you. You know all this; it’s nothing new. Then here’s something to chew on: Do you and I ever get to the point where we feel we’ve mastered the textbook? Do we feel like we have little, if anything, left to learn about what God says is good?
The chances are good that you have a lot of the course’s material under your belt—a healthy working knowledge of what God says is good and how to apply it. That’s great! The more you understand and do, the better! But remember the Bible’s warning: “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12). We can never afford to get to the point where we feel that we know enough. That we’ve studied enough. If we convince ourselves of that, it’s a short trip to being wise in our own eyes.
Never stop learning
Our textbook has more information in it than we can hope to glean in a thousand million lifetimes. We should always be eager to scour its pages for the wisdom we’ve yet to glean from it—because rest assured, it’s there. The same verse we’ve read a hundred times before can suddenly have whole new facets of meaning when God helps it to click in our minds. There are always new connections to make and principles to understand in greater depth if we’re willing to spend the time to pray for understanding and look for them.
If “it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” then how can we expect to get anywhere? It was King David who called God’s Word “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The more time we devote to understanding God’s way and putting it into action, the clearer and easier it becomes to traverse the path before us.
God’s instructions in Isaiah 1:16-17 aren’t one-time accomplishments. They are goals to continually strive to meet, every minute of every day—because being a Christian isn’t an event, it’s a lifestyle. And so, over the coming days and months and years and decades of our journey toward the Kingdom of God, may we all continue to “cease to do evil, learn to do good.”
Until next time,