EVERY CULTURE ASSUMES FACTS about God and man. They are like glasses through which we view life. Most are unaware that they have them on or that the assumptions of other times and places differ. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our cultural lenses are unique, and they are constantly changing.
In recent decades our assumptions about human nature have gone through a radical transformation. David Brooks describes this change in his book The Road to Character—
“Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention… I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary… Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago. The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”[i]
About human nature scripture teaches two main truths. First, “In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God loves his image and likeness, and because we reflect it, we are inherently valuable to him. That is why the sixth commandment reads, “You shall not commit murder” (Exodus 20:13). Respect for God’s “image and likeness,” is also the basis for our civil rights. It is the ground of all human dignity. It is why Christians treat others with respect. It is why we reject racism, cruelty, and the oppression of all weak and disadvantaged people groups.
But the Bible also teaches that Adam’s sin did serious damage to the image and likeness. We are like a Toyota Camry that has been in a head on collision. The original car is still there, but it’s distorted, damaged, and in need of repair. In the same way, our ability to be like God morally—the heart of the image and likeness— has been severely crippled. Even worse, it has made us God’s enemies (Romans 5:10).
Because contemporary Western culture is still running on the fumes of a Christian worldview, it tends to view human nature in light of the first truth while rejecting the teaching about the Fall. This explains the optimistic assumption about our human goodness and ability to solve our social problems.
In addition, this optimism has a faulty grounding. The technological advances of the last century have been nothing short of astounding. But they have deluded us into assuming that we are simultaneously improving morally and spiritually. But nothing could be further from the truth. Technology has made huge strides, but human nature has not changed. It is still subject to the Fall, i.e. self-centered, and proud. For these reasons and more, we are reluctant to assume that God is angry with unredeemed sinners.
These are the cultural glasses we wear.
Pride is a Problem
However, in scripture too much self-esteem—pride or hubris—is the great sin. It distorts true self-knowledge. It ruins our relationship with others; and most importantly, it destroys our relationship with God. It actually provokes his wrath.
Pride is the source of most human misery. It motivates war, divorce, child abuse, torture, racism, most divorce, and a host of other evils. On the other hand, humility is the pinnacle of Christian virtues. Its fruits are peace with self, others, and God.
In short, recent decades have turned the old cultural assumptions about human nature upside down. We now assume that an inflated self-esteem is a virtue, and that humility is a weakness—even a vice. We assume that an inflated opinion of self is the foundation of virtue, whereas a low opinion is the cause of social and personal evil. If Isaiah were alive, he would tell us the same thing he told ancient Israel—“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
Centered On The Cross
Christ’s cross proclaims both truths about human nature. First, it shows us how much God hates arrogance and what it has done to his image and likeness. It confirms how deeply pride has alienated us from God. In fact, God’s anger is so great that nothing can propitiate it but faith in a Substitute who endured on the cross the fierce anger and hostility that our personal arrogance deserves. This is about as humbling as it gets. In God’s sight we are not the wonderful people that we have assumed. We don’t deserve his favor or reward.
But the cross also demonstrates God’s love. Despite our arrogance, and what we deserve, God loves us. He loves us because he made us in his image and likeness. How much does he loves us? He sent his Son to the cross to suffer infinite torments—he was tortured to death, naked, at Golgotha—to redeem and salvage helpless sinners in need of infinite grace. Paul referred to it as “love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19).
This is why the saints of old had different assumptions about God and human nature. Sitting at the foot of the cross they felt simultaneously humbled and loved. It is the place where savvy 21st century Believers also go to try on new cultural glasses.
Because of the cross, past generations were unanimously united in the conviction that true virtue (and happiness) begins, not with self-promotion, but with self-abasement.
John Calvin (1509-64), systematizer of Reformation theology wrote, “The work of faith is to fill the soul with such thoughts as these: ‘I am nothing; a poor worm at God’s disposal; lost, if not found by Christ; — have done, can do, nothing on the account whereof I should be accepted with God.’”[ii]
C. H. Spurgeon (1834-92) the great 19th century British preacher, and a significant theologian in his own right, wrote, “Humility is to feel that we have no power of ourselves, but that it all cometh from God…It is in fact, to annihilate self, and to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ as all in all.”[iv]
Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) the greatest American theologian, wrote—“Such is the nature of grace and of true spiritual light, that they naturally dispose the saints in the present state, to look upon their grace and goodness little, and their deformity great.”[iii]
And in the twentieth century C.S. Lewis famously observed that, “The real test of being in the presence of God, is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”[v]
The cross also shaped the assumptions of first century Believers. In about AD 56 the apostle, Paul, wrote, “I am the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9). About five years later he added, “I am the least of the saints” (Ephesians 3:8). Then, at the end of his life he concluded, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Notice the downhill progression: from the least of the apostles, to the least of the saints, to the foremost of sinners. Was Paul exaggerating? No! This was how he really felt. What caused him to think this way?
Like the saints quoted above, Paul sat at the foot of the cross. There he saw the holiness of Christ, the pristine beauty of God’s moral perfections, and his utter goodness. He also saw what his arrogance deserves. It both humbled him and caused him to feel the torrents of God’s love for one so unworthy.
Those who think great thoughts about God see themselves accurately. They are humbled, but that humility is the key to their experience of God’s love. Living in that love is what it means to be filled with “all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
So which cultural glasses are you wearing? How much has the arrogance of modern world affected you? Is it keeping you from the truly knowledge of yourself? Is it keeping you from the experience of God’s love?
We discover who we truly are at the foot of the cross. The result will not be self-hatred or low self-esteem. It will be the peace with God and man that flows from humility. It will mean the end of striving to merit God’s favor. It will mean the love, joy, and peace that comes from knowing God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!
[i] Brooks, David. The Road to Character (Kindle Locations 245-257). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2.2.11
[iii] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 297.
[iv] C. H. Spurgeon, The Park Street Pulpit, Vol 2, pg 566-67 (Albany, OR, Ages Software, 1997)
[v] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan, 1960), Chapter 8