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The Two Sides of Human Nature

Hilton Head Island, SC – October 7, 2018
The Chapel Without Walls
Psalm 8 – R.R.; Genesis 4:1-8; Romans 7:13-25
A Sermon by John M. Miller

Text – I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I do I hate. – Romans 7:15 (RSV)


     We human beings like to tell ourselves that we are cerebrally and ethically the loftiest species in the earthly created order. That is a highly debatable point, but it might be correct. Most ordinary people can accomplish things that even the brainiest of animals cannot do. Morally we can make good choices that even the kindest and most loving dogs or cats or horses could never even conceptualize. Nevertheless, we have all read how pets rescued their owners from burning houses or kept them from drowning, and so on and so on. However, almost always when heroic rescues are accomplished, it is human beings, not animals, who accomplish them.


     On the other hand, as human beings can do wonderful things, we also can do horrible things. Certain tigers in India have been known to become serial killers of people, but tigers don’t have the moral compasses humans are supposed to have. Packs of wolves in the Northern Rockies regularly attack and kill buffalo or cattle, but it is in the nature of wolf packs to do that, and it is how they make their living, to put it into human terms. Only humans can be morally faulted as serial killers. We commit all manner of crimes, and most of the time we intend to do what we do.


     John Oxenham was the pen name of a Victorian Englishman who wrote a famous poem. Most literary critics would agree it is not the greatest poem ever composed, but it is memorable, especially for one of its lines. “To every man there openeth/ A Way, and Ways, and a Way/ And the High Soul climbs the high way/ And the Low Soul gropes the low/ And in between on the misty flats/ The rest drift to and fro.”


     That poem suggests, without actually stating it this way, that there are Good People and there are Bad People, but that most people drift between good and evil, not knowing for certain what they are doing. John Oxenham implied that there are three kinds of people: the High, the Low, and the In-Betweens, and most of us, he seemed to say, are In-Betweeners.


     Robert Louis Stephenson was a Victorian Scotsman. In 1886 he published a famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the story, Dr. Jekyll was what in the twenty-first century we might call an experimental researcher. In the nineteenth century he would probably be called a dabbler in the dark arts. He concocted various potions in his London laboratory, and then consumed them to see how he would respond under their influence. From some of those potions Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde, a man who committed several murders and was never captured. Always the potions wore off, and Mr. Hyde reverted to being the gentle, nerdy Dr. Jekyll. I won’t tell you how the book ended, but you could read it for yourself, or you could find the answer by quicker, more technologically-oriented, means.


     In 1888 an historical serial killer emerged from the London shadows. His victims were primarily prostitutes in the slums of London’s East End. After murdering these young women, he would cut them open, and remove organs. For that reason the London newspapers came to refer to him as Jack the Ripper. Over the course of two months in 1888 he killed five East End prostitutes, and by 1991 he had murdered a total of eleven women. Then the murders suddenly stopped, for no apparent reason. The killer was never apprehended.


     My own amateur’s opinion is that whoever Jack the Ripper may have been, I would guess that by 1888 he had read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the rest, as they might say, but don’t, is history. In my further amateur’s analysis, I would say that whoever the killer was, he was sufficiently mentally unbalanced that reading the novel put him over the edge. However, had he been arrested and convicted, no jury in England would have found him innocent by reason of insanity, and he would have been hanged.


     When we do good, why do we do it? When we take actions that are bad or evil, why do we do that? Do all of us do both good and evil? And if so, are we the ones on the misty flats, who drift to and fro? Are a small percentage of people truly good, and another small percentage truly bad, and everyone else is somewhere in between the two, like the little girl who had a little curl/ Right in the middle of her forehead/ And when she was good she was very, very good/ And when she was bad she was horrid?


     The Bible doesn’t give us clear and irrefutable answers to those questions. In some places it hints that we are either good or evil or that we choose to be one or the other, but in other places it says that everyone is a mixture of good and bad intentions. Most of the characters mentioned in the first seven books of the Bible, Genesis through Joshua, had the two sides of human nature prominently displayed in their narratives, but a few people were unusually noble or unusually awful. Most of the kings of Israel and Judah were probably mixtures of good and evil, but whoever wrote the Books of Kings and Chronicles always ended their summaries of their lives by saying, “(So-and-so) did that which was good (or evil) in the sight of the Lord.” Eleven of the twelve disciples of Jesus were neither Eagle Scouts nor Chamber of Commerce Men of the Year, but neither were they Mr. Hyde or Jack the Ripper, except for poor old Judas Iscariot, of whom apparently nobody, including Jesus in all four of the Gospels, thought highly.


     Good or evil may, like beauty, be in the eye of the beholder. We can observe that phenomenon just by reading or watching the news. One man’s hero is another man’s goat. One woman’s Greek god is another woman’s vicious victimizer.


    It is so easy to categorize people in hard-and-fast groupings. The Bible does that, everybody seems to do it, and you and I also may do it. But I am convinced most of us have good and evil within us, battling for supremacy in us. Nobody is unfailingly good. However, a small percentage of people may do evil most of the time either a) because there is a serious flaw in their genetic makeup, such as inherent mental illness, or b) because in their environment as children or adults they had too many obstacles to overcome, and they never learned what “good” even means. (You have probably guessed that is a bleeding-heart-liberal conclusion.)


     Our responsive reading was from Psalm 8. According to the superscription at its beginning, it was written by King David. No one in the Bible is more clearly presented as possessing both sides of human nature. Nonetheless, in the Psalm David says that God created humanity in general as the most noble of all earthly creatures. “Thou hast made (them) little less than God” (or ‘angels’ as it says in the King James Version) “and dost crown (them) with glory and honor.”


     But then there is the story of Cain and Abel, the first two of Adam and Eve’s three sons. (Hardly anyone knows the name of the third. You could either read the early chapters of Genesis to find out for yourself, or you could Google “Adam and Eve’s third son” and save a few  minutes, while learning almost nothing.) Anyway, says Genesis 4, Abel was a shepherd, which the writer or writers of Genesis thought was a good, old-fashioned idea, but Cain was a farmer, which the writers thought was a bad new-fangled idea. They thought everybody should be shepherds. Each son brought an offering to God. God liked Abel’s splendid sheep but He disdained Cain’s withered wheat. So, in an apparent fit of jealousy, Cain killed Abel. As a result, he got “the mark of Cain” for “raising Cain.” (The first expression is in the Bible, but the second isn’t, although maybe it could, or should, be.)   


     In the seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle addressed the issue of the two sides of human nature. In other letters, Paul boasted of his good deeds, of which there were many. But in Romans, he admitted that other times he failed to do what he knew he should do. In this section of his letter, Paul we referring to the religious law, and how it is intended to guide us in what we should do. He wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree the law is good” (7:16). In other words, the law tells us what we should do, but it is up to us to do it. “So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me,” said Paul (7:17).


     Here Paul sounds like Flip Wilson in the Sixties; “The devil made me do it!” Sin just takes hold of us, and we are powerless, Paul implies. His theological argument is driving toward a conclusion that Paul made many times. Only Jesus Christ, by his death on the cross, can free us from the power of the dark side of human nature. That is an important notion to debate, but it isn’t going to happen in this sermon. Here we are thinking only about the two sides of human nature, the bright and the dark or the good and the bad sides. Our own personal experience and our experience of observing the behavior of other people should convince us that sometimes we, like Paul, don’t understand our own actions. We do what we don’t want to do, and we don’t do what we want to do. We are a duality of motives, and sometimes even a duplicity of motives.


     A few days ago I heard a very sad story about a lady I have known for many years. She has three daughters, and for whatever reason she favored one of them over the other two. Years ago she gave that daughter sole power of attorney over her affairs. Last week that daughter took her mother from where she had been happily living for decades to live near her in another state. The daughter didn’t ask her mother to do this; she just did it. And now that very elderly lady will be living in a strange place for the rest of her life, which probably will be considerably shortened just by the trauma of the move at such an advanced age.


     The favored daughter thinks she is doing the best for her mother in taking her away from familiar surroundings in old age to live near her. But in fact she may be doing it to spite her sisters. It is a very sad situation, because the mother is such a lovely woman, as are her other daughters. The favored daughter may also have many good qualities, but in what she has done there is likely little good that will come out of it. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”


     Some people normally do good, but under the influence of people who often make very bad choices, they can engage in those choices themselves. From our standpoint as Americans, we may think of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese under the influence of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. When we were children and teenagers, our parents warned us to stay away from boys or girls whom they considered to be “bad influences.”


      But it is not only people who have bad influence on other people. To come “under the influence” of alcohol or drugs also can cause people to engage in bad actions they otherwise would avoid when sober. We have all known individuals who were exemplary under normal circumstances, but under the influence of cocaine or amphetamines or marijuana or alcohol, they become different people.


     As if that were not bad enough in itself, some people strongly prefer the altered state which drugs or alcohol give them. They revel in the buzz it brings to them. But the buzz exists only as long as they “under the influence.” When the substance that causes the “high” dissipates, they are brought low, as are those who have to endure their behavior when they are not themselves. “I do not understand my own actions.”


     Further to complicate this whole matter, there are times when we cannot not sin, regardless of what our nature tells us to do. For example, sometimes it is better to tell white lies than to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When someone who is a general pain in the neck asks you if he or she really gets under your skin, and you know it would hurt them if you told them the truth, it is better to fib. Besides, no good can result from telling it like it is if they are so insecure that the truth will crush them. However, telling gray or black lies is quite different from telling white ones. And if we tell too many lies, we may become unable to discern what is true.


     The two sides of our human nature make it difficult for us always to do what we believe is the right or proper thing. God is aware of that dilemma, and if we open ourselves to His influence in our lives, we may be inspired and moved to do the right. If reality precludes that possibility, He will guide us through the painful process of knowing that we are forced to make a choice we do not want to make but must make nonetheless. God does not thrust us into the position of having to make hard choices; life does that all by itself. Reality does it. Human nature does it. But the God who created us and placed us in a marvelous but challenging world is always with us in that world: guiding, nudging, and watching us, going with us every step of our earthly pilgrimage.


Many of us are at an age where we can no longer make major decisions which will have a major positive impact on the world around us. But we can make small choices for good for some of the people around us. We all have neighbors who have become quite debilitated because of age or physical infirmities. We can run errands for them when we run our own errands. We can give their spouse or caregiver a break while we go to be with them for a couple of hours, talking about old times, which is what many old timers like most to talk about. We can read to people or provide transport for people or simply talk to people who have few people who talk to them. It isn’t hard to know what to do, but it does take a little effort to do it.


     James Russell Lowell wrote a poem which powerfully encapsulates the theme of this sermon. “Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood/ For the good or evil side.” There are two sides to our human nature, and those polar opposites constantly do their best strongly to draw us in their direction.


     Having been born a human is perhaps the greatest blessing humans can have. It is God who gave us that blessing at the moment of our birth. A few of us have the inclination to do good almost all the time, a few to do bad almost all of the time, and the rest of us have two natures within us trying to control us. God wants us to do the good, but He does not force goodness upon us. So the question always goes with us wherever we go: Shall I choose to do what I know I should do, or shall I do what I know I should not do? “Comes the moment to decide.”








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