In Mark 7 we find Jesus having a debate with the religious leaders of his day. They looked down on Jesus because he didn’t make his followers carry out ceremonial washing before they eat, so they were eating with ‘defiled hands’ (Mark 7:5). Jesus said they’d missed the point – the outward cleanness required by the Old Testament law was meant to be a picture of the inner cleanness of a heart in a right relationship with God. Jesus’ criticism of the religious teachers was that their concern with outward cleanliness masked an inner uncleanness. They washed their hands before eating, but didn’t feed or care for the poor and vulnerable.
This may seem like a random sort of story, but it actually contains a valuable point about what human nature is really like.
Jesus’ point is that our actions flow out of who we are, and what we are like, on the inside. This means that when we are selfish or harsh or proud or aggressive, all the excuses in the world we are showing what we are like on the inside. We reveal our hearts by what comes out of them.
The problem is that we like to think that we are ‘good’. And when we think, act or speak in ways that contradict that we try to explain it in all sorts of ways: ‘I was hungry/tired/stressed’. But if what Jesus says is true, it means that the times when circumstances are not ideal are the times we show our hearts most clearly. Like a sponge that releases what’s inside when squeezed, our actions, thoughts and words when we are under pressure show what is inside us.
The paradox of human nature
But the Bible is clear that though our hearts are not perfect, we are not as utterly bad as we could be. The starting point of the whole Bible is the idea of humans being made in God’s image – we were meant to be like God, to lovingly care for and govern the world he made and placed us in as his representatives. But we fell from this glorious position, and while we retain the image of God in us, it is distorted and damaged. The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said that we are a ‘royal ruin’. We are fallen kings and queens who retain some beauty, creativity and power – but who are now skewed towards abusing our power, using creativity to destroy, making things ugly where they were beautiful. We are a paradox.
There aren’t ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’; it’s not that simple. We can try to put humanity on a scale from good to evil, but it won’t work. Rather, as Russian author Alexander Solzhentisyn wrote ‘the line between good and evil passes…right through every human heart’. And the problem is our messed up, paradoxical hearts prevent us from coming to God; the Bible says only those with ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ can be in relationship with him (Psalm 24:4). Yet throughout Mark’s Gospel we read about hearts that are ‘hardened’ (6:52, 8:17, 10:5), ‘stubborn’ (3:5) and ‘far from God’ (7:6). Perhaps those descriptions sound something like your heart?
But the good news is that Jesus came to give us new hearts, to cleanse us on the inside so that we can know him and be in a right relationship with him.