Why Do People Do What They Do?

April 24, 2013

A couple times a week I join a few fellow “gym rats” for coffee at the local Peet’s. This group of women frequents the fitness center and then gathers for a coffee klatch before heading home. They come from diverse backgrounds culturally and geographically and represent the gamut of religious views, from lapsed Christian to Sihk to Jewish to complete blank slate. Every once in awhile, one of them will turn to me for advice, knowing I am a pastor. Lately, however, there has been a communal handwringing over recent events. When the bombs went off in Boston, the questions came again:

“Why do people do what they do?” The related questions tumble out: Why can’t people show more love for one another? What moves people to do such horrible things? Why do people not value human life more than this?

I bite my tongue a lot, until I get the divine go-ahead to offer an answer. It’s all part of the missional teaching (or informative conversation) ministry I am practicing and writing about. When “total depravity” is the answer that first pops into my mind, it takes a bit of skill and courage to ease into those churning waters with something meaningful and helpful.

People in the Reformed Tradition attribute the concept of total depravity to John Calvin’s followers in the 16th century. The idea is that human beings are thoroughly tainted by sin; that is, there is no part of human life that has not in some way been marred by the sin of Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 6:5). I think it was Augustine who spoke of this inherited trait in terms we would now refer to as gene mutation. So every human being has a gene called “sin” which, if dominant, urges that person on to all manner of evils. We should not be surprised that people are capable of terrorist acts. Along with C. S. Lewis, we should probably be asking why there isn’t more unmasked evil in the world than there is.

Let’s see how far we can go with the genetic analogy. What if we were to see salvation in Jesus Christ as the first step in divine gene therapy? Acknowledging there is still “the flesh” to contend with in this life (Romans 7), wouldn’t our new situation in Christ be like a dominant sin gene engineered into a recessive gene (still there, but not overtly expressed in everyday life)? And our final sanctification/ glorification—once this body has died—is represented by a gene transplant?  [I know my readers will hack away at the analogy, but stay with me for a minute.]

For those in whom Sin is still the dominant gene, anything is possible, according to Calvin. Living according to the flesh brings death; living in the Spirit brings life. Society can make laws, remain vigilant to restrain evil, and educate people; but none of these laudable activities addresses the root problem, which is the condition of the human soul without Jesus Christ. Any solution to the problems our society faces are going to have to include a genuine grappling with God’s salvation offered in Jesus Christ. This prophetic and pastoral role is the unique and essential activity of the Church. If we seek to know Christ and to make him known and to submit as the Body of Christ to the will and way of the Head, we will have a transforming effect in the world.

However, in a post-Christian western world, I have seen signs that the Presbyterian Church has loosened its grip on the transforming gospel. Many Presbyterians see salvation not as a life-and-death matter, but only one of preference. If we really believed that Jesus Christ has the power to change what people do (and why) and if we personally experienced that transforming power in daily life, I think the situation would be different. But our witness to the world is weak and ineffective, precisely because we have traded in God’s Word and Way for an ear-tickling false gospel that says “Do what you want; God will bless it.” We should not be surprised at all, in that environment, if radical _____ists do anything extreme, for it is the same spiritual condition working itself out into behavior contrary to God’s will and ultimately destructive of human life.


3 Responses to “Why Do People Do What They Do?”

  1. Alan Harrell Says:

    Wow! Thanks, Mary! I really like the genetic analogy.

  2. Gwen Brown Says:

    Wonderful, Mary. And I believe even the “gene” analogy is in line with I Cor. 15. But my question is: what exactly did you say in the coffee shop and did they listen/ask more questions? It is the only answer to “why?”

    • revmary Says:

      Hi Gwen!
      By “it,” do you mean “total depravity”?
      I have been approaching this question gently in stages. I have introduced the idea that we are more shocked by such news if we believe that people are intrinsically good; if we believe that all people “have a dark side” and are subject to its lures, we are less surprised when someone actually does the unthinkable. One lady in the group believes that our model for non-violence is found in nature. And then I brought up Tim Keller’s point in -A Reason for God-, that nature is amazingly violent (which my friend acknowledged was true). There’s still a lot of wishful thinking in this group . . . the beach-head is probably the desire to be good.
      Dallas Willard talks about four major philosophical questions that all people are working on in one way or another:
      1. What is the good life?
      2. How does one live (or attain) the good life?
      3. What is the basic problem to be solved?
      4. What is the solution to that problem?
      My coffee group is working on question 3 at the moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s