The Nature of Man(kind) and a Helpful Distinction

People have been writing and speaking about worldviews for some time. Everyone has a worldview, and it can change over time. Part of that worldview is what the person believes about human beings.

People can have dramatic disagreements about the nature of man. This results in practical differences concerning what ought to be done. For example, one person considers all human life to be sacred under God. Another considers a person’s desire to engage in wanton sexual activity without responsibility to be more sacred than human life. As a result, they disagree about what to do with the human beings that are conceived by such activity. How valuable is human life? For some people it depends on whether you can hear their screams when they are murdered. Or whether you can hear them call out for their mothers and ask for help breathing. Or whether they have “intersectionality.”

That may have seemed harsh, but it’s not meant to come across that way. It illustrates how a person’s view of mankind makes a profound difference in the person’s actions and words. It also makes a difference in the way a person responds when his deficiencies are noted by another.

We quickly jump to motives when we see or hear something we don’t like in another person. I do it too. The accusation usually thrown around in these times is “hate.” It’s convenient, because it ends discussion, which can be difficult. Hurling the label makes it unnecessary to continue interacting with the “hater.” So what was once simply “being wrong” has now become a justification for ad hominem dismissal. Judge for yourself: is it more loving to patiently correct someone who has made a mistake, or to slap on a label like “hater,” possibly try to injure the person’s reputation and livelihood, and then congratulate oneself on removing one more oppressor from the ranks of society? Shouldn’t be a hard question.

This is the crux of what I want to explore here: making mistakes. This is also part of human nature. Our problem is that we forget this. Sometimes we fail to allow others the grace to grow after a mistake through correction, or even repentance. We unreasonably act as though the person should have been perfect, as though we don’t really believe that human nature is sinful. Or as the common excuse says it, “nobody’s perfect.” Maybe we’re willing to apply this to ourselves, but forget it when dealing with this “offender.”

The other part of our problem is when we make mistakes ourselves. How would you like to be treated by others? In the heat of the moment, we all would probably want our mistakes to be overlooked or ignored. But I think most of us can see that it’s better when we are given an opportunity to correct our mistakes. If the mistake is some wrongdoing, we would really want a chance to repent and receive forgiveness for it. But when we first learn about the wrongdoing, that’s not how we feel about it.

Some people believe that humanity is basically good at the core. The Bible says that mankind was created good through-and-through, but now the situation is completely reversed. The reversal happened in the events told in Genesis 3, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This really bothers some people. Why should we be held accountable for someone else’s mistake? It sounds unjust. But then we commit wrongs of our own and show the kind of nature we have inherited. Some people still reject that man is basically evil. That makes the distinction I’m about to describe very hard to accept.

There is an important difference between three kinds of wrongness. They are all wrong in relation to the same thing: God’s moral code. (Without that, there can be no objective morality.) But they are still different from one another in important ways. The three kinds of wrongness are perversion, corruption, and defect.

Perversion is defined by Websters as “the act of perverting; the condition of being perverted.” Definition 1-a of pervert as a verb says “to cause to turn aside or away from what is good or true or morally right.” There are related definitions, but they are derived from this meaning, where we see that there is an agency involved in perversion. That is, someone or something with the ability to will decided to take action and pervert something else.

Webster mentioned “what is good or true or morally right” in the second definition above. That can be easily understood as the original design of God in creation, before the Fall into sin. So things or people in a perverted condition have been intentionally twisted from their original good. Because of this, perversion is one kind of evil.

Corruption is a similar word, and in fact Websters refers to it in connection with perversion. But there is not necessarily any agency when something is corrupted. If you drive your car on the salted roads of New England or the upper Midwest, you will see in a few years how the car’s body becomes corrupted by rust. Bury a standard two-by-four in the wet ground, then check on it after a while, and it will have been corrupted with rot. Unlike perversion, not all forms of corruption necessarily have a moral implication. Websters’ first definition says, “to cause to turn aside or away from what is good or true or morally right.” This certainly has a moral implication, but in this case, definition 1-a given by Webster is really a derived from the more general definition 1-c: “a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.” It seems likely that they are placed in this order due to prevalence of usage.

Corruption can therefore be another kind of evil itself, as when a person in authority is corrupted by bribes or prejudice (much like perversion in this case), or when a child’s character is spoiled by immoral, evil influences. But corruption of human beings can also be simply a result of evil. One example is illness, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Without the corruption that entered Creation with the Fall into sin, our hearts could keep beating forever. Our minds would remain clear. The way we feel would always make sense in full agreement with our physiology, and would support our daily interactions and activities instead of making it hard to live in our vocations.

A defect is defined by Websters as “an imperfection or abnormality that impairs quality, function, or utility.” It seems insulting to say that a person has a defect, but it’s really no worse than saying the person has been perverted or corrupted. Here we commonly understand congenital birth defects, such as missing or duplicate appendages, conjoined twins, and ambiguous sexual organs. On a smaller scale, there are genetic defects, and there are also mental or emotional defects. Often a defect is imposed after birth, making it similar to corruption: a baby is tragically dropped or abused, a child is neglected, leading to mental or emotional problems that manifest in destructive choices or behaviors, etc.

Where the words perversion and corruption imply certain origins of the problem, the word defect focuses on the problem more than its cause. Any of these words can be used in an insulting, hurtful way, but they also all have beneficial uses when talking about the effects of sin on human beings. These words relate to the worldview that human beings are fallen creatures of God.

Secularists espouse an atheistic worldview that rejects the Fall and its resulting anthropology, or view of mankind. It’s difficult to convince anyone that humans are perfect in our actions, decisions, and words because these are plain for others to see and hear. But secularists have managed to convince many people that our emotions are just fine, and should always be trusted. Consider in The Return of the Jedi Luke’s certainty that there was still something good in his father, Anakin. Throughout the Star Wars saga, the story reflects the way our culture invests great trust in the purity and truth of our emotions. The same can be said for many recent stories.

The Biblical worldview has a different understanding of our emotions. Naturally-conceived humans are entirely subject to the effects of sin, whether corruption, perversion, or defect. Not only our bodies, minds, and emotions, but even the part that secularists completely deny: our souls and spirits. Every part of a human being has been affected. The corruption is thorough.

When another person points out our defects, corruptions, or perversions, we don’t like to hear it. This is a good thing. It shows that we still realize there’s a difference between right and wrong, and we’d rather be right. Yet the fact of sin remains. Any affect of sin is certainly possible for us, and it’s better to have a truthful self-perception or even to repent of any and all guilt than to continue deceiving ourselves about our own nature.

Hearing about our faults makes us feel bad about ourselves. It leads to a negative and more accurate self-image. But we don’t like to feel bad. We don’t like a negative self-image, especially when it’s accurate. We’ll like it much less to be eternally deprived of God’s presence and good gifts, to suffer where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The answer to all of this is found in the one human who has no sin, but suffered anyway to atone for our guilt before God. In Christ Jesus and nowhere else do we find healing for all of the pathologies we suffer: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. He doesn’t cause limbs to regenerate each Sunday. He doesn’t deliver us from our inclination to disordered affections all at once. St. Paul prayed that He would take away the thorn in his flesh, but the Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Our weaknesses then becomes strengths and blessings through Jesus Christ. We can repent of our guilt, resist sin, and live with a good conscience, while also having an accurate understanding of who and what we are as beloved creatures of God. Jesus calls it “bearing a cross.” The day is coming when we will lay these crosses down. All the effects of sin will be gone. We will be fully comfortable in our own skins, because they will be perfect and untainted. The same goes for our minds, emotions, souls, and spirits. We will be and remain in the glorious presence of God, and Jesus will wipe away every tear.

To Sift You As Wheat

Before his betrayal by Judas, Jesus told his disciples what would happen. To Peter in particular, He said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31–32, NKJV)

Notice that Jesus’ comfort was “but I have prayed for you,” not “but Satan will not be allowed to have you.” In fact, Satan was allowed to have Peter, if only for a time. I’d like to consider what Satan did with Peter during that time.

Before we do, though, let’s address those who inwardly snicker at the first serious mention of Satan or spiritual things, as though they were fairy tales and myths. At this point we will let them depart in peace from us and from Dr. Luther, who earnestly wrote, “He seeks to burst us, who are a part of Christ, and the bond of that Word, with which Christ binds us, asunder. Therefore we should not cease to beware of his snares. Christianity is a continuous struggle, not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, as Eph. 6:12 says. One should not act smugly.” [1](LW 30:258)

It began when Peter denied being any associate of Jesus, or even knowing Him. He was given three opportunities to confess his Lord before men, and each time Peter chose not to. This denial was not the sifting that Jesus mentioned. It was only the tool by which Satan would gain leverage over Peter. The sifting was not done in an outward or visible way. It was done internally and mentally. Here’s how the evangelist Mark describes it. (14:66-72, NKJV)

Now as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came. And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are saying.” And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed.

And the servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, “This is one of them.” But he denied it again.

And a little later those who stood by said to Peter again, “Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.” Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know this Man of whom you speak!” A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept.

The next thing we hear about Peter comes after Jesus rose, about two and a half days later. Mark 16:7, NKJV: “But go, tell His disciples — and Peter — that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” Notice that there is a distinction between the group called Jesus’ disciples and Peter. This distinction was made not first by Jesus, but by Peter himself in his denial of Jesus. Peter had sworn an oath, “I do not know the man.” That excludes him from being a disciple.

The sifting began with the temptation and the denial, but it did not end there. We are not told what happened during the next 60 hours or so, but things have been written about it.

Many people consider Peter to be the equivalent of a faithless heathen at this time, so that if he had died, he would have been eternally condemned under God’s law without a savior. It’s true that Peter had disavowed Jesus, and that Jesus had earlier taught clearly, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32–33) Undoubtedly this was on Peter’s mind during those long hours. It would be surprising to find that he enjoyed much rest.

Yet the same Jesus who never said that Satan’s request was denied also said, “But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail.” It may seem extraordinary that Jesus should pray for a disciple, but it’s not. In fact, He does just that in John 17, and not only for his apostles like Peter, but for all who believe on the basis of their teaching. In connection with Peter, His prayer included at least one request, which He revealed to Peter: “that your faith should not fail.”

In fact, Peter was sifted as wheat by Satan. It doesn’t seem too much to believe that Jesus’ prayer was also granted: Peter’s faith did not fail. So then what happened? It’s implied by Jesus’ words, “when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” Jesus never left Peter, but Peter left Jesus in a sense, for a while. It’s not revealed exactly what this means in relation to Peter’s status as a child of God, except for Jesus’ prayer “that your faith should not fail.”

While Peter was suffering these two and a half days of sifting, Jesus himself experienced the apex of agony under the justice of God against the world’s sin. He would not forsake Peter, so He paid the price: his own innocent life, taken at the hands of the wicked. But pay it He did, and satisfied all of God’s wrath against human sin. During those same hours, Peter was sifted. This sifting is comparable, maybe sometimes identical, to mental illness.

A mental illness can be considered clinically, the way a physical disease or injury may be considered. That is both a strength and a weakness of modern medical science, for while there are treatments to help the mentally ill, its source is not a natural part of creation. The malicious sifting by our spiritual enemy is not taken into account nor even addressed by medically altering the victim’s brain chemistry. Yes, the effects of the sifting can be partly mitigated, but the source of the problem remains.

When mental illness is only considered as a material problem (meaning physical and/or mental), the material treatments available often help in real ways. These can make the difference between coping, and agony or misery. They can allow time for healing to take place. But like all injuries and illnesses, mental illness also has a spiritual dimension.

Illness should not be considered a “spiritual” problem without explanation. Peter had a spiritual problem: denying a connection to Jesus. But that serious sin was also forgivable through Jesus’ death. We can suppose that he experienced what would now be called a mental illness after that, a despairing depression. It would have been like a hole in his existence, a hatred of himself; a sense of shame so deep that the slightest reminder of human failure would pierce his own soul, whether the failure was his or not. It’s a wonder that he did not take the path of Judas, because the thought would have occurred to him. What stopped him? We can only answer by remembering the prayer of Jesus.

Calling Peter’s problem “spiritual” may imply to modern minds that it was imagined, or worse yet: subjective. That would mean that Peter’s spiritual condition or status before God was in jeopardy or worse entirely because of Peter’s own will, words, or actions; that it was all taking place in Peter’s head or heart. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Peter was under attack from the outside, not from the inside.

Peter was being sifted by a malicious will bent on his fall and eternal destruction. But Satan could care less about Peter, except that that Peter was Jesus’ most vocal supporter. Satan wanted to turn him as he had turned Adam and Eve, and so undermine absolutely all the good that God has done. He wanted Peter in hell not for his company, but to be a trophy.

Yes, Peter had a spiritual problem, and that problem has a name: Satan. We all have that problem. Satan is the enemy. He’s a deceiver and a murderer. He wants us to think that there is no hope, that God could never forgive us. He wants us to be overwhelmed by guilt, right after he has led us to the sin that produced it. He wants us to remember only those words of God that condemn sinners, and forget every word of pardon and forgiveness. He wants us to spiral through hopelessness, self-loathing, self-destruction, addiction to behaviors or substances, and many other paths of misery. He’s an expert at managing our influences: keeping away the wholesome while strengthening those that continue or accelerate the spiral. He hand-tailors negative spiritual feedback loops for his victims’ weaknesses, and does all he can to keep them plugged in. That’s the spiritual problem that Peter had.

This fact alone can encourage us as we suffer Satan’s spiritual attacks. 1 Peter 4:15-16 (ESV) says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” And in Dr. Luther’s explanation of this, he writes:

When faith begins, God does not forsake it; He lays the holy cross on our backs to strengthen us and to make faith powerful in us. The holy Gospel is a powerful Word. Therefore it cannot do its work without trials, and only he who tastes it is aware that it has such power. Where suffering and the cross are found, there the Gospel can show and exercise its power. It is a Word of life. Therefore it must exercise all its power in death. In the absence of dying and death it can do nothing, and no one can become aware that it has such power and is stronger than sin and death. Therefore the apostle says “to prove you”; that is, God inflicts no glowing fire or heat—cross and suffering, which make you burn—on you for any other purpose than “to prove you,” whether you also cling to His Word. [2](LW 30:126)

There’s one important difference between suffering in this kind of spiritual problem and the misery of hell itself. We may think that there’s no hope, no joy, no contentment to be had in the depths of our earthly despair, but we are wrong. This only the simulator of hell, crafted with diabolical intent for each victim. We may not see any hope, joy, or contentment, but it’s all there, just waiting on the other side of our time of sifting. And God’s purpose for that sifting is different from Satan’s. Satan is no more than a tool, and used in a different task than he would like.

Peter’s sifting ended when Jesus dragged a net containing 153 fish to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and Jesus reversed Peter’s threefold denial. “Simon, do you love me more than these?” “Lord, you know all things; You I love you.” (John 21:17, NKJV)

When Peter returned to Jesus, Jesus accepted him with open arms, for when Jesus suffered and died on the cross, it was for sinners like Peter and everyone else under Satan’s attack. All of Peter’s spiraling doubts, self-loathing, and despair, those tendrils of Satan’s influence, found their match in the forgiveness of Peter’s sin. Thereafter, the sifting that Satan had done turned into a blessing. In retrospect, it showed Peter the difference between the chaff and the wheat in his own character.

Those today who suffer the sifting of the enemy in the form of mental illness can take comfort in the fact that it’s limited by our gracious Lord, who has also prayed for us. The time of sifting will end, and God will somehow show it to be a blessing. Until then, all facets of the disease should be addressed, whether material or spiritual. Material treatments are provided through medical doctors and psychological counselors. Modification to behavior, environs, and habit help to limit negative influences and encourage positive ones. It’s important to recognize and remember the spiritual dimension in all of this, because the root problem is our sin coupled with the enemy’s attacks. The only possible solution for such a problem took place on a cross, and there are only three ways that God has promised to deliver its benefits: his word of forgiveness, holy baptism, and the sacrament of the altar. Any treatment strategy that ignores that dimension of the problem is hamstrung from the start.

[1]: Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 258). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[2]: Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 126). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.