“They’re Just Bad”

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

Genesis 6:5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Psalm 53:2-3 God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

In December 2001, we moved into our church hall, after a couple of years in rented accommodations.  The building was formerly the Gospel Hall, a meeting place of those known as Christian Brethren.  The grounds had been, for some time, a place where groups of young people hung out, drinking and using drugs, and engaging in other antisocial behaviour.

So began a regular cycle.  On Saturday mornings, after the Friday night “partying” (that’s a misnomer because it never seems to make those who do it happy), we’d go over, paint over any graffiti, clean up the rubbish, sweep up the broken vodka and Buckfast bottles, occasionally pick up syringes, etc, etc.  Then, on Sunday morning, I’d go over early and do it all again as needed, then run back home to get cleaned up and ready for our church meeting.

On Saturdays, some of the younger kids would hang around and talk to us.  One Saturday, one young guy, maybe seven or eight years old, was watching while I was cleaning up all the broken glass.  He said, “It’s the big kids that do it.  They are always here, and they always smash the bottles to make a mess after they drink.  A lot of the time, they shoot the bottles with a BB gun, but either way they always break the bottles.”

We talked for a few minutes about these older kids and all the wrong things they were doing, and then I asked him the question.  “Why?  Do you know why they do it?”  I was hoping that maybe there might be some way to connect with them, to find out if there was some grievance, real or perceived, that was stirring them up.  The Scriptures say, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18), so I figured if there was anything I could do to be more at peace with these troubled youths, I wanted to do it.

This miniature philosopher looked at me, and said something that showed he had more discernment than most politicians, many theologians, lots of police officers, and probably about 99% of all social workers.

“They’re just bad.”

Now, I didn’t ask him to come in and preach on that topic the next day. 🙂  I doubt he really understood that even bad people are made in God’s image, and that His goodness can be seen in even the worst people sometimes.  I doubt he understood that even those who seem outwardly to live moral lives are also guilty sinners before a holy God.  He probably didn’t understand the work of Christ in cleansing and forgiving sinners.

But he got one thing right, and it’s a big thing.  People do bad things because they are bad.  They don’t do bad things because they are poor, or rich, or have been defrauded or abused, or because they are ill, or any of the other excuses people use.  They do bad things because they have rejected God’s authority.  Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).  People go their own way, rather than God’s way.  That’s why they do bad things.

I said I was going to say something about the riots, and here’s where I start to do so.  About a month ago, Janet Daley wrote something about the looting that got right to the heart of the matter.  I don’t agree with everything she writes, and she is writing political and social commentary rather than presenting Biblical truth.  But she is describing what the Bible says about man’s natural tendency to evil, whether she casts it in those terms or not.  One excerpt:

We have Jean-Jacques Rousseau to thank for the basic principle that men are born good and will only behave badly if they are corrupted by authority and repressive institutions: that we need only liberate them from those false limitations and their natural moral instincts will come to the fore.

So hugely influential was this view in education and social policy that it almost succeeded in extinguishing the truths that arise from experience: people (especially young ones) will behave badly just because they can, because no one is stopping them, or has ever inculcated in them the conscientious discipline that would make them stop themselves.

She is describing a Bible-rejecting philosophy that exalts man as naturally good.  When you believe this, you don’t really need God.  She is correct when she says this view has driven educational and social policy in Western societies.  The riots, and some of the responses to them, are the natural result of this bankrupt philosophy, and the riots also reveal just how badly this way of thinking has failed Britain.  People are sinners, and bad people do bad things.

Daley closes with this:

Somehow, we are going to have to restore trust that the operations of government and the law are not at odds with the moral inclinations of conscientious citizens. Basic to this will be the acceptance that we do not have to explain – to find legitimate reasons for – acts of wickedness: that people can do bad things for no good reason at all, and that destructive and vicious impulses are, sadly, as “natural” as charitable ones. It is futile to go on asking why the riots happened, when the question that was on the minds of most of the rioters was not “Why?” but “Why not?”

We need to get hold of that fact.  “Destructive and vicious impulses are, sadly, as ‘natural’ as charitable ones.”  Quit making excuses for bad behaviour, your own or that of others.  It is the natural outworking of natural tendencies when those tendencies are not restrained by self-discipline or fear of consequences.  If people don’t see any reason not to do evil, they will do it.

I’ll have more to say about her contention that social policy has been driven by a false philosophy, by a rejection of the truth that the human race is sinful, with a natural tendency towards evil.  Until we come to grips with the fact that “they’re just bad”, or better yet, “we’re all bad,” we won’t really understand how sin has taken such a hold in society.

There will always be problems in any society, because every society consists of sinful people, who have a natural tendency to wickedness.  But when a nation denies that such a tendency even exists, then the restraints on evil begin to be stripped away, and excuses for evil take their place.  The result is that evil is not only no longer restrained, but is (in some cases) actively encouraged.  When people publicly state that thieves are looting because of injustice, then they are encouraging others who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have been unjustly treated to go steal, too.

And so wickedness, encouraged instead of restrained, runs rampant.  So it was a few weeks ago in London and other places around the UK.  Rousseau’s philosophy sounds good, because we want to think there are excuses for when we do wrong.  But as with any philosophy that rejects Biblical truth, it eventually blows up in your face.

Update 15 September 2011:  Further commentary here.

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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