Worldviews, Worship, and Wineskins

The Gospel at Work in Every Context

Choose Your Battle Wisely: Self or Society?

I heard an earth-shattering observation that concerns the two main approaches to life in Western society. According to the observer, religious communities generally raise children to believe that man is basically evil and the purpose of religion is for for man to battle the evil in his heart. Communities that raise their children in the absence of religion tend to emphasize the need for change in society rather than the need for personal change. The battle, according to this theory, is either within oneself, or without.

While we can grant that there are exceptions to this rule, it seems to be a great way to begin to explain many phenomena in American culture. Can you find religious groups that are interested in making an impact in society? Certainly. Are there non-religious folks who emphasize self-help? Of course. There will always be outliers, but the theory is a helpful tool in understanding competing worldviews in the mainstream.

Call me cynical, but each approach offers false hope. The child who was reared in religious circles often finds himself disillusioned with the church (or whatever tradition she was raised in). In spite of all his effort, he is no less sinful than he was last year, or the year before. Likewise, the social activist will often run out of steam when his ideals are rejected at the polling station…or when the ideals are implemented, but fail because of the human element.

Which philosophy is right? Is it the human heart that needs correction, or society? Where is the failure?

In short, both. While a multitude of societal ills would be cured if real heart change has occurred, Social Action is not necessarily a bad thing. It just seems to treat the symptom rather than the disease. But neither approach (self-improvement or social action) will work. If you have not been down one of these paths and found yourself exhausted and disillusioned, you need only look to history and see the legions of examples of folks who have failed to improve the individual or the group. Real change begins with the heart. If my own experience is any indication, the human heart resists change like water resists oil!

Historically, how can one change the human heart? The Bible says that we are born into sin, powerless to change the evil inclinations that are part of the fabric of human souls. We are cursed. The only hope is for something more powerful than evil to work its power from within. This isn’t possible by imposing an ethical code! Good preaching cannot change the heart! Good education and social reform have proven powerless in the battle against evil–just look at crime rates in communities with lots of social programs.

What must we do? Jesus was sent to defeat the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). He once told a prominent wise man that the only way to see the Kingdom of God is to be born again (John 3). The only agent of change in the human heart is its creator. How is this different from battling the evil in our own hearts? Self-improvement is a scam. God’s improvement comes with the promise of power, renewal and love. And when individuals are transformed by God’s power, societies tend to change as well.

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