The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9
• On March 11, 2012, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales slipped away from his barracks before dawn in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Taking a 9-millimeter pistol and an M-4 rifle equipped with a grenade launcher, Bales attacked the village of Alkozan. Returning to his compound, he woke up a fellow soldier and told him of his dark deeds. The soldier didn’t believe what he heard and promptly went back to sleep. Bales left and attacked a second village. By early morning the 39-year-old had murdered sixteen Afghan civilians, many of them women and children who were sleeping. Last month, in a military court, Bales pleaded guilty to each charge against him. When asked by the judge why he killed the villagers, Bales responded, I’ve asked that question a million times since then. There’s not a good reason in the world why I did the horrible things I did.
• In early June, Leslie Van Houton, one of the members of the notorious Charles Manson Family, was denied her freedom at her twentieth parole hearing. Van Houten has served 44 years in prison for her role in the Tate-LaBianca murders that took place during the summer of 1969. During her parole hearing, Van Houten said that she had been traumatized by her parents’ divorce and by the abortion she’d had when she was 19 years old, both of which led to her alliance with the Manson Family. Hearings Commissioner Jeffrey Ferguson told Van Houten, Many people have traumatic childhoods. You have failed to explain at this time what would cause you to commit such horrific atrocities.
• In mid-June the neighbors of Michael Karkoc, a 92-year-old resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota, were horrified to learn that the man who had lived by their side for over six decades was being investigated as a war criminal. Mr. Karkoc served as a top commander in the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion during World War II and is accused of atrocities such as burning villages that housed women and children. Karkoc’s next-door neighbor was stymied: I know him personally. We talk, laugh. He takes care of his yard and walks with his wife.
What do we learn about the human predicament from these stories? Do they teach us to withhold trust from those we encounter? A cry of the 1960s was Don’t trust anyone over thirty. Shall I not trust anyone at all? Is the moral of these tales that we should be suspicious of anyone and everyone? Or are these sensational news releases simply flash points that highlight the exception rather than the rule?
Our Christian worldview helps us answer these and related questions. On the one hand, we don’t really knowour neighbor. He or she could be like Walter White of Breaking Bad, that is, a meth dealer masquerading as a high school teacher. On the other hand, we doknow our neighbor because we know ourselves. We agree with Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev who said, I do not know what the heart of a bad man is like. But I do know what the heart of a good man is like. And it is terrible. We know that something resides in us that is not good; we know that there is a beast within. Our appetites are not quite right. We have a bent toward envy, lust, pride, and gluttony whether of food or fortune. As Albert Einstein put it, The true problem lies in the hearts and thoughts of men… . What terrifies us is not the explosive force of the atomic bomb but the power of wickedness of the human heart.
• When it was learned that the Tsarnaev brothers were the perpetrators of the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April, their neighbors were shocked! Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a progressive college town. The superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools was baffled:How is it that a person who grew up in a place like this ends up in a place like that?
But believers shouldn’t have been surprised. Our understanding of human nature and our understanding of ourselves is informed not by humanistic philosophy, but by Jesus. Our Lord said our fundamental nature is not shaped by our neighborhood, and our fundamental problem stems not from our family, our friends, or the food we eat. Our deepest problems are rooted in our heart. Think of the time the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the necessity of hand-washing before lunch. Jesus shot back saying that their problem was far from skin deep, for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person (Matthew 15:19-20).
These are what defile a person. And these are what defile me. It is not just the members of the Manson Family who have a heart problem. It is not just Woody Allen, who justified his affair with his wife’s daughter by saying, The heart wants what it wants. It is my heart that is flawed. It is my heart that is in need of repair. The apostle Paul spoke for me when he said, For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out (Romans 7:18).
Our heart of darkness is our most basic problem, our most fundamental flaw. In the middle of the twentieth century, Russian soldier Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in prison for telling a joke about Joseph Stalin. He went to prison proud and angry. He left rejoicing that God had given him a new heart. In his memoirs he reflected on his prison experience:
It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.… And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart— and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
Aren’t you glad we have a Savior? Isn’t it good news that Jesus told us we must be born again? Does it not make you sing for joy that God himself promised to give us a new heart? Are you not thankful that God said, I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26)? A new heart! Imagine!
Left to myself I am more similar to Adolf Hitler than Jesus of Nazareth. But when I come to Jesus as Lord and Savior, the law of the Spirit of lifehas set me free from myself. Praise be to God.