The sign beneath the broken clock reads: Don’t blame the hand — the problem is much deeper.
Likewise, the brokenness we lament in today’s world is symptomatic of a much deeper problem, captured succinctly in this statement: “At the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.”
It’s true, for we live from the heart, from which flows all of life’s issues (Proverbs 4:23). The goal of Christian discipleship is to eventually live fully from the new heart Jesus gives us.
But the problem goes all the way back to the Fall in Genesis 3. Sin not only caused separation between the creature and the Creator but also set in motion a degenerating condition in the human heart.
Thus, as early as Genesis 4, a homicide results from conflict between brothers. By Genesis 6, the situation is far worse: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v. 5).
This so grieves God’s heart that He decides to destroy humankind and start over (vv. 6, 7). This He does through a worldwide flood (chapters 6-10) and gives Noah the same assignment He gave to Adam in the garden: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1).
But though Noah “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8), sin’s root remains in him, which is passed down to his descendants — and, by extension, to all of us. So by Genesis 11, sin is so great in the earth that God must again take action. The people are trying to make a name for themselves by building a great city and a tower tall enough to reach the heavens (v. 4).
God stops the building project by confusing their language, but that doesn’t resolve the deeper problem. So He decides to start again, not by a cataclysmic flood but by calling one man to Himself whose heart he would reshape.
Enter Abram (later renamed Abraham) into the redemptive drama (Genesis 12). In our fondness for Father Abraham, we sometimes forget that he wasn’t a Jew when God called him. He was a pagan man from ancient Mesopotamia, where they worshipped the moon god, chief among other idols.
The stark reality is that with the whole human civilization now given to the worship of idols, Abram is the best God can find. He’ll eventually end up in Canaan, where pagan idolatry is far worse.
How did the human condition get this way so early in human history?
Paul helps us understand in his lengthy exposition in Romans 1, concluding with “they did not glorify [God] as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21).
Don’t miss the weight of Paul’s statement. Apart from the light of the gospel, the human heart remains in deep darkness. Hate, violence, frequent mass shootings, senseless wars, a new threat of nuclear conflict, and much more emanate from the darkness of the human heart.
The heart therefore needs to be radically reshaped, which is what God proceeds to do with Abraham and his descendants, Moses, and even the nation of Israel.
God’s explanation for leading the people the long route through the wilderness is instructive: “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
It’s not that God didn’t know what was in the people’s hearts; He wanted them to know. The evil the heart is capable of often escapes us: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
It is helpful to read this as a description of the natural inclinations of the unregenerate heart, but we must be ever mindful, as Robert Murray M’Cheyne says: “The seed of every sin known to man is in my heart.” In other words, without the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the heart remains fertile soil for sin and evil.
This is Paul’s point in the mid-section of Romans. In chapter 6 he tells us how to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ. In chapter 7 he helps us face the reality of the ongoing struggle between our old and new natures. In chapter 8 he explains how we gain victory over the flesh through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
This is rightly regarded as the most important chapter in the New Testament, if not the entire Bible, for it offers the antidote for the degenerating condition. And because this condition affects not just our bodies but the creative order, Paul offers hope that creation itself will one day be redeemed from its “bondage of corruption” (8:21).
Meanwhile, the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses (v. 26) and transforms us into the image of Jesus (v. 29) so we can live fully and vibrantly from the reshaped heart Jesus gives us.
Darkness to light
Our hearts are formed, deformed, and must be transformed. The good news is that God has made a way to solve the problem of the human heart, a way for its darkness to give way to glorious light, the light that shines in our hearts from the face of Jesus:
For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Sin runs deep, but God’s grace runs deeper still — deep enough to reach the problem at the heart of the human problem. So we exclaim with Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24, 25).