Man is basically good. Try saying that with a straight face.

A pastor friend says he was checking into a website responsible for a series of “believe-in-yourself” television commercials that had been airing. When he checked to see who was responsible and what their values were, he found this: We believe in the basic goodness of all people.

One wonders what kind of number a person would have to do on himself to convince himself of that misguided philosophy.

True, we want to believe that. It’s part of our sinful nature to believe that everyone is all right and no one needs forgiving or saving. A major strain in our sinful system holds that all we need to do is release everyone from restraints and preachers should quit laying guilt trips on unsuspecting audiences.

Yeah, right.  But one wonders how many people were killed last night by those who were resisting restraints and determined to have their own way.

In two rather unexpected places, I came upon discussions regarding the contradictory nature of man. One was a western novel and the other a biography of a longshoreman philosopher from over 40 years ago.

In a Western titled Justice, author Ralph Cotton comments on a particularly brutal crime spree involving a group of young men who held up a bank and then a stagecoach which they ran off a high cliff, killing everyone inside. The hero, a U.S. Marshall, investigates the scene and finds a rag doll, indicating that a child had been inside the fatal coach….

Early on, as a younger man, when he’d taken on the mantle and calling of the law, he’d made up his mind that man’s action and deeds would not shock or surprise him. It hadn’t yet. Perhaps this resolve was all that had kept him alive many times throughout his life, up on the high badlands. To be shocked or surprised by the action of man left him at a disadvantage of sorts, he’d always thought. And in his business, he could not afford to be at a disadvantage.

He acknowledged that man at his best was by far God’s most noble creature; yet he accepted that at his worst, man was the true incarnation of all demons the imagination could conjure up from its darkest depth. Man was still the only species he’d ever encountered who killed simply for the sake of killing. There lurked in man a taste for blood and carnage that went far beyond mere survival.

Somehow in man’s twisted thinking, taking life became a means of righting wrongs done to him–wrongs both real and imagined. When fate or luck or circumstance acted in ill favor toward man, there lay a terrible dark force beneath man’s outward personage that compelled him toward violence. What other animal possessed such a perverse nature as that? None that he knew of.

Only the devil…. The devil in skin, he thought; and he ran a gloved hand along the deep scar on his weathered cheek and gazed over to the edge of the canyon.

I don’t recall ever finding such a discussion of the subject of man’s nature and the purity of evil in a novel, particularly a western.

The other story comes from Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey by Calvin Tompkins, published in 1968.

Eric Hoffer was a self-educated American of German heritage who read widely and thought deeply and began to write his aphorisms on various insights into life during the Great Depression while laboring in the fields of California and on the docks of San Francisco. His book The True Believer was required reading in my college for all political science majors. The Ordeal of Change is another classic.

Here’s his story….

All my life I have found that people will go out of their way to be kind. Once, for example, I was going to pick hops near Healdsburg. You know how hops grow? Hops are climbers, they grow very high, and they come in clusters–very light, parchment-like things. It’s easy work and all sorts of people do the picking–women, children–and in the evening you get together and sing. It’s very pleasant.

I was going to this hopyard. I didn’t know where it was. I just jumped off the train at Healdsburg and walked into town, with my bedroll over my shoulder. It was about ten o’clock in the morning. I saw a butcher shop, with the butcher in the window there; he was a tall, heavyset man with a white cap, scraping his block.

I put my head in the door and said, “How do I get to the hopyard?” He looked up. He said, “Wait a second, I’ll call them up and they’ll come and pick you up in their truck.” So he goes over to the phone, and then he turns around and says, “Look, why the h–l do you want to go to work in a hopyard? You’ll live like a dog. Why don’t I get you a job right here, at Miller’s dry yard right in town?”

I said fine. So he calls up on the phone and gets me a job at the dry yard–where they dry prunes. I start to go out and he calls me back. “Wait a second, where you going to live? You can’t sleep out in the hobo jungle and go to work tomorrow.” So he calls up a woman named Mary and gets me an apartment. I start to walk out again, and again he calls me back.

“How are you going to eat?” he says. “They don’t pay you right away, you know.” And he goes to the Greek restaurant right next door and buys me a meal ticket! Within fifteen minutes, then, I have a job, I have an apartment, I have a place to eat.

I stayed in Healdsburg for almost two months. And then one day I picked up the local paper and read about a trial just starting. It had to do with something that happened before I came–an ugly occurrence, when a bunch of vigilantes ganged up on some poor Jewish tailor who was supposed to be a Communist. They riddled his house with bullets, and then they tarred and feathered him. And my butcher was the ringleader! He was on trial! The butcher who could do such acts of kindness was also capable of acts of fearful cruelty. You come to expect these things…

Our Lord once told His audience, “If you being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask Him.” (Matthew 7:11)

You and I are not entirely evil. But there is enough evil in us to taint every aspect of our goodness and to leave no part of our multi-faceted lives unstained.

Each of us is capable of doing good things. Even the worst members of the Mafia seemed to have loved their children.

We are all sinners. We sin against God and violate the plan He has established for our existence. We sin against the people we love most. We sin against ourselves and often are our own worst enemy.

We need rescuing.

One of my favorite verses says, “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14).  Think of that for a moment.  Its meaning is rich:  The One who created us knows we are made of humble stuff.  God is under no illusions about us. He knew He was getting no bargain when He saved us.  When we sin, the only one surprised is us.  From the beginning, God had planned our salvation.

–The angel told Bethlehem’s shepherds: “I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all the people. Unto you is born this day…a Savior.” (Luke 2)

–John the Baptist said of our Lord, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

–Our Lord Jesus said of Himself, “I am the good Shepherd; the good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

A Savior, a Rescuer, a Shepherd. Thank God for such a One. His name is Jesus, and there is no other.

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