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Why Good People Do Bad Things

Lost In A House Of Mirrors

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 24, 2000

Selected highlights from this sermon

The first mirror that reflects who we are is our parents. Teachers, coaches and the culture can influence us as well. And what they reflect back builds (or destroys) our perception of ourselves.

Even at an early age, children discover that they can be one person on the outside and someone completely different inside. And that young, impressionable identity will determine our behavior: what we do and how we live.

In order to keep from falling into denial and even deception, we need to use the Word of God as our mirror. That’s where we should go to find out who we are. It’s not like a fun house mirror that distorts reality, the Word of God is unbent and will help us find a sense of identity.

"Only God knows who I really am, and may He graciously preserve me from finding out."

Those are actually the words of Johann von Goethe, the scholar of the German enlightenment. Goethe knew that self-discovery is very painful. That’s why he preferred if God alone kept his information and preserved him from finding out. What Goethe didn’t realize was that if he had been wiling to go through that self-examination, if he had been willing indeed to go through that painful self-discovery, maybe his life would have been fulfilling, and of course he could not have done it without confronting God.

Self-perception lies at the root of the very core of who we are and the way we behave. Give a four-year old boy a cowboy hat and he will ride every piece of furniture in the house. Give a little girl a doll and she will act like a mother.

Marilyn Monroe grew up in a series of foster homes, and was not loved. She felt unlovable, and because she felt that way she decided to reach out for love in all the ways that she possibly could. And she ended up, as others have, finding out that it was the wrong way to pursue love and she died with an overdose.

Or it’s like the woman who said to me, “My dad told me I was trash, so I lived out his words and his prophecy.” Self-perception determines the way we behave. If that’s true then of course we have to ask the questions, “What about self perception? How do we go about discovering who we really are? And even though it is painful, what is the end result?” And actually while we are talking about it, why this disconnect at times between the image that we portray outwardly, and the people that we really are privately.

Well, as many of you know, this is the beginning of a series of messages entitled Why Good People Do Bad Things, and of course we’re going to have to talk about issues such as shame and anger and desires and all of those things so that we better understand ourselves and why you and I could do some very bad things. In effect, what we are going to do is we are going to take a spotlight and shine it on the human heart, and much of what we uncover is going to be very uncomfortable, but the good news is we are on this journey together. I need to tell you it’s uncomfortable for me too but we are going to look into the human heart, and we are also going to see the wonder of God’s grace and His answer to our most hidden, deceitful ways.

Many years ago I was at a county fair and I walked into what was called a fun house. It was really the house of mirrors. It was very interesting. You probably have been there. I looked at one mirror and I remember I was tall and skinny. I looked at another mirror and I had a very big head. (Laughs) Perhaps that represented reality, but a very big head and a very small torso. And then I walked into another room and the opposite was true. By the time you go through the house of mirrors what you are really looking for is a black mirror to remind yourself of who you really are.

Now imagine this. There are many people who go around in life and they are spending their whole life trying to find a mirror so that they might know who they really are so that they have some sense of identity. But there is no way for them to be able to find it because they have not looked into the right mirror.

Now of course when we speak of mirrors who is the first mirror that we have that reflects who we are? It is, of course, our parents. If you grew up in a healthy home where you were given two things that a child needs for a good sense of identity, namely love and respect, you have a much better chance of being able to take those values and put them in your marriage. You have a much better chance of being a holistic person in the right sense of the word, being able to cope with life, having a good sense of who you are and a good self concept. Now the problem with such people, by the way, is they usually make good marriage partners but they overestimate their own sense of wholeness and goodness, and sometimes they don’t have a heart hot for God because in their mind (it’s a warped view) they really don’t need Him that badly.

And if you were brought up in an abusive home (I’m talking about alcoholism) where you were undercut and where shame was a part of your existence, you are going to struggle a whole lot more about who you are, and you might end up with what I call the big three – shame, anger and self-condemnation. Recently I read of a father who said to his son in anger, “You are nothing more than the product of a one night fling.” Now you think about that. What the father wanted to do is to destroy that boy, to destroy him at his very core. You know, if you were to take a gun and shoot him there’d be certain social consequences, but because the boy is still living physically, he wanted to destroy him spiritually, to destroy him at the core of his existence. And think of those words that that boy will take into the rest of his life, trying to find out who he is. So we have our parents who have an enormous impact, so impactful in fact that one of the messages I preach in this series is on the role of the father because your father shapes you in ways that you may not know anything about. And so that’s going to be a message in this series.

But then of course we have teachers, and we have others. If Dorie Van Stone was abused and the like in orphanages, and she tells how she used to go to a certain drug store because there was a kind man there who used to let her have a malt without paying for it. And he used to talk to her in a cheery, helpful way and she never forgot it. She still talks about it. I wonder, by the way, how many children we sometimes walk by and they are hurting and we are not perceptive enough to recognize it. So here’s a little window of hope. Though my home is abusive, maybe out there somewhere there might be some kindness and there might be some love.

Well, then we have our parents, we have our teachers, and we have other people. If you are married your partner will certainly help you in your sense of self-perception, and on we could go. But a problem develops and that problem is pretty soon we as children when we were growing up discovered something, namely that we can be one person on the outside and someone else on the inside. And when we discover that, we can be on our journey to deep deception.

I’ll never forget when I discovered it. I was about 10 or 12 years old and I had the responsibility of feeding the chickens out on the farm at 5 o’clock every afternoon. Because I had nothing to do, all day to do it in, and nobody to help me, I was fully responsible. Being the last- born I had so much time on my hands, it was just unbelievable. My brothers and sisters had to work and I got by with all kinds of things so I had no excuse.

I walked into the garage one day at about 5:30 and my father said, “Did you feed the chickens?” I didn’t want to encourage his displeasure, and I felt somewhat embarrassed, so I said, “Yes. Yes I did.” Ten minutes later I left the garage and went and did what I was supposed to have done a half an hour before, and I remember distinctly saying to myself, “This lie really worked.” I remember that. In fact, I thought to myself, “You know that means that whenever I am in a jam lies actually do work.” You know the Sunday school pupil had a corner on the truth when he said, “A lie is an abomination unto the Lord but a very present help in time of trouble.” (laughter) There’s something to that.

Fortunately my foray into the world of deceit and lying was so short lived because my brother overheard the conversation in the garage, and when he saw me coming back from where the chickens were he said, “You lied to Dad, didn’t you?” And I had to admit that I did, and he said, “Don’t you know that God is watching?” Aw, God! Why bring God into this? And I’ll tell you. I thank God that that ended my lying career. Do you know what could have happened? I could have told that lie and gotten by with it and discovered that there’s something to this business of deceit, and I could have told another one and more, and then you have people whose whole secret lives become one of deceit where they are so devious and so cunning because they are fundamentally dishonest.

I think that Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian was right when he said that we are all incorrigible liars. To some extent we lie to ourselves. We lie to others and we lie to God and that’s the kind of thing we hope to uncover in this series of messages. I’ll tell you that it’s going to be painful for a lot of us.

I’m reminded of the words of Sir Walter Scott who was so right when he said, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Barth was right that we resist every encroachment of light. There is nothing that we fear more than self-disclosure in the presence of God and in the presence of others because we hang on to who we are and we want our secrets to remain ours.

So you have this discrepancy. On the one hand there are people who are greedy and selfish but they desperately want to come across as generous and kind. Ananias and Saphira lied about the amount that they received from the land. Why? It was because she wanted to be well thought of. Saphira was one of the people in the Church. There were deaconesses that were very generous and so they lied in order not only to hide their sin but also to project an image that was not true of them. And so you have people whose lives are filled with deceit and all kinds of uncleanness, but they come across as people of integrity and are sometimes fastidious. Oh man, I kind of like that word. They are fastidious in their commitment to making sure that they look just right, especially on Sundays and on church occasions. And so you have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the summer in preparation for this series of messages I finally read that book. All my life I heard about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Well someday I am going to tell you about them, and some of you know somebody who perhaps represents them very well.

And so there is this disconnect and then we fall into what is known as denial and we are told that there are two kinds. The first is conscious denial. That’s where I hide things because I know right well that I am sinning and so I hide them very carefully. And then you can actually get to the point of unconscious denial where you actually begin to believe your own lies and you actually think that lies are reality. People sometimes construct such defenses to avoid further pain or to hide sin, or whatever, where you actually believe your own lies.

Somebody once said to me, speaking about himself, “I don’t have any blind spots.” Have you thought about how funny that is? If you had a blind spot you’d be the last person to know about it. That’s what a blind spot is. That’s the whole point, my friend. If a wife tells me she lives with a man who doesn’t have any blind spots, now I have some reason to think that maybe he doesn’t, but if he tells me, are you kidding me? You are telling me you don’t have any blind spots? I remember a man whose life could be best characterized by being one big blind spot, and yet he argued ferociously for his position and who he was and no matter what was said to him, there was no intake. In fact, I can tell you his reality check bounced.

Now the question is where do we turn? To what mirror do we look, not merely to see our bodies, but rather to x-ray our souls. That’s what we need. Our parents did a job that may have been good. It may have been bad, but it could not possibly be thorough. Our teachers and our friends and even our wives and other members within the family might reflect back to us who we really are but think of Judas there at the Last Supper. Nobody really knew who he was and whom they were sitting beside. To where do we go to finally find out who we really are?

Well I want you to take your Bibles and turn to James 1. James is going to help us here, and I’m going to begin at verse 22. He says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

James says that the word of God is the mirror and it is to the word of God that we come to find out who we are. Now in those days mirrors were actually made of tin and bronze, and they were not very accurate. The mirrors were not like they are today, and people saw themselves, but James is going to call the Bible the perfect law. It is the unbent mirror that finally helps us have a sense of identity.

Now in primitive cultures they do not have mirrors. I have heard of missionaries who gave mirrors to people and they were astounded. Imagine living your entire life and not knowing what you look like except perhaps what people might tell you about yourself. In fact, I heard about one woman who took the mirror and thought that she was seeing someone behind her and said, translated into English, “Who is this hag that is living in this village?” She’d never seen herself before.

When we come to the word of God now we finally have a reflection as to who we really are, and James talks about those who have two different responses. The first is what I call the passive listener. He’s the one who forgets, and James says that it is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and after looking at himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

Now friends, I just need to give you a little word from my heart to yours. James here is an accurate student of human nature. He uses a word in Greek that definitely means man as opposed to woman. It’s just not mankind. It is man. It is male, because may I say that if there’s anything true about women, it is not that they have a tendency to look into a mirror and immediately go their way and forget what manner of woman they are? That’s a man thing.

That’s one reason why James uses a man. There’s another reason also. It’s that men find it very difficult to admit who they are – much more difficult than women do. I want you to know that when a man says he is working through his pain, he may only be finding another way to really hide it because we as men are not very good at vulnerability and openness, and so James says we are like the person, if we simply hear the word, that goes in and then we turn away from it.

Another comment! When James speaks about the person who hears the word of God (and he says in verse 22 to not merely listen to the word), you’ll notice how often he uses the word “hearer”. And if it’s all that he does, the word that is used was frequently used for an auditor. Do you know who an auditor is? I know that we have tax auditors, but there are also auditors in our classrooms.

I have to tell you that one day I took a class from someone and I was an auditor, and he did not like auditors, and I wondered why. Later on when I began to teach I have to tell you I disliked auditors. Oh, they really bothered me because auditors would say, “We want to come and listen to your lectures.” I would ask, “Do you want to do the reading? Do you want to write the paper? Do you want to take the exam? “No, we’re just here in case it’s interesting, and if you are not interesting, Starbucks is just around the corner.” That’s an auditor, a person who wants to get in on the goodies but he doesn’t want to do the assignment. He wants to hear the word of God but he does not want to obey it.

There are two characteristics of this kind of a passive listener. Number one, he forgets what he hears. He goes to church. He sings songs. He hears marvelous testimonies and what does he do? He’ll turn on the television set and begin to change everything that has been coming into him, and pretty soon he’s forgotten it all. He can’t remember it. Or he might be like some teenagers. When I was the pastor of another church here in the city (this is the second church that I have pastored) some teenagers came to me one time. I remember they used to sit in the balcony every Sunday. Fortunately they would sit as near as they could to the front there in the balcony but I used to see them. And one day they said, “Do you know what we do after you are finished preaching?” And I said, “I have no idea but I’d sure like to know.” They said, “We get into the car and we turn on the music as loud as we can to deaden everything that you told us.”

Now notice this. James says that there are people like that. They will not accept the word of God. They forget it but also they are deceived. You’ll notice he says, “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourself” there in verse 22. That word “deceive” is from two Greek words – para and logitsumi. Para means alongside of. Logitsumi means to reason. So they reason alongside of themselves. We might translate it they are beside themselves because here’s where they have all of those rationalizations, all of those protective coverings, all of these reasons why listening is sufficient. “After all” they say, “weren’t we in church this morning? Don’t we support the ministry?” And that gives them, you see, an excuse to not deal with the deeper issues of life.

I have a question for you today. James is talking about those who listen to the word of God and don’t profit, but I need to say that there are also those who study the word of God and do not profit from it. Why? It’s because they don’t come to the word of God with the intention of self-exposure. They do not come by saying “I wonder what God is going to say to me today so that I can respond to it.” That’s not the mindset. They are there to listen maybe, to pick up a few interesting points, and even to study it, and to dissect it, but not that it might change them.
Here’s a warning to you scholars. There are students who take the word of God and dissect it like a frog, but leave it on the table with no intention of having their dissection really affect their lives. So that’s passive listeners.

Let’s go on to the active listener, the obedient one, the doer, as the text says. You’ll notice it says that the man who looks intently into the perfect law (this is verse 25) that gives freedom and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard but doing it, he will be blessed in what he does. This is the active listener. He gazes into the perfect law. He looks at this mirror and says to himself, “Whatever it says, and whatever it tells me, that I shall do.” And by the way, it is the law that brings freedom. Isn’t that a contradiction? The law that brings freedom? I thought that freedom was to be free from the law. I thought that was the whole point. People today say, “I don’t want to be under the law. I just want to be free. I just want to do whatever I want.” No, my friend! It is the law that brings freedom and so please keep that in mind. It is freedom by looking into God’s mirror.

How do we characterize a man like this? Well, there are three different ways that we can. First of all, he is clean. I’m picking this up actually in verse 21 where he’s telling us how to listen to the word of God. “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Get rid of all of that moral filth. He could say, “Sell your television set.”

Now it’s interesting that the Greek word for “filth” is often used for wax in the ear, and I think that James here has got this point on words going because he’s talking about being a listener and just hearing the word, and then really listening. Remember Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear let him hear.” Everybody was hearing the words, but there were many people who were not responding. It was like water on a marble slab. It did not penetrate them. So what he’s saying is, “Get rid of the wax in your ear. Listen. Listen up,” as the saying goes.

I read a story about a man who was at a music hall at a Christian musical that was so powerful that at the end everyone was weeping. Everyone was thinking about the emotion and the drama of what was happening, and he stood up after it was over and he turned back and there was a friend of his, and the friend said, “Hi, how are you doing? What do you think about them there Cubs?” He was thinking, “Them there Cubs? Is this guy in the same meeting I was in? I mean how can he be sitting there of all things thinking about the Cubs when you’ve got all this going on?” He’s not there to hear. Now there might be a place where you can ask about them there Cubs about every week. The point is that there is a certain context in which you can ask that, but at a meeting in which the Holy Spirit is present, where hearts are being tugged and where they are being turned, I hope that this is kosher to be able to say this but, “Get the wax out of your ear.”

Have you ever gone to church and then gone home with someone and you say to yourself, “Were they in the same meeting as I was? Did they hear anything? Didn’t they hear the singing? Didn’t they hear that testimony? Where were they?” James says, “Get rid of the filth in your life and you will improve your hearing.”
So first of all he is a clean person. Secondly, he is teachable. You’ll notice it says, “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” So we are talking about humility. I come to the word of God not to judge it, not merely to hear the words, but I come to the word of God to submit to it because I know that there are all kinds of things in my life that God wants to talk to me about, and therefore I must look at that mirror and see what’s there for me, and so I come humbly.

What is your attitude when you come to church? Do you listen to a sermon saying, “I wonder if it’s going to be interesting?” Sometimes those of us who preach may be interesting. Sometimes we may not be interesting. Does it really matter? We should come to church just like you might be in a courtroom when a will is being read, and you know that your name is included in the will but you don’t know exactly what’s been given to you or, for that matter, what’s been taken away. And so you are all ears. You are listening for your name, and it doesn’t matter whether the guy who is reading it is exciting and pronounces all of the words right, and whether or not he’s a monotone. It really doesn’t matter. You’re there to hear your name. Do you come to church like that?

Do you come to church saying, “God, I’m here to glorify your name but also to hear my name?" I want to be teachable.” And so you’ll notice that he is clean and he is teachable. He is obedient. James says, in fact, what you should do if you really are obedient is you should be able to control your tongue and take care of the widows. He has a very practical application of what obedience means. But of course the word does more than that for us, doesn’t it? That’s only a part of it.

In Pilgrim’s Progress there is a discussion of the mirror called God’s word, and this is what it says. “The man who continues looking into the mirror of God’s word sees in it things far more wonderful than his own face. He sees not only his filthy garments, not only the spots and stains on his life. He sees in it Christ, the Christ of the thorn crowned brow, the Christ of the cross, the Savior whose blood cleanses him from sin.” And so it is there that we get a whole new identity, that we are washed and we are redeemed, and we belong to God. And so we think of ourselves differently.

This past week I was on a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago on United Airlines. And it was on time. Let’s give them that credit. Okay? And they showed a movie, and so I was reading a book and I thought to myself, “Well, I can watch this movie too.” Most movies you can read a book very easily through and this I felt was one of those. I was doing this very well but then I began to realize that the movie was very defiling, even though it was - quote - edited for airline use. And so I watched it a little longer and then I thought to myself, “You know, no pastor of Moody Church should be watching this movie,” so I took the headset off and I put it beside me there on the seat that was vacant next to me. But then I began to think about my thought – that no pastor of Moody Church should watch this movie. That was the wrong thing thought, believe it or not. Of course no pastor should watch it. That’s not the point of argument, but what if I weren’t a pastor? What if I were a businessman who loves Christ and is a member or attendee of Moody Church or some other evangelical church who is wanting to live for Jesus in this polluted world? He shouldn’t be watching it either. So the real answer is not just because I am defined in terms of my function because that can change. The real answer that I should have given is nobody who has been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and cleansed by Him should be watching this. That’s the real answer because we have a new identity, you see. An identity determines behavior and it determines what we do.

Let me give you three words as we boil this down in practicality. The first word is light. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” This series of messages, God willing, if you pray for me (and I strongly encourage you to fast and pray for me), hopefully is going to take that light of God’s word and shine it into our hearts and we are going to see deceptions. In fact, the next message of the series is entitled Deceived and Loving It. We’ll point out how we really love to be deceived when we want to do something, so it’s going to be painful because we are going to have to deal with things such as anger and shame and guilt and all those things if we’re really thorough. So the word light comes to mind.

The second word that comes to mind is love, a recognition of the fact that we love one another and we are all on our journey. We are all on our way, so to speak. We don’t come to the situation thinking to ourselves that somehow we have arrived. That gap between who we are and whom we project that we are needs to be closed. We need to be willing to deal with those inner things because remember the series of messages is why good people do bad things, and sometimes good people do disastrous things. And dare I say that you or I could do some very bad things? So we do it in an atmosphere of love where it’s okay to be in progress, where it’s okay to talk about struggles, where it’s okay to say that we are not there yet, and recognizing that that’s what the Body of Jesus Christ should be.

Someone has written a book, which I have not read but I do like the title. It is called The Safest Place on Earth. The Church should be a safe place. We don’t tolerate sin but we are very, very patient. We’re all struggling to be pure in the midst of a polluted world. So the second word is love.

Let me give you a third word, and that is the word life. If I could summarize it all maybe it’s the words of Jesus who said, “Unless the corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies.” What is that death? It is a death to self. It is finally ending the blame game. It is ending such things as projecting. It is demolishing the defenses that we have so carefully built. It is becoming really, really honest because honesty kills us. It slays us. But what did Jesus say? “When the corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies it abides alone, but if it dies, it bears fruit.” It brings about life. It gives hope. It changes us, and as a result of that we suddenly discover that the fulfillment about which Jesus spoke is possible because at last we quit running. There are no more games. There is just us and honesty in the presence of God and others.

Now vulnerability is terrifying. We recognize that but I urge you today to be honest at least in the presence of God. Let’s not try to fool Him as sometimes we do. Let’s not minimize sin but simply say, “Lord, here I am. This is what Your mirror says, but this is the answer.” There is cleansing, there is forgiveness, and there is a whole new identity in Jesus and that is the bottom line.

One day some people who really were into God’s word, into the law, the Old Testament law, brought a woman to Jesus and they said, “Jesus, here’s a woman who has been caught in adultery in the very act. What do You suggest? Moses said to stone her. What do You think?” And Jesus said, “Of course, if Moses said it, do it. Go ahead and do it. The only requirement I have is that he who is without sin (and the idea is he who hasn’t committed a similar sin) you cast the first stone.” And so Jesus wrote on the ground as though He heard them not, and one by one they all left and Jesus said, “Is there nobody who has condemned you?” “Nobody, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. Change your vocation. Live differently now that you have been transformed by My awesome power.”

He who looks into the word and immediately goes his way is not helped by the word. You can be here year after year; you can study at Moody Bible Institute and not be helped by the word. The person who gazes into the law continually and says, “God, what’s in it for me in the sense I desire the transformation of my life, I desire to be as holy as You can make me,” that’s obedience to the mirror, and such a man will be blessed in his deeds. So join me on a journey as we look into the human heart and try to figure out why “good people sometimes do very bad things.”

Let’s pray.

And our Father, we thank You today that You know us. We thank You that You know all the hidden crevices of our lives. We thank You that You are aware of our deepest needs, and we ask today in the name of Jesus that You’ll bring us to that sense of honesty, that willingness to look into Your word, to be encouraged by its promises but also rebuked by its warnings. And we pray, oh Father, make us all that we should be for Your glory and for Your honor.

Now, before I close this prayer, if God has talked to you, what is it that you want Him to do during the next eight or nine Sundays? What is it that God has talked to you about? Would you talk to Him about that and say, “God, as much as lies with me, I’ll follow You, no matter the cost.” You tell Him.

Father, for those who want to still be shielded from Your penetrating word, grant us, oh God, that sense of openness, that willingness to say, “Lord, here I am. Do in me as seems good in Your sight.” We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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