Why You Behave the Way You Do
If you’re sometimes confused and even surprised by the things you do (especially the bad things), you’re not alone. Perhaps the only thing more shocking that why we behave why we do– is why others behave the way they do!
People everywhere feel the same. Not only now, but for millennia, human behavior has been a topic of discussion and concern. Civilizations throughout history have wanted to understand human behavior and its motivations. Good behavior is no problem. It enriches the world and only makes things better. It’s the bad behavior that concerns people. That’s because of the toll that bad behavior exacts on people, communities, and society at large.
In response to bad behavior, ‘laws’ are created, along with civil, meaning “state” or government punishments. But all laws only discourage behavior, not necessarily prevent it. Civilized societies discovered a long time ago that we can legislate behavior, but that we cannot externally change the human heart.
In fact, as long as a person is willing to deal with the odds of either getting caught and/or the consequences of their decisions, ‘laws’ and other external forces meant to curb behavior have little or no effect. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t have laws– we should and must. But it’s important to understand that laws operate at the lowest level of personal character– external behavior, rather than at the root of behavior, which is its source: the human heart.
Human Behavior is a Wild Card
That leads us to the problem. The problem is that human behavior is a wild card. It’s not always predictable. And that’s because people have free will. We call ‘free will’ “agency.” Agency is the ability to make choices freely, according to one’s own desires. So people are “agents,” and we have the God-given ability to choose what we want to do.
God’s made it that way, even though free will comes with the necessity that we can choose something other than ‘good.’ After all, “free will” wouldn’t be free if people couldn’t ‘will’ “freely.” In other words, if the only choice is “do what is right and good,” then there’s really no choice– then choices are actually determined, not free. So that’s the conundrum of free will– that, to get it, we have to open the possibility of bad behavior.
It isn’t as if God didn’t know that when He conceptualized and, in His inscrutible wisdom, choose to give us free will. There simply was no middle way: logically it wasn’t possible to create free will without the possibility of bad behavior. But God (apparently) deemed it “better” to offer free will or “personal agency” to us than to create a world of wound-up, determined robots going through the motions of a mechanized world. So it was either that– or freedom…. or to just create nothing at all. So, because God is greater and infinitely wise, He created an equitable system where, by the end of it all, He’d work out every injustice and circumvent every illegitimate human hurt, through His great providence, purpose, and wisdom.
So that takes care of part of the issue– that, ultimately, justice for bad human behavior will be addressed, and that God will redeem every injustice and give us everlasting bliss as believers– but FOR NOW, we still have the temporal and troubling daily issue of dealing with our, and others, free will– and the decisions and behaviors that go with it.
That said, the problem is that, sometimes, what we want to do has negative ramifications. Freedom has consequences– and it can produce both positive and negative outcomes.
The Apostle Paul Nailed It
An often-quoted statement from the Apostle Paul in the New Testament nails it:
“I am a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the sin at work within me. (Romans 7:14-21 excerpts, New Testament)
How much clearer could it be? Written thousands of years ago, we find ourselves sitting beside Paul, with our own hands gripping his ink-dipped quill, helping him write these words.
Paul was dealing with a profoundly important and personal issue we all face: our behavior.
Fundamentally, we behave the way we do because of the two or three causes or mitigating factors: Human behavior can be largely explained by these three factors:
Human Behavior is affected by the fact that we have moral agency– the fact that we have “free will.” I prefer the phrase ‘agency’ but free will is more common of a term and more broadly understood. Some of us who traffic in theology feel there are better ways and more exacting ways to communicate it, but for the simplicity of the discussion, let’s go with “free will.”
Human Behavior is affected by the fact that we have a fallen nature. Our human condition is compromised. We are broken. More about that in a minute.
Human Behavior is mitigated by the possession of and response to factors that include the activity and our response to the Human Conscience (in all people) and the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (Christian believers).
Now, let’s go back to the topic of this post (behavior) and to the current series– How to Have a Clear Conscience, and see how these relate to human behavior.
Theologians call this problem “Original Sin.” And sometimes it’s also called the Fall of Adam.
The Bible speaks about it in Romans 5:12, through the Apostle Paul. He writes: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”
Here the Bible is speaking of the fact that spiritual brokenness entered the human experience (“just as sin entered the world”) through Adam, the Original Human Being (“through one man”), that sin brought physical and spiritual separation from God (“and death through sin”). And because of this Original Sin of Adam, that condition of being spiritually and physically separated from God was from then on inherited by all people, everywhere (“and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned”).
Wait! What Do You Mean We Have “Original Sin?”
I know, it’s startling. The idea that all people are broken is hard to swallow. Even harder is the idea that every person, when they are born, have something deeply and intrinsically wrong in their personhood. Just the idea– we don’t like it. And on that basis, many people simply reject the idea of Original Sin as being over the top.
So I realize that it’s a sobering concept, but I also believe the existence and reality of Original Sin is demonstrable in several ways. I like to think of it this way…
Indications of Original Sin
When a child is born and is only moments old (this is going to be tough to read, so brace yourself), we already know that, embedded within that child’s humanity is the condition of being mortal. In other words, when a child is born, we know that that child (and every child who ever lived) has a date of terminus– the child, whether he or she grows up or grows old, will ultimately die.
This is true, even if we could keep that person from any physical or medical threat. In such a case, even if no tragedy befell them, we KNOW that even that person would ultimately die of, if nothing else, “old age.”
Mortality affects 100% of people. And mortality itself is a direct result of Original Sin. And so is aging. If Original Sin didn’t exist, it seems that aging, disease, dying, and the like simply wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Why, after all, would or should anyone necessarily die? What explanation might be given for aging and dying of old age, if not Original Sin?
But in addition to this, consider another really obvious indication of “Original SIn.” Specifically, the idea that every person is “born with” a negative moral condition of being fallen. And it seems to me that this is demonstrably true.
Consider this: No good parent ever taught their child to do anything wrong. But kids do wrong things sometimes– even frequently. In fact, not only do we “not have to teach children to do ‘evil,’” they choose to do it quite naturally. In fact, kids often exhibit bad behavior IN SPITE OF the fact that we teach them constantly about good behavior!
What’s more, the very fact that we feel that we NEED to teach people to “behave” shows the implicit realization we have that people, left to themselves, will not always behave very well.
That’s a tacit admission that we innately realize that people carry an inherent brokenness. Meaning, functionally speaking, everyone– deep down– knows that all humans are not only capable of doing bad things– but that people can and will do bad things at times, out of their own volition, even when they are taught to do otherwise. In fact, even with the threat of punishment or pain, people of all ages, including children, naturally and quite easily choose bad behavior at times.
This isn’t meant to be negative— it’s just to establish an important theological truth: That Original Sin exists and that, inherently, we know it– even though it’s hard to admit.
Understanding Our Broken Nature
And because our human nature is broken, we do things we shouldn’t. We do things we don’t want to do. We do things others don’t want us to do. And we do things that, as a result, harm us… and others. These things harm us in all kinds of ways– sometimes emotionally; sometimes relationally; sometimes mentally; sometimes physically– and sometimes our behavior harms us in all of those ways.
So it’s important to understand human behavior and to get this figured out because it affects us (and others), including the ones we love, on a regular, even daily basis.
What Original Sin Does
It’s pretty clear that Original Sin is a serious thing. It has contaminated us. By that Original Sin passing from Adam on to us, we now have the natural predisposition to do things we shouldn’t do. We are, if you please, hard-wired in a way that we sometimes gravitate toward becoming unruly and even rebellious.
Let’s go just a little deeper.
First, I should say that I realize some people won’t or don’t like this idea. In fact, some are even ‘offended’ by it. That, plus it seems counterintuitive.
Didn’t God Create Us as Perfect Beings?
The reasoning against Original Sin goes something like this:
- God is perfect.
- God created a perfect world (as seen in Paradise or Eden, Genesis 1-3).
- In that perfect world he placed perfect people.
- These people were created in His image and, as such, must have been perfect and therefore– fundamentally good.
On the surface it sounds perfectly logical. And it’s almost correct. But there’s more to it than what’s at face value.
- God is perfect. That part is right on the money.
- Also, God did create a perfect world. Again, good.
And in that perfect would, God created perfect people. Here, we have to say both, “yes” and “not exactly.” When God created Adam and Eve, they were “functionally perfect” in that they were newly created and had not sinned. But that did not mean they were completely perfect in terms of their human nature.
Don’t miss this.
Adam and Eve were created and were without sin. But because they were created, and finite, they were fundamentally different than God. And as created beings, though they were made “in God’s image,” they were not capable of receiving a completely incorruptible human nature. So while they were created as innocent and without sin, they were given free will and this (coupled with the fact that they were human and not God Himself) made them vulnerable.
Then, ultimately, Lucifer was expelled from Heaven due to his rebellion against God– he exploited this human vulnerability (free will or agency) and the corruptible (but then-innocent) nature of people was tempted and humanity fell.
This fallenness has been passed on, since that time, to all of us. It is the root cause of our estrangement from God, our personal issues, our bad behavior, and our moral weakness, in addition to a host of other things.
And if we take that issue, Original Sin, and add it to on-going human agency, our free will takes us places. And that… is why we behave the way we do.