No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.
– 1 Corinthians 10 : 13a
The modern man is many things, but in general ignorant is not among them. According to the CIA World Factbook of 2009, the world literacy rate sits at an estimated 82 percent. Especially in “developed” countries, the average person is not only literate but also “numerate,” possessing the ability to do most simple arithmetic computations. Add to this the high frequency of other types of “literacy,” including technological and scientific, and we start to have a picture of a pretty high level of education in the world compared to historical figures. Even just 150 years ago, according to UNESCO, it was estimated that only 10% of the world’s population could read and write. (And i imagine the number of people who could use a computer was pretty close to 0.)
What i am driving at here is the obvious conclusion, one which most of us on some level believe, that the modern man knows a whole bunch of stuff. And if the common adage is also nearly universally held true, that which claims “knowledge is power,” modern man by extension is also on average a highly potent creature. The effects of this are seen in many ways, both in the good we can do and in the evil. We have managed as a race to nearly eliminate diseases that used to devastate populations. We have also managed, in the absence of these maladies, to find ways to create far greater devastation. Witness the A-bomb.
Given all of this “accomplishment,” and the pyramidal nature of knowledge in general, it is quite easy to come to the conclusion that ancient man was quite different than man today. And in some ways, i imagine, that is true. But knowledge by no means is our only characteristic, and thus by and large, i think this conclusion stems from rather fallacious thinking. i shall try to explain why.
Growing up i remember hearing the stories from Scripture and receiving them, albeit unintentionally, in the same vein as Greek mythology, or the fairy tales of Grimm. The characters seemed idealized and fantastic, and the circumstances in which they found themselves were utterly fabulous and contrived. Talking snakes, direct conversations with an audible God, a giant flood, frog-rain and blood-rivers, mute and sated lions, fireproof skin: the examples are myriad. As a result, i grew up hearing these examples of living, and somewhere deep inside me a kernel of doubt was planted: on some level, i knew, partially because i had already done so, that i would always fail to live this kind of life. i would never have enough faith to defy the ruler of the known world, or attack a giant with a slingshot, or nearly sacrifice my own and only son.
As i have gotten older, however, and as the Lord has graciously opened my eyes, i have come to realize that these tales are not the only ones in the Scriptures. In fact, for the most part the narratives in the Bible are not tales of extreme faith, but extreme failure. Abraham, always regarded as the patriarch of faith, tells the same faithless lie multiple times. Isaac takes a page out of his book and tells the exact same lie with, not surprisingly, the same disastrous consequences. And Jacob, not content to merely follow in their footsteps, finds all kinds of inventive ways to outdo the both of them in deception. David’s sins are well documented of course; they are numerous, and quite grotesque. Paul is a murderer, Peter is a liar and an elitist, and many of the other early disciples simply suffer from cowardice.
When we take their whole stories into account, these men are far from being the perfect examples of how to live i thought them when growing up. Nevertheless, here we are, reading about all of them thousands of years later. i think this is because, if i may paraphrase Disraeli, most of our successes have been built not on other successes, but on our failures. And strangely enough, when i look at my own history of deceit, addiction, cowardice, violence, elitism, and just plain ineffectiveness, it starts to be somewhat comforting that all of these great leaders of the history of our faith suffered from exactly the same maladies. Heck, it’s pretty obvious that Adam did too: he was power-hungry, cowardly, and faithless when he ate the apple. Regardless of how many talking snakes there were.
Education, clean water, iPhones, communication, medicine: all of these things may seem to make us quite different than the “men of old.” But when we look at the whole story, and we see that men are still power-hungry, cowardly, and faithless, when we see that there are still orphans and there is still murder and there is still deceit, the picture starts to look a little different. Circumstances may differ greatly, but the man in them does not. There is, and until this earth ends always shall be, only one type of man: literate or no, we are all just foolish and weak. Fortunately, we are all foolish and weak. There is something communal, and something blessed, in this collective inadequacy.
Perhaps i make it poorly, but the ultimate point is that men of all times and in all places and of all races are, in most of the ways that truly matter, nearly identical. This can encourage us in two ways. First, it reminds us that whatever private battle we face, whatever horrid sin we have done, whatever secrets lie unearthed in our past, there is nothing there that has not been done many, many times before, and (most importantly) there is nothing there that hasn’t already been payed for by Christ on the cross. Nothing.
Secondly, maybe it can help us to see each other just a little differently. When we are competing with someone at work, or when we are cut off in traffic, or when some family member just irks us to no end, whatever our conflict with another may be, there are always far more commonalities than differences. So maybe, and i speak mostly to myself here, maybe we can learn to look for those confluences a little more and love those 99-percent-the-same-as-us folks just a little better.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
– 1 Corinthians 1 : 27