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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mental Disorder or Evil Heart Condition?

As I’m sure we’ve all heard by this point, a week ago, a teenager in Florida walked into his former high school and killed 17 people: 14 students and 3 faculty members.

When events like this occur, we all question why someone would do this. Why would someone decide to take the lives of lots of people? A common response to this question is that the person was mentally ill. This event was no different. According to the initial reports, the shooter has a history of mental illness. Is mental illness really what provokes people to kill other people? Or is something else going on that we’ve failed to consider because this something else is too hard for us to accept?

I’ll start by stating that I’m not claiming to know the answer to this question. I don’t know Nikolas Cruz any more than I know Donald Trump. So of course, I have no reason to believe I know what’s going on inside his head. Psychologists may test him as mentally ill.

But that’s not where I’m going with this article. Instead, I’d like to offer up another possible reason as to why Cruz killed 17 people that doesn’t have anything to do with mental illness. Rather, the solution I’m offering has everything to with what I call a “heart condition.” Let’s have a look.

A Social Science Experiment

In the 1970s, a group of social scientists from Stanford University conducted an experiment in an attempt to explain why prison conditions were such nasty places. They transformed the basement of a campus building into a make-shift prison and requested applications from civilians willing to participate in the experiment. Of the 75 applications they received, they chose 21 of the most “normal” people to participate. Then, they randomly selected some of the people to be prison guards and some to be prisoners. They sent the police to the houses of the prisoners, arrested them, indicted them with false charges, and placed them in the custody of the guards.

The first night, the guards woke up the prisoners at 2am to do push-ups, line up against the wall, and do other random tasks. The morning of the second day, the prisoners rebelled and the guards responded by stripping them, spraying them with fire extinguishers, and throwing the leader of the rebellion into solitary confinement. After 36 hours, one prisoner became hysterical and was released from the experiment. Four more had to be released shortly thereafter because of depression, crying, rage, or acute anxiety. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but was cut short after six days.

Following the experiment, one prisoner said, “I realize now that no matter how together I thought I was inside my head, my prisoner behavior was often less under my control that I realized.”[1]

Based on their behaviors, it would appear that both the prison guards and prisoners were mentally ill. They were doing things we wouldn’t expect normal people to do. But prior to this experiment, they all checked out as being quite normal on psychological tests. What happened? Did they become mentally ill overnight? Or was there something else going on inside these people; maybe something that had been masked for many years, but quickly manifested itself when they found themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Seeing Our True Selves

Most of us live pretty comfortable, secure lives. Most days, we don’t wonder whether we’re going to have food on the table or a place to sleep for the night. For the most part, we don’t worry about where our next paycheck is coming from or whether our spouse is going to come home after work. Many people who live in first-world countries feel comfortable and secure. As a result, they feel fairly satisfied and act like normal, civil people.

But what would happen if those comforts and securities were taken away? What would happen if we took someone who previously had all his basic needs met and threw him out on the street, or took him to a prison? Would he continue being the normal, civil person everyone thought he was? Or would he quickly become a person with whom even he would be terrified to cross paths?

This social science experiment demonstrated that normal, civil people could quickly become totally different people when those needs were no longer being met. I have witnessed this same phenomenon in my own life. When I feel hungry or tired, I can become a jerk. I become more impatient, more demanding, and less concerned about other people. Sometimes all I seem to be able to think about is getting my own needs met.

I’ve also witnessed this same behavior in other people. I’ve witnessed coworkers who are quite civil and fun to work with turn into total jerks who don’t care whether they hurt me or anyone else when they’re on the ice (playing hockey). I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being thrown under the bus by my friends when they feel backed into a corner. I’ve been on the receiving end of some very hurtful comments from my friends when they’re stressed out. We’ve all been on both the giving and receiving end of these experiences. Are these merely slip-ups that happen from time to time or are these responses giving us a glimpse into the true conditions of our hearts?

Honestly, I hate when I become a jerk to other people. I hate being impatient, demanding, and less concerned about my coworkers, friends, and family. I wish I didn’t respond that way when my needs weren’t being met. But no matter how hard I try to cover it up, I can’t. When I feel under pressure, my heart condition continues to show its ugly head through my horrific behaviors.

At this point you may conclude that I sound like nothing more than a normal human being, but what Nikolas Cruz did was far beyond the realm of something a normal person would do. Is it really? Throughout history and in other parts of the world today, people have and continue to kill each other over seemingly trivial matters. Heck, if you count the biblical records as historically accurate, you can see that humans were already killing each other by the second generation.[2]

Furthermore, let’s face it: Most of us have, at some point in our lives, wished that a specific person would die. We probably didn’t dwell on it at length nor did we act upon it, but the fact that it even crossed our minds demonstrates how evil our hearts really are. It’s not the devil who places those thoughts in there; it’s our evil hearts. If every thought we’ve ever had was laid out on the table in front of us, we’d all be declared mentally ill. Would you be willing to share every thought you’ve ever had? How about every thought you’ve had in the last week? I don’t know anyone who believes they have such pure thoughts that they’d be willing to share them with the rest of the world.
Is Nikolas Cruz mentally ill? There’s a pretty good chance that psychologists will deem him mentally ill. But I’m even more certain that if he was standing before the judgment throne of God, he would be deemed to have an evil heart condition. In my opinion, an evil heart condition is much more of a threat to society than mental illness. Someone who is mentally ill can be fairly-well contained in a mental institution. But there aren’t enough mental institutions to house everyone with an evil heart condition, let alone people to run them. This entire planet is one huge mental institution run by inmates. Do you see the paradox in which we find ourselves?

Yes, There’s Hope!

With all this apparent negativity, you may be wondering whether there’s any hope for us. Is there any way for our evil heart conditions to change? I think there’s certainly hope for me, you, and Nikolas Cruz. I’m not saying I’m all the way there and based on what I see, I’m not going to arrive at a place where I’m all the way there in this life, but I have been fortunate enough to experience some heart change. How, you ask? I don’t completely know. But here’s what I do know.

Jesus, a man who some believed was God and even more believe was a good teacher, claimed that he could and would change the hearts of his people to be like his heart.[3] What does his heart look like? It is loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, humble, faithful, forgiving, self-controlled, and compassionate, just to name a few things. No matter how hard I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to cause my heart to look like this. But thankfully, I’ve experienced the work of Jesus in my heart as he slowly changes it to look like this. I’ll be totally honest: the progress isn’t nearly as fast as I’d like it to be. I wish he would completely transform me right now and be done with it. But that’s apparently not the way he’s chosen to work.

Does that mean I won’t have evil thoughts anymore or not be a jerk to the people I love and care about? When I’m completely transformed into his image…yes! But since I’m not there yet, I continue to have evil thoughts and continue to be a jerk sometimes. I really wish I wasn’t. I hate that part of myself. But I’ve tried and tried to change it on my own and only experienced minimal success, which I’ve come to realize was nothing more than preplanning my behaviors based on given scenarios. Seeing as I am incapable of actually changing my heart, my trust is now in him to do it.

What does that mean for my life? It means I will experience lots and lots of fiery trials. Jesus works like a silversmith: He continues the cycle of sticking me in the fire, pulling me out, and then scraping off the impurities until he sees a crystal clear reflection of himself. This is the way he changes our hearts. I’m currently in the midst of a big fiery trial which is very painful, but I have hope that he knows what he’s doing and that I’ll come out on the other side looking more like him.

I want the same for you. As a matter of fact, I want to see Jesus transform the hearts of every single person on the planet, including the heart of Nikolas Cruz.

Simply declaring criminals as mentally ill and locking them up for the rest of their lives isn’t going to fix the mass shooting problem. Even putting more regulations on who can and can’t buy certain guns isn’t going to fix the problem. Some of these measures may curtail these behaviors a little bit, but the problem is still going to exist because we’re not dealing with what I believe to really be the (no pun intended) heart of the issue. Me, you, and every other person on this planet needs a complete heart transformation. This is the only way we’re going to be able to experience a world with no more mass shootings.

What are your thoughts? Do you think people kill other people because of an evil heart condition? What about your heart condition? Is it evil too or do you have a good heart? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 152-58.
[2] See Genesis 4:1-16.
[3] See John 15:1-8, 2 Corinthians 3:18, and Romans 8:28-30.

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