The following poem, “Zebra Question” by Shel Silverstein, uses humor to raise the age-old question concerning how we understand human nature.

I asked the zebra,
Are you black with white stripes?
Or white with black stripes?
And the zebra asked me,
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or quiet with noisy times?
Are you happy with some sad days?
Or are you sad with some happy days?
Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?
And on and on and on and on
And on and on he went.
I’ll never ask a zebra
About stripes again.

In the history of Christian theology, the question of our human nature has exercised many a thoughtful believer. Some have argued that humans are essentially fallen creatures with an inescapable sin nature, incapable of even desiring to love God without God’s gracious enabling. Others have emphasized that we are beings created in the image of God and irrevocably loved by God, brimming with potential and the capacity for dominion over God’s creation.

So who are we? Are we those who, in the words of Paul, “can will what is right, but cannot do it” (Romans 7:18-19)? Or are we those who, with the Psalmist, God has  “made a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5)? Are we divine image bearers (Genesis 1:27) or children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)? Are we “good with bad habits? Or bad with good habits?”

One approach that has helped my thinking on this timeless question was articulated by Randy Harris. He observed that on the one hand, we humans share with the animals a lower nature: basic biological appetites, desires, yearnings, and needs (which can be pursued in healthy or unhealthy ways). At the same time, we mysteriously bear the image of God, a higher nature, which includes things like the ability to create, communicate, love, forgive, repent, and plan. With both our biologically transmitted lower nature and our divinely created higher nature, we find ourselves making a series of daily choices. Will we live merely by the dictates of our lower nature? Or will we rise and live out of our higher nature as well?

I suspect that the mystery of our human nature will continue to resist our attempts to fully unravel. But I am convinced that God has called each of us to govern our lower nature by our higher nature. While there is nothing inherently wrong with our human appetites for food or safety or sex, the ways in which we satisfy those appetites must be in accord with how God has created us to reflect the divine image, flawed image-bearers though we be. In Jesus, we find the exemplar par excellence, in whom coexisted both a human and divine nature, who was tempted as we are yet who was without sin. Whether you believe “we are good with bad habits or bad with good habits,” may we each seek earnestly to follow in his steps!

Andy Wall
Author: Andy Wall