Why We Do the Things We Do

“Why did you do that?”

It’s probably one of the most prevalent questions I’ve asked my kids through the years. Often it has variations: “Why on earth did you do that?” or “Have you lost your mind?” which is a more dramatic way of asking basically the same thing.

More often than not, the response is a blank stare and a shoulder shrug, which usually annoys me in the heat of the moment. However, upon further reflection, that’s an accurate summary of accumulated human wisdom on the matter. Truthfully, we don’t usually know why we did a certain thing. Most fully formed adults have no idea why they act the way they do at certain times. The Bible, as usual, nails our predicament: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?

If we knew why, we could then work toward a solution. If a man knew precisely why he kept repeating the same mistake again and again, he could target the cause and change. If a woman knew why she felt a certain miserable way every morning, she could do something about it. Knowing why doesn’t make the necessary course of action easy, but it at least gives us a confident place to start.

The late biblical counselor David Powlison once wrote that behind every answer to why lies a theory of behavior. Was it genetics? Maybe you didn’t take your ADHD medication. Did you experience trauma as a child? Perhaps you have low self-esteem. You could be missing components of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maybe you just didn’t get enough sleep last night. All these theories have various levels of validity. Human beings inherit certain traits from our ancestors. Our past experiences can impact present emotions and actions. Healthy lifestyle choices regarding diet and rest impact behavior significantly.

For Christians, the category of sin must factor into our reasoning. Sin, in short, is transgression of God’s moral law. The Bible teaches that, because of sin, human beings are born with a sin nature. We are prone to sin and inherently selfish. Romans 6:6 says we are born in a state of slavery to sin. Sin impacts every aspect of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We are never as bad as we could possibly be, but our whole being is nevertheless impacted by sin. Since the first human beings chose to rebel against God, the human race has lived without full moral power. In short, we are corrupted to the very core of our being.

If we lose the category of sin, we also lose sin’s solution. If we lose sin’s solution, we lose the only way back to human wholeness. Christ came to save sinners (Luke 5:32). He came because the solution for what ultimately ails us requires supernatural grace. Behavior modification will not do the trick. Heavy doses of psychotropic drugs will not fix us. If our primary problem is a corrupt heart, getting back to health requires a heart transplant. When David sinned through adultery and murder, he asked God to create in him a clean heart (Psalm 51:10). Jeremiah prophesied that God would give his people a new heart (Jeremiah 24:7). Jesus came to fulfill these promises. He came, not to modify us, but to completely make us new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Thankfully, the field of Christian counseling has made significant strides in realizing that sin doesn’t explain everything. We are embodied creatures. Mental health ebbs and flows often through no fault of our own. What this means is that we must not only consider the sin located within our hearts; we must also consider the sin located in this world. We are impacted by the sin of others. Our bodies break down and malfunction because this present age is passing away, and we belong to it. Yes, we sin, but we are also the victims of sin. It is this understanding of sin that causes us to consider things like genetics, trauma, and mental health diagnoses when searching for a why.

As Christian parents, we must fight to teach our children about sin. They may not know why, but the Bible keeps pointing to sin because the Bible keeps pointing to Christ. We act and react wrongly because we are born enslaved to our own desires. When we make excuses for our children, we are teaching them to look elsewhere than Christ for salvation. When we pretend that our children are good people who make occasional mistakes, we are training them to think behavior modification is sufficient. They don’t need behavior modification and neither do we. We need new hearts. We need Christ.

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