What Is Wrong with the World?

time“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” goes the French proverb credited to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s not that a society or organization cannot be transformed. But such change is often cosmetic or superficial. Reality isn’t altered at the deeper, more profound levels.

Simply examine today’s news feeds. There is conflict in the Middle East; fresh bloodshed in Iraq; a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Africa; upheaval with Russia; political unrest at home; is it 2014 or 1985 or 1978 or 1959 or 1913? Has nothing changed within these geopolitical situations? Of course, everything has changed.

There have been new regimes, new faces, and new promises; the old guard has passed; generations have come and gone; the young and the restless have replaced the traditional and the settled. But the root issues and causes – things like greed, selfishness, sexism, patriarchy, racism, and tribalism, remain untouched.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world; but no one thinks of changing himself.” Everything we see in the larger world – the good, the bad, and the ugly – is a reflection of the individual, human heart. You can’t maintain a sane world when everyone in it is crazy. So we can’t begin with the world. We have to begin with our own hearts.

One of the greatest British writers of the 20th century was G.K. Chesterton. He was great in size – a 300 pound, mountain of a man – and great with his words: Newspaper articles, short stories, essays, novels, theology, and poetry. But my favorite essay of his is a tiny one written to his local newspaper, The London Times.

The editors solicited responses from the paper’s readership by asking this question: “What is wrong with the world?” Hundreds of long, verbose letters poured in. Then eminent authors and leading thinkers of the day were asked to respond to the question. The shortest and most powerful response to “What is wrong with the world?” came from Chesterton.  He wrote: “Dear Sirs, I am.” 

If anything about this world is going to change, it will be you (It’s worth re-reading that line), and the change cannot be cosmetic, superficial, or an artificial cover-up. Change must be at the heart, deep within, where our darkness lurks, our transgressions take shelter, and where all our spiritual neurosis is born.

One of Jesus’ more interesting parables is about a person who gets free of an evil spirit. Some time later, the spirit returns and finds the person’s life swept clean and in order. The spirit moves back in with all his malicious friends, and the person’s condition is worse in the end than in the beginning.

It’s plain what Jesus is saying. Cosmetic change doesn’t work. Clean the junk out of your heart. Wash the windows of your soul. Change the drapes and the sheets. Run the vacuum cleaner and replace the litter box. Your life will be as clean and as neat as a pin. But if you don’t allow God’s Spirit to take up transformative residence in that now orderly space you have created – to effect real change – then all the rubbish you sent to the curb will be back in spades. Ask any recovering addict if this isn’t true.

People want to change their lives (at least some people), but they don’t “put the question marks deep enough” in searching for their answers. They don’t dive into the depths of their hearts to open those locked closets and cast light on the shadowy basements. They refuse to do the work of the soul, and thusly, refuse to change.

So while I’m quoting Karr, Tolstoy, Chesterton, and Jesus, I’ll add one more great philosopher to the list. Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, for the times they are a changin’.” True, but the real battle is on the inside, inside each of our hearts; for if the world is going to change, the change must begin right there.