If you want to study human nature in any meaningful way work for a charity. In provides the whole range of human experience - the glorious ruin of the human condition. You get the highs of seeing hope on previously hopeless faces, acts of love to the loveless, compassion to the needy, courage and honour found in the least likely places, injustice averted and acts of self sacrifice that go unnoticed and unheralded by the world. And you get the other side too: the evil of man towards his fellow man, the greed of the human heart and its insatiable desire for more, the wilful blindness of humanity to the desperate need of humanity and the corruption of all good gifts.
For the last week I've been at the Christians Against Poverty debt centre in Edinburgh following around the two best centre managers in Britain. I had some experience of the ground work of CAP last year when I was volunteering as a befriender but it was good to be reminded of what the work is like.
Back in Head Office, working in Finance, it can all become so distant and detached, nothing more than numbers to be crm unched and expense forms wrongly filled out. Going on visits with the two centre managers closed that distance, bringing you into the homes of clients and seeing first hand their stories and troubles.
Every situation is unique, each client comes with their own background, debts, difficulties and abilities. Each situation is the same: the age old narrative of debt played out over and over again. The client was in debt but coping, managing well enough, then X happened, X being anything from loss of job to family breakdown, and suddenly the money isn't there, the debt is and the client's world implodes. Implodes is a good word, debt contracts a person's life, nothing but stress, isolation and hopelessness. A great unconquerable mountain, an unliftable weight, a burden too heavy to bear alone. Clients withdraw from the world, not answering the phone, the door or daring to leave their house, thinking that no one cares (which is often probably true), trying to maintain an illusion of coping that is nothing close to the reality.
Not only do you see in client stories the evil of man to man but also the failure of human nature to help itself. What little it takes to push us from “coping” to “desperate”. What an inability we have to help ourselves! How many clients know that they have to change something but find it impossible to do so? And there but for the grace of God go us all. Faced with a client's circumstances who can claim with any certainty that things would be different if we were them?
Enter, stage right, a centre manager from CAP. It must be hard for clients on the first visit, the nerves and stress and knowledge that they will have to confront their problems. An introduction, a smile, a warmth, a friendliness, a re-assurance, an affirmation, all help put the client at ease. The manager will ask for the client's story, I've never seen a client who has refused to answer, words come tumbling out, a parade of the harshness of life. You could turn it into a game, were you perversely inclined, writing down a list of common phrases: illness, divorce, unemployment, addiction, credit cards, threats, BINGO!
At this point it can get a little tedious because the centre manager has to fill in a fact find, detailed information about income, expenses and debt. Yet even here tragic stories are written out in terse words, the cold hard terms of money. £5000 credit card debt from seven years ago, £2000 in overpaid benefits, £500 loan from parents, £200 / month spent on cigarettes. At the time it's easy to be understanding; it's only later that I find it hard not to judge.
I guess that's the thing about CAP though – we try not to judge. We help anyone, no matter their path into debt, whether they get there through bad luck, poor money management or over spending. One thing that crops up again and again is that our help gives people hope. A hope that their debt can be dealt with and freedom is possible. And we do this without promising an easy ride. Far from it, blunt, almost brutal honesty, is the order of the day. CAP doesn't pay people's debt for them, we enable them to pay it themselves. So yes, that's hard, and clients are told it will be hard. The budget will be tight, sacrifices will have to be made, changes too, there is never a painless solution.
And this is where you see so clearly the dual nature of human nature. Some people respond well, stick to their budget, pay in on time, working with CAP to be free, taking advantage of an expertise and a care they could get nowhere else. And some don't. Despite it being a no-brainer, despite CAP making it as easy as they can, despite the free offer of help there are clients who will turn it down, put no effort in and expect debt to magically disappear.
You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink, the old saying goes and this is so true of CAP's offer of help. You can go out your way to help someone but if they do not choose to help themselves nothing can get done. Such is the tragedy of sinful human nature.
And before we judge harshly, we are all like that in spiritual terms. We all have a debt which cannot be re-paid, a debt of sin against a holy God, we all need saving from it. The gospel invitation stands open: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Our response: “Crucify him!” Such is the tragedy of sinful human nature, writ small in the work of CAP, writ large in the eternity of heaven or hell. As the Bible says: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3v23) and “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3v11)
Centre managers have my whole hearted respect. It's a tough job – for every client who is wonderful there is a client who is a complete disaster. Discouragement must seem to be more regular than encouragement. Perseverance must be key, perseverance based on faith, faith in God and that his promise is true: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6v9) The reality of human nature is that even in helping others our sinful nature surfaces. We need all the encouragement we can get to keep going.
At least the Bible offers us no delusions. It's picture of human nature is more accurate than our own. We find, on every page, examples of our sinful nature and in contrast the perfection and holiness of God. I said at the beginning that if you really want to study human nature then you should work for a charity. But better still, study the Bible, for it gives us our Creator's perspective on his creature's nature.
If you would like to volunteer for CAP then I heartily recommend becoming a befriender. If you're in debt and need help I heartily recommended using CAP. You can find your local centre here. If you would care to support CAP financially you can do so here. Please put down my name in the “where did you hear about CAP” box.