Is Man Programmable?

Basket of Figs, April, 1990

Bud Powell



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 “A man's heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps.” --Proverbs 16:9


Will a tape with a subliminal message help you stop smoking? Will your teen-ager be led into devil-worship by backtracked messages on his favorite music tape? Are we controlled by forces deep within our subconscious or unconscious mind?


The dream of modern psychology to restructure man's mind in terms of learned responses is one of modern man's greatest goals.  Pavlov taught his dogs to salivate at the ringing of the bell, after programming the dogs to associate the bell with food.  From this famous experiment we should learn that dogs can be programmed.  But unbelief reasoned that if dogs could be taught to salivate, could it not also be possible to re-program man to think and act morally?


Freud had convinced us that much of our mind was sub-conscious (the “Id,” or the inherited memories of our evolutionary past--from recent human ancestors to the millions of years of animal ancestors).  According to this theory, it is the “sub-conscious” that determines human behavior, far more than the ego (conscious mind) or the “super-ego” (ideas of right and wrong learned as we grew up).


The “Id” became the target of those who would re-program man, much to the hopes of men (or fears--depending on your viewpoint).  It has not been explained how a few years of re-programming can overcome millions of years of inherited memories, but the concept has spawned vast amounts of research expense and excused a lot of beastly behavior.


The concept has also destroyed liberty in some nations; for if man's environment could be controlled to program his behavior, then the curtailment of individual liberty could be justified.  Hitler and Stalin tried, but neither could program their people; they could only slaughter them and each other.


But Americans also live with the concept. For a nice price, subliminal tapes can be found that promise to cure your bad habits, change your feelings of self-worth, overcome your bad thinking habits, cure whatever ails you.  Parents fear their children will be corrupted by devil-messages “back-tracked” on popular music tapes, or influenced by subliminal messages in movies.  Too many of us have bought into the idea that our behavior is caused by unconscious (and therefore excusable?) stimuli, not at all a Christian concept.   [Note, this was true when this article was written, but this has gone out of style somewhat in the year 2010.  Science changes in twenty years!]


Proverbs 16:9 explodes the whole notion. “A man's heart deviseth (plans) his way, but the Lord directeth his steps.”  A man moves in terms of God's plan, even though he thinks it is his own plan.


There only two kinds of people in the world, the believer and the non-believer. God has a different plan for each of them. The believer trusts himself into God's hands, and walks by faith. His steps are ordered of the Lord (Psalm 37:23) for his good (Romans 8:28), and for the glory of God. His good works are the result of God's workmanship, “ordained,” or prepared by God before hand. (Ephesians 2:10)  The unbeliever thinks he is master of his life, that his steps are his own, decided by himself.  He thinks, “I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my own heart” (Deut. 29:19).


But God has a plan for the unbeliever as well as for the believer.  “Thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction” (Psalm 73:18).  “For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (II Thess. 2:11,12).


In Pharaoh's case, he was raised up by God for God's purpose, that his hardness and destruction might bring glory to God. (See Romans 9:17) Pharaoh thought he was master of his own steps, and is therefore without excuse, but Pharaoh's rebellion could not change God's purpose and plan for either Pharaoh and Israel.


“The way of the wicked is a darkness: they know not at what they stumble” (Prov. 4:19). “Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will lay stumblingblocks before this people, and the fathers and the sons together shall fall upon them…” (Jeremiah 6:21).


The simple truth is this: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23).  We are called to submit and to believe.  “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5,6).


The doctrine of predestination is an inescapable concept.  The future will come, and will come with God's purpose and reason.  Sinful man rejects the God who “works all things after the council of His own will” and fancies that men in some way are themselves the predestinators, usurping the very place of God Himself, if it were possible.  Men of faith, however, rejoice in the God who “works all things together for good to them that love God to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28. See also verse 29).


The Bible's emphasis is on the conscious mind.  We are responsible to know and to confess Christ, to turn away from sin and to choose righteousness.  We are to confess consciously that our ways are not our own, and to say, “If God wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15).


When men leave off the faith that God is God and the ruler of all our ways, then into that vacuum rush all kinds of false gods, raising our foolish hopes and enflaming our slavish fears.  But God is still God, working all things after the counsel of His Own will (Eph. 1:11) and directing the steps of believers and scattering the wicked before Him.


“Not unto us, 0 Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?  But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Psalm 115: 1-3).


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