In the waning days of summer, 1997, two well-known and well-loved women died within days of each other, but the public reaction to each death was radically different. Mother Teresa passed away peacefully at 87—her death a quiet conclusion to a noble life well lived. Princess Diana died in her prime at 36—her death a tragic and “untimely” intrusion into a life still filled with promise.
Why did so many react so differently to the same kind of event—a life ending, a human being dying? Let me share an insight with you I learned from the late Francis Schaeffer that I think explains it—a bit of wisdom that may help you navigate in conversations with others about Christ. He called it the “mannishness of man.” Strange phrase, agreed, but a provocative notion, nonetheless.
For Schaeffer, two inescapable truths form the bedrock of his insight. One, we live in God’s world. Two, we bear God’s image. Every human being lives in the actual world God made, and all human beings—with the mark of God on their souls—are fundamentally and intrinsically different from everything else in this world.
There is a third thing, though, that makes all the difference in our conversations. Because we live in God’s world and are made in God’s image, there are things we all know that are embedded deep within our hearts—profound things about our world and about ourselves—even though we deny them or our worldviews disqualify them.
Can a person believe something but still deny it? In a certain sense, yes. Consciously, we construct a system that satisfies our demand for autonomy—for self-rule. We say there is no God—at least, no God to worry about. We say there is no ultimate purpose in life. We are free of those constraints. Rather, we chart our own course. We make our own rules. We create our own purpose. We live by our creed—“You do you,” our modern motto.
But then our words betray us when our guard is down. Our actions—actually, our re-actions—tell a different story, revealing deeper beliefs, tacit convictions that conflict with our man-made philosophies, accurate intuitions about reality we cannot deny even when we try. “That which is known about God,” Paul wrote, “is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:19). Our “mannishness” cannot be suppressed.
Back to Mother Theresa and Princess Di. From one point of view—an atheistic, materialistic one—no one dies “before their time.” Death is death and arrives when it arrives. There is no timeliness for anything since there is no timetable, no schedule, no plan of how things are supposed to be. Everything just is.
In a God-less universe where all meaning is of our own making, what could it possibly mean to say someone died an “untimely” death? It means that people know better. It means they know that life has ultimate purpose and deeper significance that transcends private projects. In spite of their pontifications to the contrary, their mannishness gives them away.
And there are lots of things like this, if you look for them. People endorse moral relativism for convenience, but then are mortified at the genuine evil that assails the world, and struggle with guilty consciences for their participation in it. They deny conscious design in the universe but reflexively invoke the wonders of “Mother Nature” when overwhelmed by the magnificence of God’s world. They deny Father, so they praise Mother. Et cetera. Et cetera.
Understanding the mannishness of man provides a powerful technique to get someone thinking. “The truth that we let in first is not the dogmatic statement of the truth of the Scriptures,” Schaeffer wrote, “but the truth of the external world and the truth of what man himself is. This is what shows him his need. The Scriptures then show him the real nature of his lostness and the answer to it.”
Here’s how Schaeffer’s insight can be useful for us. Listen to the way people talk. Watch for when—from their own mouth—their acknowledgment of reality intrudes on their philosophies. Then exploit that tension by asking a question. In a world without purpose, why is Di’s death a tragedy? If there is no ultimate, universal morality, how can anything be really evil? Why try to talk someone out of a suicide? If there is no meaning to life, what’s the point?
Mother Teresa finished her course, and Princess Diana did not. That is the victory and the tragedy of those events in the waning days of summer, 1997. But only because there is a divinely intended purpose—a noble end humans have been designed for that sin, sadly, cuts short.
So listen carefully in your conversations. Listen for when a person’s mannishness speaks. When they tell the truth—and they must, eventually—point it out, and then see what they have to say. It’s a rather simple way to get them thinking.