Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tough Stuff: Total Depravity

Ah, yes, nothing more fun to teach than that sweet-smelling doctrine, total depravity. While it is unpopular, it is very important for students to understand for many reasons. Cameron Cole tells us why.

1.) Why is it difficult or unpopular to teach?

I think it is difficult for two reasons. First, who really likes to be told that they are totally depraved? That just doesn’t have a pleasant ring to it! In this light, it is a part of our sinful nature to resist the dark reality of our humanity. In this day of secular humanism, where every form of media proclaims the inherit power and benevolence of mankind, the message of original sin and depravity starkly contradicts what students hear.

Secondly, because most teenagers do not have a deep theological understanding of sin, the idea that they are completely depraved defies their experience. A common reaction to this doctrine is a student misunderstanding that total depravity means that all they do is murder, rob, and steal, which conflicts with “nice things” they do in their life. Surely, a person giving to the poor or helping their mother with dishes is not evil, right? They initially think about total depravity in terms of external actions, not internal motives. In other words, they see the Wicked Witch of the West when they hear this term.

2.) How do you define and describe this concept to students?

First off, I do not think it is critically important that my kids know and can use the term “total depravity” at this point. I am more concerned that they understand conceptually that all human action possesses an underlying sinful motive.

I describe total depravity to adolescents by telling them that deep down inside all of our behavior inherently has some unconscious motivation rooted in operating independently from God or seeking selfish gain. All action has at least some selfish taint. I also explain that this occurs innately, without our awareness, because of our sinful nature. And then I say that the Bible describes living that way as depraved.

3.) Why do you think it is important to teach this?

Acknowledging the truth of the depth of our sin sets kids free. Last year on a mission trip, a student said that understanding total depravity “relieved a burden” because it showed her that trying to be perfect was pointless. The doctrine alleviates the need to keep up the illusion of being something we are not. It also creates an environment for deep worship because knowing our total depravity magnifies the grace and mercy of Christ. It shows just how good God is.

4.) How does this concept help a student better understand the Gospel and grace of Jesus?

Total depravity is a critical building block for a student to understand the freedom of the Gospel. It shows how utterly ill-equipped we are to make ourselves good or righteous and reveals our need for Christ to do all of the work for our salvation. Total depravity takes the wind out of the sail of moralism. Total depravity magnifies just how amazing God’s grace is in that he “saves a wretch like me.”

Thursday, May 12, 2011

127 Hours, Part 2: Sovereignty and Suffering

Why should a living man complain,
a man, about the punishment of his sins? Lamentations 3:39

As hours turn into days, it begins to dawn on Aron Ralston that no one is going to come to save him and he will most likely expire in this canyon.  Why did no one come look for him, after he had been missing for three days?  Because, he sarcastically boasts, “(I am) something of a big (choice word) hard hero.  I can do everything on my own.“  And because of his heroic estimate of himself, how many people did he tell where he was going?  None.  Surprisingly, Ralston does what so few of us are willing to do: he takes responsibility for the dire circumstances he is in.  He lives a life of self-sufficiency, and when his self-sufficiency reaps its natural consequence of helplessness, he points the finger at himself, rather than God, family, government, or whatever scapegoat seems most culpable. 

In Part 1 of this series, we fleshed out how important it is to let students wrestle with questions. We also looked briefly at a couple of the questions likely to be asked.  To enter deeper into our student’s questions of the Sovereignty of God, we must change the paradigm of the way they see their notion of freedom and their liability in sin.  Our perceived ‘freedom’ is actually slavery, slavery to our desires.  When it comes to our choices, we always choose our self-deification over the divinity of God.  And our efforts at self-deification have led to the state of the world in which we live.  Romans 1 has a profound definition of God’s wrath: God’s handing of us over to our desires. God’s wrath means He lets us have what we want, the natural outcome of our desires.  Hosea puts it beautifully; we “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.”  Therefore, the cause of the suffering in this world rests on man’s choice to rebel.  In current events, such as Bin Laden’s recent death, one can nod their head and say, “I understand that his choices led to his consequences.”  But the issue of liability becomes more muddled when it comes to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, or car accidents.  How are these people responsible for this disaster?  Again, our objections come from a place of perceived innocence.  As Christ taught about the tower of Siloam (Luke 13), a tower that fell on eighteen in Jerusalem, we all deserve to perish, if not for the mercy of God.  Due to the prevalence of God’s mercy, similar to the prevalence of oxygen, we easily begin to treat it as a right.  But mercy is not a right we should expect, rather a choice left up to God’s foreordained plan.  And sometimes, for reasons we cannot understand, God chooses to not have mercy (Romans 9:15) (this is something I have personally wrestled with so feel free to email me if  there is something you want to discuss or you object).  So, the hole we find ourselves in, whether by direct or indirect consequences, is one that we have chosen, as Aron Ralston chose.  We are helpless to escape, with no faculties within ourselves to save us.

For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:31-33

But our story, as Ralston’s story, does not end in a crevasse or a tomb, victims of our own self-sufficiency.  Although there is suffering that comes from our sin, we have a sovereign and merciful God who is constantly at work redeeming this world, even redeeming us through suffering.  Behind the scenes of this destructive world, we have a God that, although He has not caused the destruction, is ordaining events such that they work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), those He has called to Himself.  Although we cannot always see His movements of mercy at work in every circumstance, the Christ of Golgotha is our picture of how God can use suffering to bring about his plan.  Because of Golgotha, we know that suffering is not in vain, without hope.  Although God does not ultimately ‘willingly afflict the children of men,’ He uses even the result of our rebellion as a way to draw us back to Him and to teach us how to follow Him.  Similar to a windmill, he takes our whirlwind and uses it to bring life and redemption to us.  Similar to a guardrail on the Big Sur (a road along the cliffs of the Pacific), he allows us to crash so that we will not run headlong into an ultimate destruction.  He is, in His perfect sovereign plan, working even the destruction of the world into His plan, not disposing of our swords but beating them into plowshares.  In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky hints at the ultimate working out of God’s sovereign plan,

“…in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all of the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they have shed; that it will not only make it possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”