I forget where I first read the quote that total depravity is the only empirically demonstrable Calvinistic doctrine. It’s a cute statement, but behind the joke of it, there’s a cringe and a wince.
The truth about ourselves is unavoidable. We are confronted with its proofs every day, even days we stay home in our pajamas and don’t interact with others. We all know the problem, believer and non-believer alike. We all know that:
- We are broken and sinful
- It is shameful and embarrassing
- We can’t do anything about it on our own
When faced with a dilemma of that magnitude, we all do what it is our nature to do. We hide, direct attention elsewhere, and look for loopholes.
It doesn’t work, it never does. The problem affects every part of everything we do. Even the best efforts of the most self-disciplined of us won’t help us bite the bullet and grind it out. We are hopelessly broken and we all prove it to each other every time we turn around.
So, what do we do?
The gospel offers us one option. We can be honest, stop hiding and pretending, and openly own our brokenness. We can bring it to the foot of the cross and exchange it for perfect, spotless righteousness lived on our behalf. But in doing so, we know that we lose the right to define ourselves forever. In coming to Him for help, we’re acknowledging our Maker’s divine right to fix us in a manner of His choosing. So, uh … absolutely not! Right? The fear that God will mess with our priorities and idols and deepest desires is too much. Honestly, I don’t think even the majority of believers ever really do that.
We do the other thing. We all agree to adjust the standard to which we can’t possibly measure up. We come to a silent consensus to lower the bar enough that we can all jump over. We cooperate in a conspiracy of plasticity, an agreement to not talk about the elephant in the corner, and we live our lives with fake smiles plastered across our faces. We avoid looking too long into another’s eyes. We decide that questions like “how are you?” are social constructs and not really requests for information at all. We pick and choose ideas that make us feel connected to a higher reality, ideas like “judge not” and “the greatest of these is love,” and we build an ethical hierarchy around them that has no root in anything but the way we selfishly want to be respected and loved.
The church isn’t exempt.We collectively agree that phrases like “bear one another’s burdens” and “love like Jesus loved you” and “forgive as you have been forgiven” and “be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” are hyperbole and not realistic goals to which we should be held accountable to aspire. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God” gets so much added to it, just so we can feel like we’ve at least got part of the checklist covered. We hide the shortcomings of our horizontal love behind a manufactured zeal for “loftier” ideals like Calvinism, Presbyterianism, Eucharist doctrine, or cessationism (those are some of the ones my circles are super proud of … yours might differ). We throw ourselves into what really amounts to a second job, a construct where we do our best to appear to be something we know we’re not. Those of us that are really good Christians and respectable members of the community make sure that we serve on pulpit committees, sign up for set-up crews, show up for every youth group function, and sing up front on Sundays. We position ourselves where people will see the best of us, because success ultimately comes down to being defined as shallowly as it is in our first job: going through the right motions in the right way, and keeping the right people happy with us.
Before we know it, we’ve become a social club of people completely happy to keep gently adjusting the wool over one another’s eyes, listening to Oprahesque rehash with itching ears. We’re happy sleep-walking because it’s been years since we’ve really demanded anything else from one another.
The gospel will shatter all of that, in exhilarating and terrifying ways. Which is why we continue to be very, very careful to make sure that the gospel stays theoretical.