Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Divine Wretch

In the past year I've experienced more days of discouragement and depression than of encouragement and joy. I've questioned my purpose in life and wondered whether I had accomplished anything of value in my work of the last ten years. I doubted whether I had anything worth offering to God and the world. It's been a dark time, the most difficult period I have experienced in all my years of life.

Ever so slowly I am emerging from that darkness, finding renewed focus and purpose in life and, along with that, reinvigorated joy and passion. This week I started teaching in a summer program focused on phonetics and language and culture learning skills for people preparing to work in cross-cultural situations. The course is conducted virtually, so I do not have the opportunity to interact in person with my students. This brings with it definite challenges, although it also allows me to tailor my instruction to the specific needs and situation of each individual better than I could in a classroom setting. After a day spent in back-to-back Skype sessions I felt worn out by evening, but at the same time I was wonderfully invigorated. I love teaching. I love working with the students. I enjoy using the talents and skills I have along with the experienced I have gained living and working cross-culturally for the past ten years. I take delight in knowing that through my teaching I can help others enter their new roles better prepared and therefore experience greater success and deeper satisfaction in their lives and work. I believe that my small role in teaching them can help them to thrive in their cross-cultural contexts.

When I go through dark periods such as I have experienced over the past year, my theological background becomes a weight that adds to the downward spiral. I was raised in a theological tradition that emphasizes the depravity of humans. Confronted with personal questions about my value and worth, I hear the voices that remind me that of course I have no value. I am worthless. I am a dirty rotten sinner who deserves nothing other than God's scorn and wrath. This view emphasizes my worthlessness in order to increase the focus on God's holiness, grace and mercy and the unique act of Jesus in redeeming someone like me. As the classic hymn says: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”  When I'm doubting my own worth, I don't really need to be reminded of my wretchedness. But that's the message that most often repeats in my mind, because I have heard it so often in sermons and read it in books.

At one point in my life I would have said that this view of humanity, the emphasis on our fallenness, was the only biblical doctrine of humanity. Any other perspective, and I seldom heard of any, obviously failed to appreciate the gravity of The Fall and therefore cheapened God's grace and holiness. Yet, as I've read more widely in theology, interacted more with people from different christian and non-christian backgrounds and reflected on the Scriptures in light of my own experience, I see that the message of human worthlessness isn't the only message in the Book. There's a strong theme of our inherent worth as children of God, as people that God created in their image. While some theological viewpoints see only the fallenness of humanity, others choose to emphasize the divine element that remains within us. Yes, this spark needs the power of God in the resurrection of Jesus, working in our lives through the Holy Spirit, to fully flame again, but the spark has not been fully extinguished. Although fallen, we are still divine beings, with inestimable value and worth because of who we resemble and to whom we belong. Another song, of which I remember very little, quoted God as saying “This one is born in Zion. Make no mistake, this one is mine.”

Both of these perspectives coexist in Scripture. We ignore one or the other at our own peril. Focus too strongly on the divine and we may come to think that we don't need redemption and transformation. But focus too strongly on the fallenness and we may come to believe that we are so worthless that God couldn't possibly be interested in us. Given my inclination to self-deprecation, I need to be reminded of my worth as God's child. I don't need to keep being told how worthless I am. I've got that one figured out pretty well, thank you. I am learning to embrace who I am in Jesus, to celebrate the me that God has created, and whom God is in the process of renewing and transforming, not because the base model is inherently deficient, but God wants to bring me to that glorious state in which I was originally conceived and created. I am fallen, redeemed and divine all at the same time. I am a divine wretch.

Kathy Escobar wrote a great piece on this topic a while back. I encourage you to read it.

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