Thursday, September 8, 2016
The Liberating Trap of Total Depravity
Early this week, when I read the lessons for this Sunday, I almost stopped with the collect. Before I had even made it to the first lesson, I was hooked. As is often the case, this week's collect is a tiny, largely unnoticed injection of good old-time theology into our worship. Will anyone hear it? Will the clergyperson even notice what she or he has said? I hope so.
"O God, because without you we are not able to please you..." BOOM! Stop right there. Don't go any further. Let the magnitude of those hopeful-because-they're-damning words sink in. We are not able to please God without God's help. Forget a fundamentalist preacher waiving his bible at the congregation, shouting out the dangers of sin and the certainty of hellfire. This is far more effective. This is subtle. This so simple it's complex. This is the human condition and God's grace all wrapped into one brief introductory clause.
We are not able to please God without God's help. So where does religion even start? Meaningful, hopeful religion is not nor can ever be humanity's attempt to bridge the gap between itself and the divine. That effort is doomed to fail. Always. See the tower of Babel. See the golden calf. See Jesus' cleansing of the temple. Real religion--Christian or otherwise--must be premised upon a gift from God. It must be God's initiative. It can only come at God's invitation. God speaks and gifts us with the possibility of pleasing God and, thus, finding the true meaning and direction for our life. This is the foundation upon which right religion must be built--God enabling humanity to please God. If that isn't good news, I don't know what is.
Why is that good news? Because once we realize that the possibility of pleasing God is only enabled through God's help we discover that we aren't in this by ourselves--that it isn't up to us to get it right. Thanks be to God! I don't know about you, but I'm tired of going on first dates...and I haven't been on one in fifteen years! I want and need someone who loves me even though I'm certain to screw it all up time and time again despite my best (and sometimes not my best) efforts. If it's up to me to make anyone--especially God--happy with me, I'm sunk before I even start. But thanks be to God that God knows that, accepts that, and enables that inability and insufficiency to be transcended by his grace.
Unless we accept this as our starting point--that a positive relationship with God is only possible through God's help--we're stuck in the trap of trying harder with no way out. That is our trap--our efforts can't get us out--but starting in that spot is what makes it possible to know that we are loved beyond our efforts. That's grace. That's the gospel.