I asked a group of men I meet with regularly if we could tackle the subject of our “essential” natures next time we gather. The topic was intended to direct our thoughts toward that thing that is the deepest and truest thing about us as Christians. It interests me because half of my family in Christ believes they are, in their essential make up, wonderful; the other half believes they are depraved.
Whether we are wonderful or depraved does not seem to be clearly stated in the doctrinal statements of the various Christian subcultures I am connected to but if you listen carefully to the conversations and to the music that is sung you can hear the assumptions that are made on this topic. One group sings “my heart is prone to wander” and the other is singing “God makes beautiful things”. This observation has caused me to have deep respect for unspoken beliefs in their power of influence.
For three decades the deepest conviction I held about myself was that I had a “Jer 17:9 heart”. This is a heart that was deceitful and desperately sick and pretty much beyond help – at least in this life. (Hence, my keen interest in the Rapture) I would cross reference in my heart to Psalm 51 and (encourage?) myself with more biblical truth to reinforce my position. And of course we know Paul’s struggle in this area (Romans 7:14-25). Then there was the proof of my thought life and my behavior. Those definitely confirmed my convictions of personal depravity. Psalm 51 impressed me that the truth God most desired would produce in my innermost being a spirit of ongoing brokenness and contrition.
The assumptions I had about my essential nature had a powerful effect on my spirituality. My seeking was driven by a kind of intensity similar, I believed, to my hero David’s, the man after God’s own heart. I would pray “Lord, my sin (springing up from my essential fallen nature) is ever before me. My heart is not clean (believe me, I KNOW) but create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me and please, PLEASE do not take Your holy spirit from me!”
I believed if I could just establish this lifestyle of brokenness adequately, if I could just repent deeply enough, if I could just seek Him with more focus, then I could finally come to know Him as He intended and I would not be such a useless subject of His kingdom – such a perpetual problem child. (Note; if you would like to construct a religious treadmill; this paragraph should be a pretty good blueprint.)
Looking back I feel I was being driven not drawn. Where was all this intensity and desperation coming from? The deep (biblically reinforced?) sense of my depravity produced a shame and guilt driven energy that was really quite impressive. Few people were as (dead) serious about God as I. I was perfecting the “dark night of the soul” as a lifestyle. I was so zealous I thought God might just snatch me up in my own personal rapture like Enoch – It would be said of him “Rob was; and then he was not”. (I am barely exaggerating).
Having refined this lifestyle of contrition over three decades equips me to go on at length about it, but some events transpired a few years ago that have modified my thoughts on the topic of our “essential” natures. Today, as I read Psalm 51, I see a snapshot of David’s thinking in the midst of a season of deep repentance. This was after he had taken ownership of his behavior as a murderer and adulterer. I don’t think a moving picture of David’s heart would reveal that psalm 51 characterized his lifestyle any more than I believe that Romans 7:14-21 characterized Paul’s.
When I read Ps 51 today, I am at peace that he has cleansed me of my sin therefore it is not continually before me. He has purified me and washed me whiter than snow. He has made me to hear joy and gladness. He has not hidden His face from me. He is not threatening to take His Holy Spirit from me. He has restored to me the joy of my salvation. If I truly thought God wanted more contrition from me I would gladly offer it. I just don’t think a dirge about my old nature is the song I was destined (or pre-destined if your prefer) to sing.
I believe, as the beneficiaries and heirs of a new covenant, we can sing songs of rejoicing that acknowledge that we are new creatures in Christ; that Christ lives in us; that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. I believe the deepest and truest thing about me today is that I have been grafted into the Vine. I am rooted permanently into God through Christ. For that reason, I have concluded that, by God’s grace exclusively, I am in a wonderful place. God thinks I’m wonderful. I find I am agreeing with Him more on this all the time.
So, as I live in a family that is divided in their views regarding our essential natures, I have taken a position honoring the fact that we were conceived in iniquity (as David reminds us). We were depraved. Even though we have been buried in Christ and raised up with Him, those old depraved natures still have impulses that seem very much alive. Are those impulses proof positive that our fallen natures must remain the most dominant influence in our lives? Could it be that giving our fallen natures so much credit empowers them to have more influence than they should?
If I get caught in a cross fire within the family on this subject, I say that I believe there are “truths” and then their are “TRUTHS”. I say, regardless of my experience which is not a valid reference point or proof of anything, that there is “little t” truth to my fallen nature. But my new identity is built upon the “BIG T” TRUTH of a new nature and a new covenant. This is (now) my story. This is (now) my song. I am praising my Savior, (now) more than ever, all the day long.
Father, may Your opinion and “BIG T” TRUTHS prevail over every other inferior thought we have adopted along the way. May you help us renew our minds with Your reality. Please restore our identities as children of light, truth, joy and freedom. Cause us to be those whose songs and behavior validate the Good News you came to bring. Amen.