The Liberation of Total Depravity

I am, by nature, completely depraved.

*relaxed sigh,* that feels better.

Why sigh?

I’d like to spend a minute defining “total depravity,” and then persuade any reader that this idea is one essential step toward a happy and fulfilling life.

As formulated in Christian theology, total depravity includes a few key ideas:

  1. I am, by nature, prone to self-service, self-deception, and self-promotion in all I do. In the words of Iago, I’m lookin’ out for me.
  2. Consequently, I have by my own selfishness earned the just wrath of God: a wrath I could never pacify by my own actions, since they remain tainted. A washcloth dragged through a pigsty cannot clean a face.
  3. No matter what else I may be free to do – wear pants or not, eat pizza or not – I am by nature incapable of loving God or relating to him as I am supposed to do. No more can I flap my arms and fly, though I might wish to do so (thanks to John Locke, Oliver Crisp, the Green Lantern, and Derek Rishmawy for bringing this to mind today).

In the general words of Tim Keller, I’m more wicked than I could ever dare believe.

And this is a wonderful thing. Here’s why.

First, total depravity sets me free from the feeling that I’m not getting what I deserve. If I believe I deserve no less than the holy anger of God, then anything I get above that becomes a sweet, sweet gift. I deserve to be in hell right now. But I’m not; I’m in a cooling-but-still-sunny city, with a spectacular autumn-leaf show and a blimp – the manatee of aerospace transportation – currently in view. My upper back hurts because I have bad posture; my nose is congested, and the back of my throat has that feverish-mucusy burn; but I’m alive, and I’m not in hell right now.

Total depravity liberates us from the “but I deserve better!” mentality. We have literally no ground to stand on, nothing to hold to and say, “This by right belongs to me!” Nothing good belongs to me by right; it’s all a gift. Liberation.

Second, total depravity liberates me from the need to always feel right or in the right. If I believe that by nature I’m prone to self-service and self-deception, then I have a constant need for correction and input. Criticism and critique don’t have to make me bristle; for all I know, I could be holding a howler of a mistake in my brain. This doesn’t make other people necessarily objectively right; but it does mean I can try to learn from whatever they’re saying. Chesterton’s words come to mind:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.

I could be wrong! I need to learn! Thanks, total depravity.

And third, total depravity liberates me from the desperate drive to earn my own right verdict. If I believe that by nature I’m incapable of earning God’s favor, then I can’t rescue myself from my own wickedness. All that striving makes us anxious, brittle, and unhappy – and if we’re honest with ourselves, it just doesn’t work. I could just sit in my filth (but who wants that); I could try to redefine it so it’s really good (but if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want that either); or – and this is the liberating step – I can appeal to the one being who can pull me out of my own muck.

I can rest in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who proved himself the victor over sin and death. I can rest in his power to give me that verdict – because he’s the only one who can. Total depravity frees me from the futile tyranny of trying to will myself into God’s good opinion.

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