Total Depravity: Thinking & Doing

October 27th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve taken quite a hiatus from my writing on total depravity. In talking to some friends, various objections were brought up concerning where I was taking the logic train. Before I can state the problem, I need to state some background.

I have been taught the think-right, want-right, do-right, feel-right “train” of human motivation and action. We do what we do because we want what we want. (If we want chocolate, we eat it. If we want to lose weight more than we want chocolate, we don’t eat the chocolate.) What we do determines how we feel. (We do a bad thing, or just a thing that we believe is bad, and we feel bad.) Feelings, then, are the “caboose” of the train. We don’t need to worry about fixing feelings so much. They’re symptoms, not conditions. If we are depressed, chances are, it’s because something further up the train has derailed. We should fix that problem, and the depression fixes itself. Emotions are like a thermometer on the human persona. (I’m using depression as a quick example here. Please, no comments on the legitimacy of medical causes. I’m not arguing that there are no biological causes for depression.)

At the very front of this train is the “thought locomotive.” We think a certain way about chocolate. This causes us to want it or not. This causes us to eat it or not. This causes us to feel good or not. Think, want, do, feel.

So in a counseling situation, the first thing that we focus on is the thought process that’s going on. If someone is sitting around all day long, with nothing to do, and is thinking, “Woe is me; I have no friends,” then of course they’ll feel depressed. But the key isn’t medication. It’s to find ways to change the underlying condition. Get them out of the house. Get them thinking different thoughts. Get them focused on activities where they see nice people. Use practical tools (like, make them write a list of 10 things people have done in the past week that showed care for me) to change what thoughts the person is thinking. True thoughts will lead to wanting good things, which leads to right decisions which leads to happiness.

This is very much an oversimplification. And I haven’t mentioned where the Gospel fits into this paradigm at all. But generally speaking, I buy this idea of how the human works. I think this is an excellent counseling paradigm. But this is really a super-simplification of a complex human process that looks somewhat difference. This works beautifully in counseling, but for theological purposes, it’s just a but shallow.

Primarily, I think that this model makes too great a distinction between doing and thinking. A thinking is a doing. We often choose what to think. Now, it’s true, when someone says, “Don’t think about a pink elephant!” we all think about a pink elephant. But generally speaking, thinking isn’t purely involuntary. Sometimes, based on visual stimulus, it can be very easy to begin thinking lustful thoughts, for example, but hopefully we make a choice to excise those thoughts and fill that thought-space with something else (like pink elephants). For a moment, when a less than perfectly dressed female crosses my path, it’s almost as if my mind is hijacked, just for a split second, but immediately comes a point of decision where I can choose what thought to think next. On the basis of what will I choose my next thought? I will choose what I want. If I want to honor God, I will notice how blue the sky is and how rather fluffy the clouds are today. If I want to lust, I will choose a very different train of thought.

So, thinking is a doing. At some point in our thinking, we have an opportunity to think one thought or to think another thought. Therefore, thinking not only affects wanting, but wanting also affects thinking.

This is almost completely useless in the counseling room. I have no way to reach inside your head and change your wants. But I can give a homework assignment that almost (but not really) forces you to think thankful thoughts. (Write 50 reasons why you are thankful for your spouse.) The knowledge of the feedback cycle of wanting and thinking isn’t very helpful to the counselor. The counselor seeks to get a handle on the train at some point so he can start re-railing the cars. The best handle is at the thinking car of the train (and, to some degree, the doing car). But thinking really is a sub-genre of doing.

To state that the root of the human problem is thinking untrue thoughts is at best an over-simplification and at worst grossly mistaken. The solution to the human problem, then, is not purely or even primarily correcting our thoughts of God and self. (Ooh, radical statement. I may need to revise this in the future…)

I hold that the root of the problem is the “wanting” car. Wanting, though part of the thinking-wanting feedback cycle, is causally prior and more important than the “thinking” car. In Romans 1 we read that truths about God were obvious, that, in fact, there was some sense in which people knew God but refused to acknowledge Him. This is like me, confronted with immodesty: I can refuse to acknowledge it and choose to think of something other than what is right in front of me, but that choice in no way results from epistemic inaccessibility or ignorance. So, too, the choice of the Romans 1 reprobate does not simply reflect a problem in the “thinking.” Sure, the thoughts were wrong, and obviously so, but the wrongness of the thoughts resulted directly from thought-choices driven by the affection, the “wanting” part of the mind. The problem with the reprobate is that he wants to think a certain way.

The desires or the affections are the root of the problem. Thence flows the corruption of depravity to every other part of the human being. We want bad things, so we think bad things, those two together mean that we do bad things, so we feel bad. Regeneration does involve a change in thinking, but it is fundamentally a change in wanting (which causes a change in thinking).

Next I should write a post attempting to support that view from more than one passage…

Isn’t Calvinism the One That…

October 20th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I recently learned that Calvinists go through a “cage period.” I hadn’t heard that before coming to Southern, but it makes sense. It’s naming a thing I knew about, though I’d never heard it delineated and named before. The cage period is the time shortly after someone has become a Calvinist when they are just bit too enthusiastic about their Calvinism. They see every doctrinal error and solution in terms of Calvinism. Calvinism is the solution to every sinful habit and vice. Calvinism, Calvinism, Calvinism. The error of Arminianism is so obvious and odious that their life (for that hopefully brief cage period) becomes dedicated to bringing others from the bondage of Arminianism into the shining light of Calvinism.

I have to admit, there is a bit of me that is still in the cage period, but I’ve learned to control myself. Generally, I find something more important to talk about, or I find a way to tweak a piece of the theology of the person I’m talking to without mentioning the broader systems in play. After all, no one even needs to know what Calvinism is to be a Calvinist. My goal is not to educate people on what Calvinism is. Rather, I should be seeking to instruct biblically in this or that issue as I may. Systems mature and develop over time. Rather than correct an Arminian on Arminianism, I’ll choose some key point and address that issue. Ramifications can be left for another discussion. And, if possible, depending on the discussion, it might be best to just let the issue slide altogether. Jesus died for your sins? Great! He died for mine, too!

But this past Sunday school, we were talking about unity/disunity from Eph. 4. We had a sub in Sunday school, not the normal teacher. He asked if there were any points of theological dispute that caused disunity at Southern. I said, no, generally, as Southern tends to draw a crowd that already has put together its theology into a vaguely similar format. Most disagreements are not sufficient to cause any disunity worth mentioning.

There was a girl from Boyce in Sunday school, too. (Boyce is the undergrad institution attached to Southern.) She mentioned that at Boyce there were significant numbers of Arminians, so there was sometimes a touch of fervent debate occasionally leading to disunity over the issue of Calvinism/Arminianism. The teacher paused a bit and then asked, “Now isn’t Calvinism the one that means it doesn’t matter if you sin or anything because of grace?”

I regressed back to my cage period. I think it was 10 minutes before we got back to talking about unity. Now they all know I’m a Calvinist. That definitely wasn’t my intent when I walked into Sunday school that morning.

Westboro Baptist Church

October 8th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Perhaps, if you’ve been following the news, you’ve heard about the Supreme Court case concerning Westboro Baptist Church. In case you’re not familiar, Westboro Baptist Church goes around picketing at soldier’s funerals, talking about God’s wrath against America. This got me thinking: if I were delivering a eulogy at a funeral and they showed up protesting, what would I say? I’d take a deep breath, gather my thoughts, and then…

Let’s be clear: God is a God of wrath. He hates sin more passionately and violently than we could imagine. Though we all quit our jobs and march the world over preaching and protesting, screaming and yelling, we could not come close to demonstrating the hatred that a holy God has for sin. Though we march the world over not merely protesting, but in fits of violence rendering justice to those who so obviously trash the name of God, to those who sin against their fellow man, who brutalize nations and peoples, still, we could not show even a fraction of the wrath that God has for sin. We cannot show even the smallest iota of the wrath stored up for those whom God will punish fully at the day of judgment. Our wrath, in all its show, is nothing compared to the wrath of God.

The same is true of God’s love. It is beyond our capacity to express. It is beyond our faculties to understand it. It is as full and rich and verdant as God’s wrath is powerful and violent and final.

But though God’s wrath be beyond us, we do have some means of understanding it. If we want, as best we can, to understand God’s wrath, we must go to the place where he showed it most clearly and finally. This is not in the Garden, where Adam’s sin demanded exile. This is not Sodom and Gomorra; even their annihilation was a trivial display of displeasure. Even in Hell we do not see the depth and the breadth of God’s wrath. We see it only at the cross. There, God’s wrath shone so brightly as to blot out the sun, even as it blotted out sin. There, God poured out his wrath on God: there was no sufficient target for so great a wrath but the divine. All of mankind could not withstand it. The temple veil did not withstand it. In all our anger, does the earth shake? Are the very rocks so frightened that they tremble in fear? Does the Sun flee from the face of the earth? Is our wrath against sin so great that it can kill the Son of God, very God of very God, the Word of God made flesh, God made man? Our wrath is so paltry and trivial that its effects even can be ignored by those humans at whom we are angry, if they so decide. God’s wrath is so full and potent that inanimate objects tremble and a member of the divine and holy Trinity is sent to the grave.

But if we consider the complete and utter finality of God’s wrath, if we pause to think about its power and passion, we find the strangest coincidence in all of creation, even beyond creation: that God’s greatest act of violence in anger is God’s greatest act of Love.

For, though we see wrath poured out from God to God, in a display that transcends the power of words to communicate or minds to understand, we find that it is inextricably bound up in God’s consummate act of kindness toward all men. For we are all, every one of us, deserving of God’s wrath; we are the ones who have sinned, every one of us. Jesus rightfully deserved none of that grand display. We deserved to be the recipients of everything done to Jesus. We deserved his tortures, his pain, and his agony. We deserved to have God’s wrath against us so hotly as to burn the sun, so powerfully as to shake the mountains on which we stand, so finally as to condemn us eternally to Hell. Indeed, we are or were the enemies of God. We have hated and despised him. Our desires are not for his glory but for our own, for our happiness instead of his blessing. We have found other gods and declared them to be the most high; we have worshipped his created order. We have found things other than the good and declared that it is The Good. We have sinned. Any wrath deserved by sin is deserved by us.

So God’s wrath at Calvary is not only God’s greatest display of his hatred for his, but of his love for his followers. It makes possible a reconciliation. Because God’s wrath is no longer against me, I can be with him and know him, and love him, a position which was not possible before. For what father, existing every day in a state of anger towards his children can have friendship with them? But we, though God’s enemies, now can be his friends, being delivered by God from wrath to love. Here at the cross, God’s wrath puts us in awe and wonder, but that awe and wonder crescendoes still higher when we consider that it is all within the confines of his even more expansive love. Oh, how great is his love!

So if we consider it important to share God’s wrath, if it is a priority to show God’s hatred for sin, his vitriolic repulsion for what is wrong, then we must, like God, show people the cross. If we want people to know and understand the wrath of God as fully as the human mind can comprehend, then we must go that place where the outpouring of God’s wrath is most immense, where, like a mountain, God’s anger towers above men’s, where God was so angry at sin as to aim his hatred at very God. Here is wrath.

But if we stop our story there, we leave out the whole point of God’s wrath! We cannot tell a half-truth as though it were the whole truth. In doing so, we ignore what God accomplished in his wrath, a thing I think he would not have us ignore. We miss the fact that the greatest show of God’s wrath is simultaneously the greatest show of God’s love. If we are to have the fullest possible idea of God’s wrath, it must be from within the fullness of God’s love.

In simplest terms: if we want people to understand the totality of God’s wrath against sin, we must share with them the whole gospel. To yell about wrath, to march about God’s wrath, and to protest someone’s funeral in the name of God’s wrath and eternal punishment is not to have too big a view of God’s wrath, but too small a view. God’s wrath is bound up in the good news of the Gospel! At the cross we find love, yes, but we find it tangled up in wrath, the two strands of an immense rope reaching from the Hill of the Skull to the Throne of Heaven. Let us have this full view of God’s hatred for sin.

Again, if we want others to know of God’s wrath, let us share the gospel. Love without wrath means that no one needs help. Wrath without love means that there is no help. Love and wrath mean that we are in desperate need, but there is deliverance for any who come to the cross. There is the wrath of God satisfied, which satisfaction is shown at the resurrection. To know God’s wrath we must go to the cross, and we must bring others to the cross. But if we have seen the fullness of God’s wrath, we cannot but see the immensity of God’s love. Let him see who has eyes to see.

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid.

October 2nd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

This election season, the left and the right are both shouting about how much they have listened to the American people. The Republican’s claim they understand how hard it is on Main Street. Joe the Plumber has had to tighten his belt. The Grand Ole Party hears. They will tighten the belt of government, too. The democrats claim to know how hard it is. The have heard the cries for help. And they pledge to send help.

I don’t like either of these ideas exactly, or at least either of these rationales. Give me a political party that is not listening to the people but has something to say. Give me a party that, rather than pretending to be of all the people, is willing to be of none, to do the unpopular thing, instead of listening to us and trying to give us what we want, give me a party that sees the problem and is willing to tell me what needs to change.

The reason we’re in this mess is because congress has been listening to the people. They’ve been giving us exactly what we want. But this is not a democracy. (The founders hated the word.) It is a republic. The reason we have a republic is specifically so that we could elect officials who could vote for exactly what we don’t want, so that the power is derived from the people but also separated from them. Decision making is supposed to be insulated from the people. Instead, every side panders, promising they’re the side to deliver. Where is the side that will be honest, speak of the hard times ahead, tell me what I don’t want to hear, and vote for the programs I don’t want?

That’s the politician I’ll listen to.

Benjamin Franklin said that the government would fail when people began to vote themselves money. More than ever, this is beginning to be the case, especially in “handout” programs, but also in big business subsidies, targeted tax cuts, etc. What’s more, it has become the singular goal of politicians to create an economic environment where business thrives. Though I desire for policies that promote a thriving business environment, this is an entirely wrong-headed approach to governance. The role of government is to protect an environment where virtue thrives. When virtue thrives, those who work hard and produce will thrive. Then they thrive, the economy will thrive.

In focusing on economics instead of ethics (and I mean ethics in a much broader sense than mere rules of business and politics), the government is putting the cart before the horse. The people have lobbied congress to move the cart (the economy), and so congress has gotten behind the cart and started pushing. Congress, ignore the people and go get a horse. While you walk away from the cart to go get a horse, the people will undoubtedly hate you for your seeming abandonment. But this problem will not be solved by a bunch of fat old men grunting and pushing a cart that is stuck in the mud.

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