I’m Reformed for a bunch of reasons. They’re not the same as they were back when I was an arrogant 18 year old, when I wielded a theological hammer in the shape of the Dutch Reformed TULIP. It’s taken living a while. It’s taken dying a lot. It’s taken succeeding and failing in ministry for almost two decades. It’s taken the sober realization that the rabbit hole of my sin goes far deeper than good theological texts could have shown me. Let me explain.
The great Harvard poet Robert Bly offers a metaphor that deepens my view of sin and suffering. He’s no theologian, but wise to human complexity. Bly once wrote that humans learn early on that the world isn’t a very safe place. Imperfect parents, peer pressure, academic pressures of success and failure and more cause us to question whether or not parts of us are acceptable to others, particularly the darker parts–our zits and warts, our failures and fallibilities, our inabilities and disabilities. During our childhood, we begin putting these ‘unacceptable’ parts of ourselves into an invisible bag, a bag which grows as we transition through the pressures of high school, into the rigors of college, and the anxieties of marriage and family. By the time we hit our early 30’s, Bly suspects, that invisible bag has greatly expanded, weighing down even the most resilient among us. If we’re wise, we open it and begin taking inventory of those forgotten parts, parts we perceive to be ugly or scary, parts that require much courage to face. However, sometimes the rabbit hole seems too deep, the challenge too great, and we re-double our efforts to pull ourselves together, fastening our bag tightly so that no one–not even us–need look inside.
St. Paul says, “There is no one righteous,” and what he means is that none of us, not one, can say that we have our lives together, that not one of us can claim purity. Purity, of course, is not about being squeaky clean. Rather, biblical purity is about wholeness of heart, sometimes called a “clean” or even an “undivided” heart in Scripture. A lack of righteousness is a lack of integrity, a fundamental division which keeps us from seeing ourselves clearly, and as a result, seeing our way to humility. The self-righteous person, in others, is divided, a “hypocrite” according to Jesus. He is unable to see the depth of his brokenness.
Let’s face it. When we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, it’s easy to live self-righteously, as if we have it all together. But by God’s grace, we have the opportunity to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, to run to him for help, to own up the mess we’ve made of our lives. Only then, as it turns out, does our theology straighten out too, as the Cross and Resurrection become central (no essential!) to the Story, and your story.
Of course, this “owning up” is a hard thing. Pastors, politicians, and professional athletes, perhaps more than others, face the pressure to keep the lid tightly on. I’ve spent a better part of my adult life in pastoral ministry, and believe me–we talk a good game about sin’s potency. But we’re often very poor models of self-awareness. It’s tough for all of us to open that invisible bag and to pull out yet another part of us we’ve been blind to. We’d prefer to highlight successes rather than owning blindspots.
Some time ago, I challenged a friend in pastoral ministry to see a significant blindspot which everyone–family, work peers, friends–seemed to see. His response: You’re asking for too much.
I get it. Who wants to open that long invisible bag? Sure, this man is stubborn and arrogant. But I suspect he’s also very afraid. What will he find? What feelings will he face? What memories will be uncovered? How will it impact his job, his relationships, his standing among others?
As this man prepared to teach a church adult education class on ‘The Doctrines of Grace’, I could not help but think of the paradox. He was about to talk about the bigness of sin and our need for grace, but he was miles away from appropriating this grace for himself. What a tragedy.
Yes, I’m Reformed because I think Reformed theology best captures the major themes of Scripture. But, it’s taken more than that. It’s taken experience, too. Hard experiences. Failures. Self-realizations that make me feel uncomfortable. I’m Reformed because sin is real. My sin is real. And because I desperately need grace.
Opening that invisible bag, we find that we’re far more complex and broken than we think we are. But at its bottom, we find the end of ourselves, and the beginning of hope. At the bottom of that burdening bag we find a humiliated Savior, a Savior who is not at all ashamed to meet us there, who is not at all afraid of our ‘stuff’. And where we feel like life might end in depressing, dismal self-disintegration, we discover an embrace from One whose love is strong enough to put us back together, bit by bit, as we courageously enter in, bringing every part of ourselves into his redemptive light.
That is good news, news that allows us to open that long invisible bag we carry behind us because a very gracious Savior is longing to take on the burdens for us.
If you live near Sioux Center, Iowa, hear more from Chuck DeGroat at Dordt College’s Day of Encouragement on February 7. Open to students, parents, church leaders, volunteers, worshipers, and others, Day of Encouragement is a day to inspire, encourage, and equip God’s people for ministry. Early bird registration is January 19, and the final deadline is January 30. You can register online at www.dordt.edu/doe