A recurring challenge in faithful Christian discipleship is having a true and realistic grasp on understanding twin aspects of our human condition. First, God created us good, in his image. We are God's beautiful image bearers. But second, something has gone dreadfully wrong with human nature. What is it that troubles us? What does God judge as "not good" in our human condition as lived in daily expression?
We could come at this point from several directions. Here I mention two verses from Psalms. 51:3 (New Revised Standard) says, "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." This verse is often quoted in relation to the concept of original sin. It's poetic language, we remember, and we need not read it overly literalistically to see David's point. There is a weakness in our "flesh" from the time we enter human experience that troubles us and derails our best intentions.
Psalm 78 is a long one reflecting on Israel's history as God's chosen but errant people. The psalmist (verse 39) reflects on the problem and concludes, "He remembered that they [Israel] were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again." Again, poetic language that speaks to the heart of our problem. Yes, we remember Psalm 8, that we are created "a little lower than God." That's the divine design part that remains with us. But what is good has been twisted to what is not good. We are weak, fickle, unreliable, self-interested, sinful beings.
And remembering that we are is the path to real freedom and joy. The Christian faith is full of paradox and here is one: the more we grasp and accept this central truth of the Christian faith, that we are stuck in what Paul calls the "sin nature," that there is nothing good in my flesh (my weakened, corrupted human nature), the more we move toward real freedom. Recognizing accurately where we stand, we then, in Christ, under his grace (the work of the Holy Spirit), can live in freedom, purpose, and joy.
But if we refuse to see this truth about the human condition, we remain imprisoned in a cell of our own making. If we insist on our goodness, our freedom, our prerogatives, our autonomy, we naively and futilely stumble over the same self-inflicted problems over and over again. As we sometimes ask of others who seem not to recognize that they're bringing trouble on themselves: "How's that working for you?"
This difficulty is often hard for us to see, because of what we have learned in a variety of ways through our educational system. (No scapegoating here! I'm not attributing blame, but I am pointing out a problem.) A good part of my ministry experience, working with college students, put me in touch with a field of study known as student development theory. It is rooted, mainly, in psychology, but includes other fields, such as sociology and even linguistics. You can find the word "autonomy" everywhere in the literature. Another word is "self-efficacy." These words reveal something important and good, but they also have been used in very confusing and fruitless ways.
Autonomy or self-efficacy has to do with the freedom and responsibility to come to one's own conclusions, to make up one's own mind about a matter. Obviously, this freedom is a good in many ways. It relates to a key aspect of adult life related to its political dimension. (By "political" I don't mean just "politics." I mean the exercise of power, the power of discretion of discernment, of conclusion and judgment.) If we misplace autonomy by arguing that it is core to our human make-up, rather than a function of social relations, then we start down a false, misleading, and troubling path. We may rightly seek autonomy in social and political relations. If we assume autonomy as a core part of the human make-up, we make an enormous mistake.
Again, paradoxically, one key way to recognize naivete about the human condition is to turn away from thinking about our make-up, for a moment, and consider what we love. Saint Augustine is especially well-known for this insight. What we love is what captures our hearts and guides our actions. What we love tells us much about ourselves, about who we are.
To be sure, we love more than one object. It makes me think of the old Tom T. Hall song, "I love." You old country fans will remember. The opening lines are "I love little baby ducks, old pickup trucks, slow movin' trains, and rain." And, of course, the big punchline of the song, ending each verse, is, "And I love you, too." Augustine taught that our loves must be ordered according to the Supreme Love, which is the love of God and our love for God. To riff on Tom T. Hall, we can't simply make a list of what we love and tack on an "I love you, too." We in fact prioritize our loves. "I love you, too" better be, in reality, "I love you most of all." Otherwise the object of Hall's song is not going to be very happy about simply falling in a list with baby ducks and pickup trucks.
We are "safe" to love other things appropriately for their use, if our heart's orientation is always toward loving the one true God above all things. But exactly here is the problem: we don't love God above all things. We don't seek his kingdom first. We are a tangle of competing desires and loves, which cover our true and twisted supreme love, an inordinate love of "Me." Thomas a Kempis, a Dutch spiritual writer of the fifteenth century wrote, "How little is anything, if it is inordinately loved and regarded, if it keeps you away from the Highest, and corrupts the soul."
We return to where we started. If we understand our true condition in this world; if we recognize our fickle, weak, inconstant, unreliable, condition, and turn to the Lord for strength, discipline, and constancy, we live in joy and freedom. We can grow toward maturity if we grasp the paradox and ponder with humble transparency what we truly love. And then seek God's grace in loving God above all things.