Monday, October 13, 2014

Paul and Tim Keller on Depravity and Deprivation

What's our deepest problem? What causes us to make destructive choices? Is it that there's some depravity within us that innately drives us towards evil? Or is it that we've been wounded and deprived of goodness in a way that causes us to be defensive or lash out?

In the book of First Timothy, the apostle Paul warns and encourages his spiritual son and protégé, Timothy, in various ways. In 1 Timothy 6:4-5 specifically, Paul passionately describes a person who opposes Jesus' character and teaching: "He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain."

There are many important parts of this passage, but one that I want to highlight here is this: A sinful, selfish, person is both "depraved" and "deprived." And though we might not consciously oppose Jesus, Romans 3 makes it clear that we're all sinners.

In the following passage from The Meaning of Marriage [p. 60-63, 76], Tim Keller doesn't use the words "depravity" and "deprivation," but I would hate to quarrel about words. I think he communicates the relationship between these two in us quite well. 

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There are many reasons that we cannot see our own self-centeredness. One of the main factors that hides it from us is our own history of mistreatment. Many people come to marriage having been seriously hurt by parents, lovers, or former spouses. I am not talking about parents who physically or sexually abuse their children. I'm talking of the more widespread experiences of cold and indifferent parents or of verbally abusive parents who know how to punish children emotionally. Then there are the dating relationships or former marriages in which the other party wronged and betrayed you. All of these experiences can make it extremely difficult to trust the other sex, while at the same time filling you with deep doubts about your own judgment and character. "Woundedness" is compounded self-doubt and guilt, resentment and disillusionment.

We come to one another in marriage with these things in our backgrounds. And when the inevitable conflicts occur, our memories can sabotage us. They can prevent us from doing the normal, day-to-day work of repentance and forgiveness and extending the grace that is so crucial to making progress in our marriages. The reason is that woundedness makes us self-absorbed.

This is not hard to see in others, of course. When you begin to talk to wounded people, it is not long before they begin talking about themselves. They're so engrossed in their own pain and problems that they don't realize what they look like to others. They are not sensitive to the needs of others. They don't pick up the cues of those who are hurting, or, if they do, they only do so in a self-involved way. That is, they do so with a view of helping to "rescue" them in order to feel better about themselves. They get involved with others in an obsessive and controlling way because they are actually meeting their own needs, though they deceive themselves about this. We are always, always the last to see our self-absorption. Our hurts and wounds can make our self-centeredness even more intractable. When you point out selfish behavior to a wounded person, he or she will say, "Well, maybe so, but you don't understand what it is like." The wounds justify the behavior.

There are two ways to diagnose and treat this condition. In our culture, there is still a widespread assumption of basic human goodness. If people are self-absorbed and messed up, it is argued, it is only because they lack healthy self-esteem. So what we should do is tell them to be good to themselves, to live for themselves, not for others. In this view of things, we give wounded people almost nothing but support, encouraging them to stop letting others run their lives, urging them to find out what their dreams are and take steps to fulfill them. That, we think, is the way to healing. But this approach assumes that self-centeredness isn't natural, that it is only the product of some kind of mistreatment. That is a very popular understanding of human nature, but it is worth observing that it is an article of faith - a religious belief, as it were. No major religion teaches that, yet this is the popular view of many people in the West.

But this view of things simply doesn't work. A marriage relationship unavoidably entails self-denial, even in the most mundane day-to-day living. It is impossible to have a smooth-running relationship with even one person, let alone two, always feeling that his or her desires should have preeminence because of all he or she has been through in life.

The Christian approach begins with a different analysis of the situation. We believe that, as badly wounded as persons may be, the resulting self-absorption of the human heart was not caused by the mistreatment. It was only magnified and shaped by it. Their mistreatment poured gasoline on the fire, and the flame and smoke now choke them, but their self-centeredness already existed prior to their woundedness. Therefore, if you do nothing but urge people to "look out for number one," you will be setting them up for future failure in any relationship, especially marriage.

This is not to say that wounded people don't need great gentleness, tender treatment, affirmation, and patience. It is just that this is not the whole story. Both people crippled by inferiority feelings and those who have superiority complexes are centered on themselves, obsessed with how they look and how they are being perceived and treated. It would be easy to help someone out of an inferiority complex into a superiority complex and leave them no better furnished to live life well.

[...]

The only way to avoid sacrificing your partner's joy and freedom on the altar of your need is to turn to the ultimate lover of your soul. He voluntarily sacrificed himself on the cross, taking what you deserved for your sins against God and others. On the cross he was forsaken and experienced the lostness of hell, but he did it all for us. Because of the loving sacrifice of the Son, you can know the heaven of the Father's love through the work of the Spirit. Jesus truly "built a heaven in hell's despair." And fortified with the love of God in your soul, you likewise can now give yourself in loving service to your spouse.

"We love - because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

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