Earlier, today, I posted the following thought experiment on my Facebook page.
Do you believe it is a good parenting technique to tell your children they are wretched and that it is a damned lucky thing that we are such loving parents that we accept them anyway? Or that everything they do is bad, and the only good thing about them is that we love and accept them?
Some of the first comments suggested that people may be questioning my sanity, or at least my psychological stability. Regardless, let me be crystal clear–I do not believe these ideas represents good parenting, nor do I say them to my children. I proposed the scenarios as a reflection on how a theology grounded in depravity understands God’s parenthood, what some have referred to as “worm theology.” Briefly, according to this theological understanding, what is truest about us after the fall (see Genesis 3) is our sinfulness. According to the doctrine of total depravity, everything we do, think, feel, or say is tainted by sin (though to be clear, it does not say that we are as bad as we can possibly be). Unfortunately, this theological understanding often skips past the deeper truths of Genesis 1 that say that all people were created in God’s image and that God called his creation very good.
The dialog on my thought experiment was rich (Really, you should go check it out here) and overwhelmingly, people thought that the scenarios I described were unhealthy and even abusive. Even when people acknowledged helping children to understand that they are sinners, or that their behaviors or character need correction, no one agreed with the questions as I presented them. And yet…and yet, many of have no trouble with assigning this language to God, whom we allegedly believe is infinitely loving. As Christians speak or sing about God’s love, it is common to refer to themselves as “wretched sinners.” When we use that language for ourselves, at what point does it begin to negatively affect our understanding of who we are as God’s beloved children? How does it affect how we begin to treat others?
How might things be different if we started from an earlier place? What if we believed that the truest, most essential thing about us is that we are God’s beloved children, regardless of anything else? What if, in light of a more compassionate self-understanding, we were comfortable acknowledging the brokenness in our lives, but realize that it is not our sin that defines us? What if God is absolutely, relentlessly wild about us? What if God’s anger is about those things that damage and disintegrate God’s image bearers and not about people themselves?