Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Little Bit of "Worm" Theology

John Vasconcellos died this past May. Most of you don't know him, but this powerful California legislator was a very common name back in the late 1980s when he led the creation of and chaired the state's "Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility." This monumentally misguided effort introduced all sorts of self-esteem mandates to the California public schools, believing that low self-esteem was the root cause of crime, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and nearly every other social ill. He helped the state's "crazy" image, but gave voice to what many secretly believed--the solution to our deepest problems is lack of self-esteem: we all should believe in ourselves!

Even among Christian thinkers, this kind of positive attitude led many to caricature and demonize older theological minds that often spoke of the smallness and even "vileness" of the human heart. It was called "worm" theology, from OT references by Job to himself as a "worm, and not a man" and echoes of this in the Psalms. The idea is one of self-abasement and humiliation, and was picked up on in an number of old hymns.

Such an attitude, it was thought, was unduly negative for those who are the crown of God's creation--his very image. Sadly, this kind of "either/or" thinking has led us to a continuing dearth of balance in our thinking about ourselves, and more importantly, of God.

Don't get me wrong. We should take great joy in the fact that "God loves us right now, as we are." He is always compassionate to us when we come to him, no matter what our state. But, as the rest of the thought needs to go, "He loves us too much to leave us as we are." For the way in which we come to God, whenever we come, is less than what it it meant to be. 

John Owen has two very practical pieces of advice for those of us seeking to "mortify" (a nice word for "kill") sin--"Think greatly of the greatness of God" is the first. We ought to fill our minds with the biblical imagery of God as highly exalted above and beyond us, of his perfections, his holiness, his zeal for his own people and name, and so on. Secondly, make sure you also fill your mind and thoughts with the guilt of the sin you seek to eradicate from your life. Don't be so quick to pass over just how offensive it is to God, how much it grieves the Spirit, the price Jesus paid to free you from it, and the lack of holiness and ability to be "righteous" that you have on your own. Unless you really hate your sin, you won't want to kill it, only tame it. And sin will not be tamed.

It is this thinking on one's own inability and remaining sin that undoes "self-esteem," and requires us to develop a higher "God-esteem." Generally, sinners do not need to learn to think better of themselves, they need to think worse of themselves and better of Christ who is making us into something we are not by nature--saints!