Call it total depravity. Call it a sinful nature or fallenness. Shrug and say I’m only human next time you make a mistake. Do any of these things, and you’re addressing a slippery scriptural concept: the spiritual poverty that characterizes all humanity. Determining the correct position on this rather complex anthropological issue is not that easy, and doctrine on our condition as humans redeemed by Christ varies within popular Christianity.
A distinct strain of popular Christian thought emphasizes spiritual poverty and human weakness in discussing interaction with the divine. The most distinctive of this “spiritual povertist” thought, as one might call it, can be found in The Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. Manning exults in Ragamuffin that “the poor man and woman of the gospel have made peace with their flawed existence. They are aware of their lack of wholeness, their brokenness, the simple fact that they don’t have it all together.” Throughout his books, Manning underscores the unconditional love of God, implies that true heroes of faith are those fraught with weakness, and encourages Christians to be honest about their failures.
In addition to Manning, other visible Christians are lining up behind this particular facet of Christian thought, both in endorsing The Ragamuffin Gospel and in voicing similar thought in their music. Both Michael W. Smith and Rich Mullins have written forewords for Ragamuffin. Note, for example, the words of singer/songwriter Justin McRoberts in his online journal: ” … when we stand in our weaknesses, those around us are inspired and even moved to a place of respect for our passion and love…. But only insofar as we allow ourselves to be human is this possible.” This type of stance by such Christian front-runners allows for an even quicker spread of a very high doctrine of spiritual poverty.
Some of the language involved in describing spiritual poverty in very high terms sets off alarm bells in my head. Should I abandon all exertion in my Christian walk, thinking that weakness is better than strength? Or is it that weakness released freely to God becomes infused with his power and hardens into a deeper strength?
In any case, I am instantly inclined to analyze the doctrine and its implications before skipping merrily down the road. The most glaring potential threat is an antinomian mentality in which sin is nearly embraced. Some might emphasize the sinfulness of humanity so much that they implicitly condone sin in the lives of Christians: we are so weak that we cannot avoid sin, sin does not preclude us from salvation and its benefits, therefore sin is not that big a problem.
Such a mentality is noticeably absent from the New Testament. Paul said it best in Romans 6: should we sin all the more so grace may abound? By no means! Admittedly, very few, if any, would argue along these lines and call sin good; but excessively maximize the presence of struggle and minimize the effects of sin in the life of the believer, and such an idea looms closer.
A biblical understanding of sin must include the provision of power to overcome sin; Romans 6 and 8, Colossians 3, and Galatians 5 make abundantly clear that the new life in Christ is one free from the domination of sin. While Christians do continue to face sin, the biblical injunctions to strive for a holy life indicate that the battle against sin — and against the spiritual and emotional problems that can make some sins so desperately binding — can be won and should be fought. Where an overemphasis on human frailty may lead one astray is in permitting the presence of sin. This error may be corrected by keeping in mind that, in order for struggling against sin and weakness to be an honorable thing, a struggle must first take place.
How often thinkers similar to Manning actually embrace sin remains to be seen, and perhaps they rarely do at all. Furthermore, the idea of maintaining an honest awareness of one’s fragility is not without virtue. A believer’s boldly facing the struggles he or she faces fits the biblical picture of divine involvement and preeminence in the lives of Christians. Such a stance also allows for God’s glorification in the circumstances of life and underscores our dependence upon God.
Scripture does attest to the concept of the human frailty working in tandem with the power of God. This witness appears to find its way especially into the Corinthian letters as Paul proves his authority by proving his dependence upon God. Second Corinthians 12 tells the story of Paul’s weakness and God’s response, and seems to show God saying, “Your struggling is not as fearful as you think; the work is ultimately mine anyway.” Similarly, 1 Cor. 1:26-29 expresses the idea of God’s using what is weak to display his work among people. So it is not at all unbiblical to say that God may choose to use human weaknesses to accomplish his own ends, and by corollary that the weaknesses we face as humans should be offered to God with full disclosure.
Furthermore, facing our weaknesses honestly allows for God to glorify himself as he chooses. Surely, God sometimes creates situations similar to Paul’s for modern-day individuals. Surely people struggle and pray for the removal of their struggles, and surely God sometimes chooses not to remove their weakness, but to sustain his followers to his own glorification. One thing is certain: God will ultimately glorify himself and preserve his servants in all circumstances, struggle or triumph, doubt or faith. Embracing the challenges he has laid before us today will not tarnish our own image, but will further God’s glorification.
The idea of freely acknowledging weakness has an interesting effect on individual experience, probably because we run against our weaknesses so jarringly. Much of my introspection yields a desire to be beautiful, anything at all that might make me worthy to God or anyone else. And when I am exhausted in this endeavor, I pause and realize that my attempts have amounted to nothing; I am but clay, and sometimes I look down to see mud dripping from my elbows even as I raise my hands to God.
But there is a beauty even in sticky, sweaty honesty, so long as that honesty constitutes a yielding to the hands of the Father. Seeing that has allowed me to see my struggles as something beautiful. It has allowed me to read my prayers in past years and not see failure but striving, not futility but hope that someone greater than myself guides my steps.
We can’t eliminate individuality from the faith experience; the believer’s self-assessment will impact his or her interaction with the divine on nearly every level. In assessing ourselves we must assess the condition of humanity in general. A correct understanding of spiritual poverty allows believers to enjoy the fact that — even as they struggle against sin and weakness — they are held by divine cords that their failures are powerless to untie.
Copyright 2003 Jessica Inman. All rights reserved.