The Bible’s estimation of human nature is very, very low.
If you were raised in an evangelical Christian setting, you learned how to dress it up and make it sound gracious and forgiving. You learned how to sugar coat the condemnation heaped upon humanity by the biblical writers, making very bad news somehow sound like it could possibly be good. But let’s take a look at what the writers of the Bible have to say about human nature:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
“‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone.'” (Mark 10:18)
“If you then, being evil…” (Matthew 7:11)
Are you starting to see a pattern?
Simply put, the biblical view of human nature is deeply negative, and at times it even goes so far as to say that you deserve to be punished forever and forever because of who you are in your innermost being. What that punishment looks like in practice is debatable, but let’s not get sidetracked right this second.
If you still don’t see it, maybe go back and re-read that sampling of statements pulled from multiple sections of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. And notice that the last two statements came from Jesus himself, in case you are still nursing the belief that his view of humanity was fundamentally different from the rest of the biblical record.
Dressing It Up
In church they teach you how to make this sound pretty. You learn to romanticize this negative view of human nature, as if groveling before God and reveling in your own inadequacies somehow brings greater glory and honor to him. The Puritans positively excelled in self-deprecation. They elevated self-loathing to an art form. For Calvinists, with whom I did my graduate studies in theology, wallowing in your own sense of insufficiency is the heart of worship.
I was reminded of this tendency this weekend when an old tweet of mine got retweeted by one of my favorite still-Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans, whose readers are anything but Calvinists.
Patriarchy: Make me a sandwich.
Complementarianism: Make me a sandwich, please.
Egalitarianism: I’m gonna get a sandwich. You want one, too?
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) January 30, 2014
Because she has way more people following her than I do, most of whom still subscribe to the Christian faith in one form or another, I got treated to a pretty steady stream of attractive-looking Jesus lovers all weekend long. It was kind of refreshing to see so many new faces of people I wish I knew, and to see their hopefulness for what life could bring through the grace of a God to whom they still look for help.
But I couldn’t help noticing something else as well. The way these people talk about themselves is truly awful.
I sometimes forget how central self-deprecation is to the evangelical Christian faith. As Twitter profiles go, you only get a handful of characters in which to describe yourself in your personal profile. But as many as half of them for a while there read like they were all trying to outdo each other in the art of criticizing themselves.
I mean you could lead off with anything, you know? Anything you please. It’s entirely up to you. This is your “elevator speech,” so to speak, your one brief moment to make a first impression on the rest of the world. And what do you choose to say first?
“I’m broken. I’m a sinner. I’m wrecked. I’m a mess.” And this from a beautiful young woman who uses the word “healthy” in the handle of her account name.
At times this weekend they were all sounding exactly like this. Evangelical Christianity—and truth be told, the same can be said for its redheaded stepchild, Progressive Christianity—teaches people to disparage themselves so effectively that it spills out in the very first sentences of their personal introductions.
This is a very successful campaign.
It’s successful because they somehow make it sound so appealing. Like all other American cultural products, evangelical Christianity has managed to take something very ugly (“You are wretched and worthless on your own”) and has repackaged it into something inviting. They dress it up in stylish denim and untucked plaid shirts, saying the most terrible things through their perfect teeth. They make it look so cool to hate yourself.
But then what else should we expect from a religion that took a symbol of execution and turned it into jewelry? Some of them hang more than a dozen crosses on a single wall in their homes, each one of them a separate work of art, glorifying one of the most gruesome forms of torture ever invented by ancient civilizations.
Is it any wonder that this religion keeps gravitating toward anti-human thinking, no matter what form it takes or which language it speaks? Even the nice versions cannot seem to shake this fundamental belief that human nature is at bottom broken. As I said in a previous post from earlier this year:
There are at least a handful of essentials which seem to undergird everything that can reasonably called “Christianity,” and this appears to be one of them: In order to need a savior, you have to feel there is something you need saving from, and that means you have to believe that somehow you are in really, really bad shape. You have to feel that you need saving in the first place. And that means taking whatever your current view of yourself happens to be—no matter how low it already is—and lowering it even further.
- So Long Self: How Christianity Teaches You to Hate Yourself
- We Are Not Broken
- Is Humanity Fundamentally Broken? (A Conversation)
Why This Is So Fresh for Me
This has been a challenging end-of-the-year for a lot of people I know, myself included. I’ve been through some hard things, even beyond the daily struggles of living as an atheist in the heart of the Bible Belt. I’ve had to deal with rejection and misrepresentation by people I thought would be a support network for me. I already walked through that once before when I left my faith (or rather it left me), and now I’ve walked through it again with a number of people within the atheist/secular movement as well.
What makes this harder for someone like me is that I don’t live among a people who accept me for who I am. Where I live, IRL, people accept me for who they imagine me to be, and that perspective is situated entirely within a narrative I no longer accept or fit within at all. I do not subscribe to their set of priorities, and the moment they discover that about me, I become an enemy that must be defeated, or at best a personal liability to be held at arm’s length.
For a while there I had forgotten how deep an impact this has had on me. But recent events and conversations have reminded me that these environmental elements are still here all the time, even though I spend a lot of subconscious energy trying to ignore them. When things get tough, the reality of where I live starts seeping in to my consciousness like the wet coldness of a January morning eventually seeps into your clothes if you stand outside for long enough.
But I’m beginning to see a way out of this. It’s the same way out I’ve known about for years—only some lessons require repeating them to yourself again and again and again. And again.
A friend recently told me exactly what I needed to hear. She spoke truth into my life that I already knew but needed someone to tell me again. Here is what she said, in essence. Perhaps you need to hear it, too:
You keep so many cruel voices in your head. They say such terrible things to you, about you. They tell you stories that are wrong, and you seem to act as if you agree with them. But you know better. You need to put some kinder voices in there to drown out those other voices.
Please surround yourself with people who will tell you better stories, better things that are true about who you are and what’s inside you. Find friends who can give you hope for better things in your life.
She’s absolutely right, and I’ve known this for a long time. But some bad lessons are woven so deeply into our psyches that they require unlearning again and again and again. It’s not something most of us can do on our own. It requires a community. It requires a people. I don’t know about you, but I need that. I can’t do this on my own.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The good news is that I’m beginning to recognize just how many of these people I’ve been collecting around me over the last few months and years. Pausing a moment to take inventory, I am noticing a growing trend in my friend choices, and it gives me a deep and abiding hope. I’ve had more friends in my life step forward to give me encouragement, and to speak hope and healing into my life, than I can even enumerate. I’ve come to value their words and their hugs (and sometimes even gifts of one kind or another) so much that I’ll find an excuse to travel several states away just to be with them and draw strength from their loving presence.
I cannot tell you how valuable this has become for me. It’s beginning to give me life. I’m starting to learn the value of finding these friends who know how to reach those places where the healing has to happen. Sometimes it happens in digital spaces, and sometimes it has to happen face-to-face. I’m beginning to suspect for some of us it also requires some professional therapy, and I don’t mind telling you I’m working on lining that up as we speak.
It takes a little bit of deliberate effort, and it takes learning to recognize when the voices I’m hearing are voices who know what I’m going through. They’re familiar with the terrain of the journey I’ve been on because they’ve had to walk the same road themselves. They know this territory, and I can hear it in their voices.
In time you can find such people, and my advice is to take hold of them and don’t let them go. These are your greatest resources for healing the damage that comes from growing up in a world that tells you you’re a terrible person who deserves to be punished. And yeah, yeah, image of God, precious creation…spare me the sales pitch, if you’re reading this and feel like you have to say these things. Don’t try to invalidate what I’m saying. The damage is real, and I’m beyond allowing anyone else to deny it.
I’m starting to see more clearly how deep the damage goes from internalizing the messages I learned growing up. And as painful as it may be, I’m determined to do what it takes to find healing from it all. Life is too short, you know? It’s my belief that we only get one shot at this, so why waste years of it stuck in old struggles when you could be asking for help?
The voices in my head have not been kind to me, and it’s time for them to be replaced with kinder voices. Some of them, in case you were wondering, are your voices—the voices of friends who have come alongside me to walk this journey with me because you know exactly what I’m going through. Thank you for stepping into my life and speaking hope and encouragement to me. It’s slowly making a difference.
A couple of years ago a friend gave me a little thoughtful gift to remind me that I don’t have to save the world. But sometimes being yourself is still an act of heroism, especially when you live in a world that doesn’t understand or accept what value you have to offer it. She gave me this little Superman to remind me that we can each perform our own small acts of heroism if we don’t lose hope. In her own way, she was being one of the voices in my head, telling me a better story about who I am, and who I can be.
Find such people. Cherish them. Cultivate relationships with them, and prioritize that in your life. It’s worth it. And it just might help you dig your way out of the hole that growing up with a biblical view of yourself put you in.