“Lord, who are you and who am I?” St. Francis of Assisi
She is a student at a community college, perhaps she is 17 or 18. Wearing typical college attire, sweats and a t-shirt, she appears finished even though trying to dress down. Her hair, parted in the middle, is fiery red, but there seems to be little fire in her soul. She engages in class, but she seems rather detached otherwise. Her crystal blue eyes look heavy when not directly involved in the conversation. Her eyes do not communicate tiredness or boredom. They express sadness. The do not express knowledge of the potential she has.
I wonder if she knows what she is, what she has. I wonder if anyone has ever told her the truth. The truth is more terrifying and wonderful than most people her age know just yet. If someone has told her the truth, I wonder if she has pondered its meaning. Does she know the potential that lies within her? I wonder if she knows what she is, what she has. I wonder because people are often strangers to themselves.
Do You Know?
It is not just her, of course. In any college building, there is usually a gaggle of students sitting around tables in the lounge. Some are talking and laughing while others are texting. There are students there trying to block out the loud conversations echoing off the unpainted concrete floors so they can study. Hands on their ears pushing in their earbuds, they try to focus on their computer screens. Do they know who they are?
Somewhere, somehow it happens. Young people dream big. They think of conquering the world or at least saving it. They imagine the best possible outcome. Age comes and brings with it responsibilities and narrowed visions. Dreams of big adventures cease. In their stead are dreams of having enough money to pay the bills and children who do not scream in public. The best hopes are no longer for adventure but for an uninterrupted nap. Lost is the nature of life. Lost is the truth about human nature, its potential, and its peril.
Potential and Possibility
Human potential is a gift, and so few grasp it. Many end up limiting themselves and frittering away their potential because of fear and lies. They are stricken with the fear that if they strive they will fail. Failure must be avoided because it is so damaging to the psyche, they reason. Fear of failure is a fence that keeps people from striving.
The lies people believe are most often lies about the self. They see others who seem to succeed with little effort. Their graceful appearance and movements give the impression of effortless power. Of course, that is untrue. Those who are truly successful at anything have exerted significant effort to achieve it. It would be wise to spend less time marveling at their natural talent and more time studying their astonishing effort.
The lies have a function, though, they protect. People tell themselves they are not smart enough, attractive enough, or capable enough, and live within the limits of those lies all to protect the psyche. “I did not have a chance” is a much more powerful salve to the heartbroken than “I did not choose to expend enough effort.” Lies give false comfort to those fenced in by fear.
The Power of Lies
Despite how powerful those lies are, they are lies. Collective human potential is much grander than usually imagined. Human beings have tamed animals, created the germ theory of disease, charted the heavens, explored the depths of the sea, pondered the mysteries of the Transcendent, and trodden the surface of the moon. Humans built the pyramids (despite the protestations of wild-haired conspiracy theorists) and have sculpted marble into wonders like Moses and David.
What is true of the whole is also true of an individual. A person with sustained attention to a field of study can accomplish much more than they think. I have seen men with little formal education master the functioning of an automobile. They can hear a strange grind or knock, and isolate the problem instantly. They know the difference between a bad tire and a defective wheel bearing. When others are beside themselves with frustration, they can calmly identify and solve the problem. That is true in just about any human field. People who give time and attention become experts. Becoming an expert in a field is not as much a matter of innate brilliance but of sustained attention over time. Hard work trumps talent. Relentless effort trumps intelligence. By relentless effort individuals can accomplish wonders.
There is a misreading of Shakespeare I like better than what the bard intended. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” he writes. He intends to note that all of human life is like a dream, it will fade. My misuse of the line is much more optimistic. Humans are the stuff of dreams, they can create, accomplish, build, and inspire, much more than they usually think. Humans are not just confined to fade away. They are designed for much more than that.
Potential and Perdition
And yet, humans are deeply flawed. The great theologian John Calvin teaches that humans are totally depraved. He does not mean that humans are as bad as they can be. One would hope humans have reached the bottom of their collective depravity, but no evidence of that has emerged. No, He means that humans are broken in every area. Humans are broken in body and spirit; emotions and reason.
Christmas with Inmates
Human minds, though extraordinary, are bent toward doing that which is wrong. For many years I went to one of our local prisons during the Christmas season. There I and members of my church would pass out gifts to every inmate. Once we gained admission, we would hear the loud clang of electronic bolt locking us in the room. Shortly thereafter, the inmates would parade by us in their jade green uniforms and rubber slippers. I made a point to shake every hand and look each of them in the eye as I bellowed “Merry Christmas” again and again.
What struck me most about my visits were their faces. Few looked like what I thought a criminal would look like. Sure, there were occasional hardened faces. There was a man who had “L.A.” for the LA Kings gang tattooed on his cheek. There were those whose eyes betrayed an emptiness of the soul. Some of the inmates I would have instinctively avoided had I seen them in public. Most of them were not that, though. Most of them looked just like everyone else. Had I seen them in public, I never would have suspected they were capable of a crime. After greeting hundreds of young, fresh-faced men who were serving significant sentences, I would come home and think, “What a waste.” I mourned what they could have been, and prayed for what they might become with God’s grace.
Within Every Person
Every person has potential. This is what it is to be human. Whether that potential is realized for good or for evil is the struggle of human life. Humans created Dachau and David; Moses and Molech. The same capacities and potentials that can be harnessed for good can be made to serve evil, sometimes in the same person.
The Scriptures describe humanity. David, the great king of Israel, looks at the heavens and writes “…what is man that You are mindful of him or humans that you care for them… You have crowned Him with glory and honor… You have made them rulers over the works of your hands and put everything under their feet…”
The Apostle Paul writes, “There is none righteous, no not one.”
Humans are created by God, crowned with glory, and beloved by God. At the same time, humans are sinful and in need of the Savior. Humans cannot even reach for God, without God’s grace. People need both of these messages. They need to know what power lies within. They need to know their need for salvation.
What I fear is that people hear neither message. I fear no one has told them that they have done and can do evil. Worse, I suspect, they have internalized the message that they are fine the way they are without the need for change. I suspect they have never heard that God loves them and has made them able to rule over creation. They hear that the best thing they can do is get through life with as much pleasure and as little pain as possible. These are insufficient for a whole and healthy life.
The truth is dazzling and dangerous. Humans are an amazing creation of God, wonderfully made. That truth would transform lives if loosed. The other part of the truth is that humans are in desperate need of a Savior. That truth has the power to save.