A New Understanding of Total Depravity


When I found out she was my professor for our orientation class (and thus my adviser), I thought back to the many rumors I had heard. The loudest among them was that she was a feminist. And my good Christian girl self was a bit unnerved. I was most definitely not a feminist. I loved the idea of submission, firmly believed women should put their homes at the center of their lives, and had no problem being the weaker vessel. (Oh how I would change!)

She walked in with her silver short hair, her colorful skirt, and a smile that hinted at both understanding and amusement.  I preferred the many professors who made things black and white, plain and simple, logic and rationality.

I was a bit angry– no, a lot angry–but probably mostly just overwhelmed as I started this college that did not fit my ideas of Christianity. Every day I was forced to re-think what was part of my culture, what was part of my heritage, and what was part of my faith. And I decided to take a lot of my anger out on that class. My first paper I did what no Type A-Teacher-Pleasing student would do. I wrote somewhat subtly (so I thought) about the silliness of that orientation class. I didn’t care if I made her mad; I probably wanted to. She was a feminist after all, and I think I decided that it was only because of her that I felt so confused.

And yet she read that paper. She responded to my thoughts and never chastised me for my not so subtle rant. I was still skeptical. In addition to my advising appointments, I also had her for several other classes over the course of four years. In one class, she challenged another important concept. In her quiet way she said, “I think we take the doctrine of total depravity too far.”

Total depravity is one of the five aspects of Christianity that John Calvin defined. It means that man is completely without hope and needs a Savior to rescue him.

I was shocked! “Surely that doctrine cannot be taken too far,” I thought, “without denying the importance of Jesus’ death.” I listened, as I was slowly learning to do. She went on to explain her ideas about the good attributes God has given men and women–attributes that mirror His own such as creativity, a desire to relate to others, and a desire for meaningful work. She explained that Christians often fail to see the beauty in human beings because they are so focused on the evil.

But I was not with her on that. My heart was too judgmental–most judgmental of myself but judgmental of others too. I had read the theology books, and I firmly believed that logic and word and rationality had the answers. Concepts like beauty could appear in poetry or novels but not to the same extent in real life.

I carried my definition of “total depravity” into marriage, into teaching, and into church. I saw man as utterly evil; I saw only his hopelessness and need for God. I would give people one chance.

I was hardest on myself.  So when I eventually and inevitably started to struggle, it was all bound up in self-hate. How could I not want to go to church? I self diagnosed it as laziness and selfishness. When I was criticized, I took it as truth whether it was true or not. It took me a while to see exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and depression as real problems. While on the one hand I had always seen myself as bad, perhaps I did not see my true need until I realized that I did not even have the power to love and care for others or even myself. This wasn’t just wickedness, it was also a deep brokenness.

My cynicism almost destroyed me and certainly destroyed potential friendships. I was always questioning motives. I wonder now about the years and the relationships that I missed out on. Seeing the beauty and worth of others is not just flowery poetic language; it is real life. It’s why deep down we love human interest stories so much. We love seeing what humans are capable of in a desire to find meaning, purpose, and our creator. I began to heal and to see that people are more complicated than what they wear, what they say, and what they struggle with. I saw that in this broken world, man has many struggles that are his own fault but also struggles that come about because of the brokenness of the world–abuse, depression, tragedies just to name a few.

So maybe Christians take the doctrine of total depravity too far. Or maybe we just define it poorly. But humans are eternal; they are souls and minds and bodies. Though we desperately need God to heal our brokenness, each of us also show attributes of His character, and each of us is beautiful (honestly, it is hard for me to even type that sentence; I am still struggling to accept this).

In the end, that professor I wrote off as someone I could never learn from was my first choice when I needed someone to advise my Bachelor’s Thesis because I knew I could find in her wisdom and truth but also beauty and delight.


2 thoughts on “A New Understanding of Total Depravity

  1. Pingback: Testimony: My Spiritual Resume (Pt. 3) | Pilgrim Sandals

  2. Pingback: My New Approach to Parenting | Pilgrim Sandals

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