How many times have we sung the old favorite? “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” And how many times have we owned the label wretch without question? In today’s blog I take a rare foray into the realm of theology and its practical implications for healthy life and leadership.
The reasoning often goes that we can’t appreciate the Good News until we first hear the Bad News. That we can’t know grace until we acknowledge our wretchedness. But I'm not so sure. True grace always comes to me like blessed water on a parched tongue.
Let’s look at the images that Jesus used to convey the weight of grace. A lost sheep. A lost coin. A lost son. All of these items that were lost were precious to begin with. None of them wretched. Thus the urgent search to restore them to their place of belovedness! Even the prodigal in all his self-profligating, father-dishonoring, character-abasing behaviors was no wretch. He was only ever the beloved son. He acted wretchedly and eventually felt wretched about it, but he was not a wretch. The distinction is crucial.
The theology of wretchedness takes a keen eye to unravel because it is wrapped around a kernel of truth—the truth that humans are truly and tragically lost (in the most fundamental sense of that word) and in desperate need of being found. We need a savior, and we are the objects of a restorative grace nothing short of amazing.
The place where the theology of wretchedness departs from the truth—in my opinion—is in its degradation of the human condition. It takes our human fragility, vulnerability, and disorientation…and extrudes it to the fullest measure of moral corruption and wickedness. These theological seeds get planted so deeply in the human psyche that an intrinsic shame is forged, as it were, to our very DNA. And often persists as an insidious, unconscious identity of unworthiness, even after we have been “found.” I frequently observe this in those I coach as well as in my own soul.
There are verses in the Bible often read in the light of wretchedness. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” This metaphor-laden prophecy from Jeremiah speaks to the disorienting nature of lost-ness—we don’t understand our own hearts, much less the hearts of others, and we are easily deceived by our illusions and appetites. Yet of course we are not beyond cure because Christ is in the very process of curing us! This is a far cry from the “desperately wicked” verbiage of the King James version.
And just one more passage today. Quoting the Psalms, Romans 3:10-12 says, “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.” This poetic hyperbole flows out of David’s brokenheartedness over those resisting God’s ways…and even over his own faults. But the worthlessness he ascribes to humanity does not yet fully reveal the Father’s heart as shown in the life of Jesus.
I regularly pass an old country church on my drive into town, and it has the requisite sign out front with pithy sayings meant to be inspirational. Although surely well-intended, the messages tend toward cloyingly cutesy (“Seven days without prayer makes one weak”), religiously irrelevant (“God wants full custody, not just weekend visits”), or passively aggressive (“And you think it’s hot up here?”). But occasionally I see one that is LOL witty (“We’re all ‘bout dat grace, ‘bout dat grace, no devil.”), whether the theology is spot on or not.
The current signs reads this: “Jesus knows you and still loves you.”
On the face of it, this is a true and encouraging message…but can you hear the subtext? The word “still” conveys an underlying message that being known is a bit shameful, that although you suck (the modern equivalent of wretched), Jesus is a big enough guy to love you anyway. You don’t deserve it, but if you play your cards right, you’ll get it. This doesn’t sound at all like the reunion I see in the Father’s effusive embrace of the prodigal.
This theological flaw even bleeds over into our modern worship songs. One of my favorites sits at number one on the CCLI Top 100 right now: Reckless Love. It’s a moving, heartfelt anthem of grace…but notice the theological parasite that tags along: “I couldn't earn it (true), and I don't deserve it (not true), still You give Yourself away. Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.”
Earning and deserving are radically different concepts. No child should ever feel like they need to earn their parents’ love. They couldn’t earn it…and don’t need to. Love is bestowed. So do they deserve to be loved? Heck yeah. Every child deserves to be loved by virtue of their inherent worth as a human being. And as children of God, every man and woman deserves the love that is lavished upon them unconditionally. Which is why we also need to jettison the theological baggage of the term “adoption.” We aren’t adopted into God’s family; we were born there! Born into Love, lost from Love, and then found by Love. It’s really that simple. And that important.
While this post may seem like fussing over doctrine, this is much more personal to me—and vital to our journey through life and leadership. Insecurity around my fundamental worth leads me to a grace-depleting drivenness; I experience the emotional force of this imposter almost daily. As beloved sons and daughters—never once a wretch—we must live into this true identity of worthiness before we can break free of our compulsions toward proving, performing, and pleasing. Grace is always a life-saver and a game-changer…but it comes incrementally. Let’s savor the next increment today!
Take a few minutes to journal how you feel about your children. If you don’t have children, write what you imagine you would feel about a son or daughter. Now imagine God journaling his feelings about you—not disappointment but pure delight, no matter whether you are behaving badly or brilliantly. You belong. You are beloved. Own it!
You are worthy, not wretched.