Living in Our Limits

Failed dreams. I have spent the last three years as a Christian campus worker, sitting at tables, drinking coffee, and consoling high-caliber students who believe they are watching their dreams and goals slip away before their eyes.

  • I’m failing chemistry! I’ll never be able to get into med school.
  • I didn’t get a bid to (insert fraternity/sorority here)! How will I make the connections I need to get into (insert prestigious grad school here)?
  • My girlfriend broke up with me! How will I ever be happy again?

Yes, college students are dramatic, but even though they may lack perspective and overreact, their emotions have real consequences. Circumstances like these drive many college students into serious depression. They get behind on work, isolate themselves from their friends, and lose interest in all the things that used to bring them joy. All because they have never considered the possibility that they might fail, that their dreams might not be realized. They cannot cope with this reality, so they shut down.

It’s easy to blame age, immaturity, or unstable hormones for these radical emotional responses to failure. But it strikes me that this is more a human condition than just a college student “problem.” We all share in these extreme emotional responses to life; adults are just better at hiding it than college students. We create dreams for ourselves and when we fall short or fail we spiral into self-loathing, and our culture only perpetuates this experience. Growing up in a world where we are told we can do anything leads us off a cliff when reality hits and we discover that there really are things we cannot do.

Whether we recognize it or not, this is the worldview most of us use to interpret life. This is the worldview that cripples us when faced with our own shortcomings, inabilities, and limitations. According to this worldview, the only explanations for why we fail is that we did not try hard enough or we did not want it badly enough. But what if you fail when you gave it your very best shot?

  • You lost out on that promotion, even though you thought you earned it by all your hard work.
  • You didn’t get nominated to be a church officer even though you’ve been faithful and done everything right.
  • You’ve cared for your family, been responsible and loving, but now your spouse wants a divorce and your whole world is falling apart.

Moreover, this “you can do anything you set your mind to” worldview makes Jesus’ message sound like blasphemy. A message that is centered on our sin and our inability to save ourselves could not be more offensive to the average person.

In my time on the college campus it was the doctrine of sin that students had the hardest time wrapping their minds around. Most of them grew up only ever hearing about how good and wonderful and full of potential they were; no one had ever told them that they were sinners. But what is the mission of God? Is it not to renew all things – which starts with renewing His fallen images, all warped by our sin? The Gospel presupposes our limitations and our propensity to fail, not in an attempt to cripple us or leave us hopeless, but to force us to look outside of ourselves and place our hope to the only person who can truly save anyone: Jesus.

So how do we combat a worldview that is so pervasive? It’s impossible, not to mention unbiblical, to cut ourselves off from culture completely. Some might believe the answer lies in focusing on our sinfulness in order to keep people from thinking of themselves too highly. While this has the sound of wisdom, it will fail because it comes from the same root as the very worldview it is trying to counteract: self-centeredness.

Whether we are obsessively and singularly focused on our intrinsic goodness or our intrinsic badness, the problem is the same. In both of these worldviews, the emphasis falls on the self rather than Christ. Tim Keller has a wonderful little book called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. In it, he talks about this very problem of self-centeredness that permeates our culture and argues the long-standing preacher’s claim that the answer is not found in thinking more or less of one’s self, but in thinking of one’s self less. I found this to be extremely helpful in my own life and in my conversations with students about how the Gospel changes our self-perception.

The Gospel removes me from the center of my universe and rightfully places Christ there. It gives me the freedom to fail.  When Christ is at the center, I am less prone to become obsessive with either my own righteousness or sinfulness. And I’m therefore less inclined to run from God and attempt to cover myself with all these fig leaves of graduate school, good jobs, prestige, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a wife or husband, a 401K or a salary, a pristine house or a big lot.  I am reminded that Christ paid the ultimate price for my sins because I could not atone for them myself.  I already did fail – and I’m okay with that, because I know the One who didn’t.

 

Marlin Harris served for three years in the campus ministry Reformed University Fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  He is now a student at Reformed Theological Seminary.

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  • Jill Savage

    This is a great article which clearly and engagingly describes the problem at the heart of so many of our personal ills and those of our society. As the saying goes, sin has an i at its centre.