I love it when one of my daughters runs up to me with a broken toy clenched in one tight fist, lips quivering like a nervous jellyfish, eyes bright with tears soon to roll down flushed cheeks. That makes my day.
Now, of course I don't like seeing the distress that accompanies the tragic breaking of a beloved toy. That I could do without. But I do love the innocent optimism that drives a small child to bring her troubles to me, her dad, confident that I'll take care of it. Dad can fix it. Dad can fix anything. When it works, and I succeed in repairing the damage, I love the sense of accomplishment, the hugs of gratitude, and the feeling that for one brief moment, I've made everything right in the world again. There's something incredibly satisfying about fixing stuff, something that makes you feel like you're in control, like what you do matters, like you've restored a little harmony to a chaotic and often frustrating world.
Fixing stuff feels good.
And, for some reason, fixing things seems to be particularly important for American males. It's part of our psyche. Just watch a group of guys in a room where one person is trying to fix something, anything. Their fingers will start twitching, they'll unconsciously begin leaning in the direction of the damaged object, and, if they're not invited to help soon, they'll develop a twitch in one eye and start muttering tonelessly, "Something…broken. Must…fix."
I meet with a group of guys for coffee every Tuesday morning, and we're always joking about how we approach life like this. Problem at work? Fix it. Struggling with sin? Fix it. Your wife's got problems? Fix those too. Life just isn't all that complicated.
If it's broken, fix it.
And I don't think it's just us guys who have that problem. Everyone can see at least some of the brokenness in their life. It's hard to miss. So what do we do? We try to fix it. We try to fix ourselves.
So we develop all kinds of tips and techniques for self-transformation. Just think about it. Every self-help book in the bookstore focuses on creating a better you. Motivational speakers make good money these days sharing with us the top ten tips for total transformation, or some such thing. We've got psychology, counseling, dieting, exercise, education, meditation, medication, and I could go on. All of these are ways of fixing various kinds of brokenness, trying to create healthier people, transforming ourselves whoever we believe that we can and should be. Indeed, it seems at times like the only people who aren't involved in some kind of self-transformation project are those who have given up, convinced by too many defeats and disappointments that expending any more effort in that direction is mere futility.
And there's nothing necessarily wrong with any of this as long as we recognize that self-transformation is not the same as Gospel transformation. Done well, self-transformation can lead to better health, more stable relationships, greater success at work, and so on. These are fine things. But they can all be done in the shadow of the fall. Every one of these can actually be a manifestation of our desire to live our lives independently of God, seeking to promote our own happiness and well-being while still rejecting our more fundamental task as God's image bearers in the world. And, to that extent, self-transformation can actually produce morebrokenness in the world if it leads us to become content and complacent in our death and alienation.
We would love nothing more than to fix ourselves. Because if we can fix ourselves, that means we're actually the ones in control. We wouldn't have to admit our weakness, inability, failure, and fundamental brokenness. There'd be no need to acknowledge that we are sinners before God, guilty and shamed by our corruption. If we can fix ourselves, then we're really not that bad. Sure, we've picked up some damage along the way, but hey, it's a tough world. Deep down, we're fine. We just need a little more time to pull things together.
Got a problem? Just fix it.
But that's not how it works. The harder we try to fix ourselves, the more deeply we bury our own brokenness. It's a little like trying to remove a nail by hitting it with a hammer. All you're doing is driving the nail deeper. Sure, if you hit it hard enough, you'll drive it in so deep that you can't even see it any more. But it's still there.
Even as Christians, we struggle with understanding grace, at least partly because we don't want to understand it. Grace means that we're not in control. We're not the ones fixing the problem. We're the needy, the beggars. And we don't want to be beggars. We want to be kings and queens. So we try to take over. We try to fix things.
God's not interested in our self-transformation projects. He wants to do something that only he can do: make us truly live again. He wants to renew us from the inside out by the power of the Spirit so that we live in the world as agents of his glory.
Again, that doesn't mean that any of the things I listed above are bad things in themselves. There's nothing wrong with nutrition, exercise, education, and all the others. Those are gifts from God that he wants us to enjoy to we can fully experience and explore his wonderful creation. But they are to be enjoyed as gifts that we receive so that we can be his children and imager bearers in the world. They should not become ways of trying to fix our own brokenness so that we can continue to ignore our desperate need for God's grace.
Driving the nail deeper.
Marc Cortez is a theology professor and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. Visit him at MarcCortez.com.