Matt Sitman, a really brilliant young man and a professor of political theory at the University of Virginia, gave a very interesting and candid talk at the Mockingbird conference this year, and it raised some ideas that I’ve been chewing on quite a bit.
All the recordings for the conference are on mockingbird’s site:
C’ville Conference Recordings: Hope Amidst the Ruins
To understand his point I think you have to start with a very revealing story he told about himself. He was and still is a professor of political theory at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. For one reason or another he had been going through some depression and had sunk into a pattern of drinking. One night he got pulled over and arrested for DUI, put in handcuffs and taken overnight to jail.
The question that now hung over him was this: would he lose his professorship? Would he even have any kind of career academically? Was his life basically over?
What really struck home was this: his hope was wrapped up completely with his projected future self. We think hope has all to do with the future, but hope is really based on something else. We spend very little mental energy living as our present self, and we spend a great deal living for and even living as our future projected self. This future projected self has to do with imagining ourselves as better, more successful, freer, perhaps thinner or just happier people. We generally don’t project our future self as suffering, or worse, failing. Every addict of any stripe thinks that this little indulgence will be his last. Yet, this future self is a false self, even a false idol, and is a bad basis on which to build our hope. This all came home for Matt in a powerful and practical way as a result of his DUI.
I am going to add that on reflection, we have an equal problem that mirrors this. It would be trivial to call it worry, although worry is a part of it. We see it in Matt’s story. Because of our past failures and judgements against us, we project gracelessness onto our present and future prospects. Matt didn’t lose his professorship. He has a brighter future than ever. Our deaths are often the point at which we experience a resurrection. Belief in a resurrection involves faith in a miracle that we can’t see, while our failure is often very present and very real. It is easy in such circumstances to project disaster. We’re so used to living as our projected self that when it finally proves false we project a terrible future self and live as that person; I think we even get some kind of sick comfort in making things worse than they are.
I think the real point is that we are going to be the happiest and most solid if we put our hope in the truth of Christ. This unfortunately gets mangled and stolen when Jesus is painted as a moralistic monster who came expecting perfection or perhaps some mysterious minimum measure of successful sanctification, instead of teaching the truth that He is a gracious savior who comes to forgive and heal and rescue. When we see Jesus as a condemning monster, our hope inevitably slips to something more reasonable and doable, and we begin to paint an easier and happier future – a Christless one. Jacob had 20 years of his life hijacked because he lived in the light of his swindling and deception and exile, even though the promise of God for him was non-condemning and unconditional. This is a huge part of the flaw with placing our hope in our projected self instead of the promise and grace of God. We might have high hopes in our projected future self, but once our sinful self shows its true fruits we project a level of misery and failure that is also untrue.
In the end, we must take ourselves as we are, not a projected perfect person or a projected complete failure. The real truth is, we are desperately flawed and we will remain so this side of heaven. Our hope must be set completely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:13 ESV)