And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
— Ezekiel 36:26 (ESV)
I admit: I’m a glutton for self-punishment. Not in the bodily, masochistic sense, but I’m a prototypical perfectionist who sets impossible standards for myself and then proceeds to beat myself up when I inevitably fail to measure up. I was raised with the concept of total depravity — the idea that there is absolutely nothing good in me apart from God, and that anything good is from God alone (which I have no actual part in).
Growing up, I internalized this entirely unhealthily. The idea that I was nothing but a worthless sinner may have made the concept of grace easier to grasp, but that never sunk in. I latched on to depravity so obstinately that my self-perception erased most of my humanity. I learned to see myself as a monster beyond redemption, every prayer and every good deed a worthless attempt to earn the affection of the Father who would never love me. And who was I to question that?
The room is dark except for the blaring stage lights going off during the concert, and mostly everyone has moved down to the ground floor to get a better view of the singer. She’s a young, African-American alto who vaguely reminds me of Jamie Grace, though I know it can’t be her. Among the few remaining in the balcony seats are me and another boy; and since neither of us appreciates crowds, we’re happy to enjoy the performance in relative solitude.
We’ve been good friends for a while, so it isn’t particularly strange that I’ve nestled my head in the crook of his neck. I feel comfortable and secure, enjoying the brotherly affection I can openly share with my friend, until he slips one hand into mine and lays his other on my thigh. Suddenly the contact doesn’t feel so brotherly, and I freeze up, unsure of what to do. Part of me craves the warmth of his hand in mine, longs for more human touch than I’ve previously allowed. The other part of me panics at the boundaries he’s just crossed, but doesn’t want to damage our existing relationship by drawing back. We need to have a discussion.
Talking over the deafening music would be nearly impossible, so I walk him out of the concert hall, never breaking the hold between our hands — something I desperately want to last, yet at the same time want to end immediately. While we walk in the dim light of the hallway, I get a good look at his face: short, sandy blonde hair; bright eyes I can’t quite tell are blue, green, or grey; and a well-defined but delicate jawline. He’s deathly cute, and the way he locks eyes with me and smiles nervously only enforces that.
In Greek mythology, the gods punished Tantalus by banishing him to a pool of water beneath a tree with low-hanging fruit, but cursed him so the branches would rise when he reached for them, and the water would recede when he bent down for a drink. To most of us, the first part of that deal doesn’t sound too bad at all; it’s the second part that makes it sheer torture. Having something you want, always dangling right in front of you just out of reach, is painful — but its presence makes you only want it even more.
This is something I like to refer to as the “Tantalus Effect.” Humanity has always had a fascination with the forbidden: we need look no farther than the first few pages of the Bible to see it happen. Adam and Eve had the entire Garden of Eden, any tree to pick from — except one. And yet, the very next event recorded after the creation of Eve is them doing exactly what they aren’t supposed to (see: Gen. 3). Our penchant for the profane comes literally right after humanity is created. We saw something metaphorically “out of reach,” and our interest was piqued. Eve could have walked right by and ignored the serpent, but instead she decided to have a nice chat under the shade of the tree, admiring the fruit and contemplating its beauty. Eventually she caves, and you know what happens next.