When I was a teenager, I learned what it was to be powerless.
To make a long story short, my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness and died just over three years after the doctor's message. In that time, he deteriorated slowly until finally his lungs could no longer function. That meant that I spent the better part of my early adolescence being an in-home hospice nurse. It involved the sort of inglorious and undignified necessities in which no boy ever expects to aid. I slowly came to a realization I was too timid to speak. No matter how much I toiled, no matter how many hours I slept, no matter how many horrible humiliations I endured, and even no matter how much guilt I heaped upon myself--all was in vain because he would still die. I wasn't powerful enough to save him.
My next exposure to Reformed theology came after he died. I was under the sway of a couple of teachers and friends who were wrestling their way through thee tenets of Calvinism. I was honestly rather uncomfortable with it. I had never met anyone who very seriously entertained predestination at all. I knew where I was and what I believed, firmly entrenched in the Baptist Arminian position. Still, as they persisted on their journeys I was learning about Reformed theology and the simple five-points to which it has been reduced: the TULIP.
The "T" of the TULIP stands for Total Depravity. I was initially uncomfortable with this. Total Depravity is a doctrine which essentially states that man is totally depraved--wicked throughout in his natural condition. My first impressions were not accurate though; I wish that someone would develop some other acronym that didn't use it. I thought it meant that all unsaved people (and all saved ones before receiving Jesus) were as nasty and wretched as Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin.
This is not a fair picture and I have come to a better understanding of what John Calvin meant since then. "Total Depravity" would better understood as "thorough sinfulness" or "powerlessly enslaved to sin". It's not that unsaved people are incapable of friendliness, kindness, or even civic good, but that they are incapable of doing any good warranting salvation.
There was nothing in me worth saving. Every wicked and evil thought and deed in my heart doomed me justly to Hell. For as much conversation as there has been recently about whether or not Hell is real and literal, it seems that most people are thinking about the fate of other people. Few think about how they themselves deserve hell. I know that I am not Hitler, but I have wronged God greatly. I was powerless in my sin, addicted to evil, and enthralled with darkness. I was God's enemy and stood justly under His wrath. It's not because I don't have enough self-confidence or because I am a guilt-ridden person. It's because I spit in the face of God--the ultimate victim for He has never done anyone wrong yet has been wronged by everyone.
An uncharitable reader may think that I have reached the conclusion of Reformed theology based upon a jarring experience in my past. This is a risk I must take in order to have fidelity and heartfelt connection with my readers. But to that uncharitable reader--one who would credit my conclusion to my psychological experiences and nothing more--I must point to an example from history. A psychological approach would say that the Jewish historians ought not be taken seriously because they have great reasons to exaggerate the horrors of Nazism. Yet no group has done a better, honest job of documenting and archiving the Holocaust than the Jews. No one with credibility can suggest that the Jews have distorted the facts in doing so. On the contrary, they have done the best job because of their experiences. In that same spirit, I argue that my experiences have made me more sensitive to the nuances of human depravity.
God saves me from my filth and unites me to Himself. I don't have to save myself or save others. I can't anyway. Only God can save the world, save my father, and save me. We are totally depraved because we are incapable and fallen. We're stuck and only the Savior can save.