So as I started to say last time, there seems to be an essential, elemental struggle within us between what we want to do and who we want to be; between our good aspirations and our innate and often unhelpful drives.
I want to be good, loving, Christlike and whole, but I also want pleasure and popularity. Physically and biologically I desire to enjoy all the delights that the world offers, but spiritually I don’t want to be the kind of person that that would make me. And when I try to live according to my moral principles, I find myself constantly derailed by internal instincts and traits that seem to come out of nowhere.
Of course, this is exactly the condition that Paul describes in Romans 7:19: ‘The good I want to do I do not do, and the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing’.
Look at King David. He’s probably just finished writing an inspired psalm of worship when he looks out of the window, sees beautiful Bathsheba bathing, and animal instinct takes over. Before you know it, he’s committed adultery and is on course to commit murder to cover it up.
So we have within us the potential for greatness and beauty, but also the potential to become something terrible, an abomination.
I’ve said it before – the biggest battle we fight is with ourselves, with the parts of our natures that militate against health and wholeness, against maturity and reality and love. We’re our own worst enemies, and we carry the seeds of our downfall around in us, the things that if unchecked will ruin us and wreck our lives. We have to master these parts of ourselves, conquer them, tame them, learn to control them.
Nice vs good?
Part of the problem is that the way of growth and health is just so much less immediately attractive and appealing than the alternative. All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to choose pleasurable indulgence over self-restraint, comfort and ease over hard work, power and control over quiet service? For whatever reason, that’s how we’re programmed.
And to complicate matters further, pleasurable things are clearly not always or inherently bad. If we could just say that sex and money and chocolate and alcohol and entertainment were always sinful (as we imagine the Puritans did, though they didn’t really), then we might face a fun-free existence but at least our choices would be straightforward. But of course these things aren’t always wrong. It’s often a question of context, and priority, and whether we’re master of these things or they of us.
The hard and easy paths
Annoyingly, it also turns out that almost everything good and worthwhile requires effort and commitment. But unfortunately humans seem to be fundamentally lazy, inclined to take shortcuts and easy paths that don’t lead anywhere good – again, it’s part of how we’re programmed. I mentioned psychologist Scott Peck’s idea of ‘original sin’ as the innate spiritual laziness that holds us all back from growth, from facing and tackling our flaws.
Often we’re faced with what Dumbledore in Harry Potter calls ‘the choice between what’s right and what’s easy’. It’s the choice between short-term and long-term gain, between immediate benefit and that which we have to work and wait for. It’s a right pain, to be honest. And it’s no surprise which way most of us choose much of the time.
It’s a bit like the classics – we want to have read them but not actually to read them. We want to have achieved goodness and wholeness, but without the effort and pain of the process that gets us there. We want to have reached freedom, but we don’t want to walk the demanding path that alone leads there. So we take shortcuts, but they don’t work because the process is the point; the journey is the means. There’s no quick route to redemption.
And of course, conversely, the unhealthy and unhelpful things are what we want to do but not to have done – because they leave us in a worse position, and we feel guilty to boot. We desire them, and then regret them. And of course they’re also almost always the easier, quicker, and more attractive option.
Living through discomfort
So part of the process of growing up is learning (constantly) to master those innate impulses which often unhelpfully push us towards unhealthy ways of thinking, behaving and relating.
We all have to keep on battling our many compulsions and addictions, including (counter-intuitively) some which seem ‘Christian’ – for example the compulsion to ‘be good’ in order to gain approval or make ourselves feel okay. And we need to keep challenging all our lazy thinking – including much of what we assume to be good religious thought.
As part of this process, we have to learn to live through all manner of discomfort in order to reach the goal of freedom and wholeness. We have to keep on facing down our irrational fears and anxieties, not letting them bully or control us as they wish. We have to keep on facing down our impulsive desires and sweet temptations, not letting them seduce or master us as they wish. And the childish, selfish part of us will protest every step of the way, like a toddler who no-one has said ‘no’ to before.
Often it will be a matter of taking a step back and short-circuiting our default response cycle, the almost unconscious reflex which would lead us to act impulsively out of fear or anger or lust. I think of the children’s book character Mr Jelly who learnt to master his fears by counting to ten, giving him breathing space to realise that what he thought was terrifying was really only something innocuous.
Facing the dark side
And as well as facing down our fears and desires, we also have to face up to our inner darkness and all the parts of ourselves that we’d far rather hide or ignore. We can’t overcome our darker impulses if we won’t acknowledge they exist, and we can’t master our shadow side if we pretend it’s not there.
For the truth is that unfortunately every one of us has some elements of aggression, lust, greed, boastful pride, prejudice, envy, desires to control others, meanness, enjoyment at others’ misfortune. Sadly we’re just not unmitigatedly good or lovely, but we spend much effort and energy trying to project the impression that we are, creating a ‘false self’ with which we try to fool even ourselves; even God.
So we often tend not to learn from our sins because we’re so desperate to cover them up, like a cat burying its faeces. We try to conceal them not only from others but also from ourselves, not wishing to face the painful reality they tell us about our fundamental flawedness. The human capacity for self-deception is almost endless.
We try to get rid of those things which we feel bad or ashamed or uncomfortable or unhappy about. We either bury them deep (where they remain like unexploded bombs), or else we put them onto other people who act as scapegoats for us, bearing the darkness that we can’t face in ourselves. Neither of those ways really works; neither leads to growth, wholeness or freedom.
And perhaps most dangerous are the unhelpful traits within us that we’re either not aware of at all, or that we actually think are fine and right – that familiar custom has habituated us to accept. Until we realise we have a problem, we can’t change.
Were Rolf Harris or Jimmy Savile monsters? Yes in a sense, but let’s not kid ourselves that puts them in a different category from us. They acted out of dark traits that lurk deep within all humanity and which they found they could indulge – and then cover up, perhaps even from themselves.
Letting God in
So within all of our psyches are areas which don’t properly reflect the nature and presence of God, and which indeed militate against his action and presence, pushing him away. I believe that rather than hiding these areas away, we urgently need to invite God into the very places that we most wish to keep him out of; the parts of us that most violently hate and reject his influence. These are the places that can all too easily become ‘hells’ for us, yet they are also the place where Christ’s greatest work can be done.
But of course facing up to our darkness is almost always deeply uncomfortable, and our strong inclination will usually be to flee back into comfortable, self-deceiving safety.
Can we change?
So can we ever really change? Yes, surely. But can we change ourselves? Perhaps to an extent, but we can’t ever do the whole thing on our own (regrettably for a recluse like me). We need the long-term support and patience and honesty of friends and counsellors, and ultimately the unfailing and limitless grace of God.
And of course it won’t be quick. It will be a lifetime’s work of slow, gradual, painstaking and sometimes painful redemption of our characters, retraining of our habits and responses, reprogramming and rewiring of our minds. There will be many setbacks and failures; but even these can be redeemed and turned to the good.
We’re like wonky-wheeled trolleys (shopping carts to my US friends), always tending to veer off the straight course, bashing into people, knocking things over. We need God’s grace constantly nudging us back onto the right track. But in Christ, even the wonkiest wheels can be righted in time.
So yes, sin is surely a reality, whatever exactly it might be and wherever exactly it might originate from. But the Christian message is that sin doesn’t have the final word, and nor is it the most important thing in our lives, not by a long chalk.