A Reader Grapples with Concupiscence
So a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little piece for Crisis which attempted to explain the Church’s teaching on Concupiscence.
In response, a reader writes the following:
Your refresher on concupiscence this morning has inspired me to pass this along to you (as I have my spiritual director and parish priest). I have been reading St. Augustine’s Confessions over the past weekend and it has stirred some rather unsettling revelations in my own life. I have a troubling question that has kept my mind restless for the past two days, and I was wondering if I could steal a little of your (understandably precious) time and energy to help me perhaps distil the problem. I will strive to be as lucid as possible, but, should I fail, please point out what you do not understand. I will take pains to clear anything up in a follow-on email.
I feel as if I secretly rebel in my heart against the commandments that I attempt to follow in my actions. I want to “sneak” these thoughts past God, who sees all. Take for example the sins of pride, lust, and greed. I objectively know these are sinful and will lead to my eternal damnation if followed unrepentantly. Yet, even with the grace of this knowledge in my heart, I find myself (through much self-reflection) secretly wishing that those actions were *not* considered sins in the eyes of God. What manner of perverted thought process am I grappling with here? It is as if I am saying, “Yes, Lord, I hear what you are saying. I know this manner of living is good for me, and I will begrudgingly accept it—but I will not like it!” How I wish it were not so. I want to follow the commandments out of a sense of love. Because this certainly does not seem to me how one behaves when in love.
All of this is greatly troubling to me. My sense of duty and of obedience (and my attempts at love) directs me to follow the commandments. I know pride and lust are wrong, against the natural law, and against God’s blueprints for human happiness. Yet, in spite of this reason, I still find in my heart the longing for a life where such actions would not be punishable. Have you ever heard of this perversion before? How can I start to desire to follow the commandments out of love for the Lord, rather than just a sense of duty? Or will there always be some measure of resistance in the heart?
Mr. Shea, thank you so much for any time you can spare to this question.
The resistance you experience is what St. Paul calls “the flesh”. It means not your body, but the disordered appetites, weakened will and darkened intellect (aka “concupiscence”). Yeah, it’s with us till the day we die. But it’s not hopeless. It’s the field of battle. It sounds to me like you and St. Paul are on the same page:
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:7-25)
So you are not alone. This is the universal experience of human beings when they take a “fearless moral inventory” of themselves in the light of the law: they discover they come up short and that the flesh is there, distorting their desires. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” That’s what the law does: it x-rays the heart and tells you there is something with you. But having done that, it can do no more. Repeated X-Rays will not heal you.
That’s the bad news. The good news is found in the last verse of Romans 7 and then elaborated in Romans 8. I would recommend a slow prayerful reading of Romans 7 and 8 in your nearest adoration chapel. You are an absolutely normal human being, which would be very bad news had Jesus Christ not redeemed us because we would remain prisoners to the flesh forever. But since Jesus has redeemed us, you are faced with a Hope so bright it’s as impossible to see into the heart of it as it is to stare into the sun. Do not despair! The same God who saved Paul and Augustine is there for you too.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.
So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? * Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:1-39)