Paul was one of the world’s first psychologists. Of all the Biblical figures, only Jeremiah comes close to Paul in probing deeply his own motives and behavior. But not even Jeremiah approaches the profundity of Paul’s insight into his own fragmented, conflicted psyche, as indicated by his confession in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the good that I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. . . . And the evil I do not want to do, I find myself doing it. I really think there is a war going on within myself.”
We can all relate to Paul’s extraordinary analysis of his behavior: all of us have a self within us that we hate, a self we regard as our worst self. I do not mean to imply by this statement that we hate ourselves completely. On the contrary, most of us think of ourselves as oriented toward good. We can identify and articulate the high ideals to which we aspire; we see ourselves as positive creatures, and we want others to see us as such. Yet we are also aware that there are predilections in our personality determined to undermine us. Hidden within our psyche are destructive impulses capable of shipwrecking our best ambitions.
Think of the perpetual Little League father, who knows that his explosions of temper fluster and embarrass his children. He resolves next time to be silent, but never seems able to keep his resolve. This father knows his displays of anger are now being mirrored in the destructive tempers of his children – but he cannot discipline himself. I think of the well-meaning young woman who commits to supporting every worthy enterprise, knowing even as she makes these commitments that she cannot keep them all. She feels inadequate because she has spread herself too thin, yet she cannot bring herself to say No. She cannot discipline herself against herself. She fills her life with busy-ness as a way of addressing an emptiness at her core that mere activity cannot satisfy. There are those students who plan grandly for academic prowess, but who never manage to tackle an assignment early, who push every responsibility back to the last possible moment on the lame excuse “they work best under pressure.” There are those guys who date someone right to the point of commitment, before fearing that they might be making a mistake; then they wreck the relationship, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are those women who will date controlling, possessive, needy men whose personalities resemble the father that they hated and longed to escape. Yet they go through relationship after relationship, dating different people, but really dating the same type person over and over and over. They cannot escape their worst tendencies.
I could continue indefinitely: permutations of our self-destructive behavior are as diverse as fingerprints.
But again, Paul’s words ring true within us: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the good that I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. . . . And the evil I do not want to do, I really find myself doing it. I really think there is a war going on within myself.”
Paul’s incisive observations lead us to wonder, ‘Is not wanting to escape our worst self the key factor in effecting our improvement? Is not our desire for setting aside the bad and opting for good the pivotal factor in effecting our liberation from our worst self?’ The answer is Yes . . . and No. We are such complex, complicated creatures that even when our conscious self says, ‘I want to do the right thing,’ there is another, a darker, part of ourselves that says, ‘I will not.’ Even when we sense that a particular path is wrong and fraught with danger, even when we sense that one of our characteristic behaviors puts our relationships in peril, even so, after saying, ‘I will not make this mistake again,’ beneath our conscious will there is a perverse impulse that says, ‘Oh yes, I will.’ Paul’s precise point is that wanting to do right does not necessarily empower us to do right. Think of that Little League father who knows that his explosive temper is a disfiguring, disturbing force. On the surface he resolves to become calmer, to cease to become so furious. Yet at another, darker level he relishes his anger as a useful weapon of intimidation and control. He hates that self, yet often resorts to it. That is why Paul powerfully reminds us that there are more wills operative within us than just our conscious will.
One key to escaping our worst self is recognizing the presence within us of what I call “the tape.” Let me explain what I mean by “the tape.” A few years ago I was dining with friends, and they were discussing a mutual acquaintance’s tendency to exhibit a controlling personality that belittled the achievements of others. One person observed, “Of course, that’s just what her parents always did to her, so it is not surprising that she does it to everyone else.” Tacitly, this person was acknowledging the reality of “the tape,” that complex matrix of behaviors and attitudes that is imprinted on a person’s psyche and exercises great influence on one’s life. When we are teenagers we are sure that they are from one galaxy and our parents are from another. We regard our parents as alien beings. But about age twenty-five or so, as we begin to listen to our words and examine our actions, we discover an amazing and terrifying reality. We begin to realize, ‘Hmm, that’s just what my mom would say,’ or, ‘Hmm, that’s just what my dad would do.’ We begin to realize at a level far deeper than we imagined, that we imbibed a host of influences for good and for ill and are informed by an inner tape that lies beneath the surface of our conscious self. Much of what is best about how we interact with people was imprinted upon our psyche at an early age. But some of the very habits we saw as destructive and disturbing in those who nurtured us are the very habits we find ourselves replicating in our own behavior. Escaping “the tape” requires more than just an awareness of it. We must open ourselves to the transformative power of God’s Spirit that grants us a liberating freedom.
Moreover, all of us must recognize that there is a certain givenness to our life that constitutes who we are.
President John Quincy Adams once wrote: “I am a man of reserved, cold, austere and forbidding manners; my political adversaries say, a gloomy misanthropist, and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage. With a knowledge of the actual defect in my character, I have not the pliability to reform it.” Such a statement comes from a man who was keenly aware of “the tape” within him. But his was not a statement of resignation. President Adams knew he couldn’t change the basic orientation of his personality, but he could compensate for it. Knowing his natural predilection toward reserve, knowing the effect it left upon others, he consciously committed himself to actions that offset the damage done by “the tape.” He consciously opened himself to the Spirit of God to make himself more outgoing and gregarious, even though it ran against the nature of his personality. He could not change who he was, but he could compensate for who he was through the transformative power of God. By contrast, many of us think that we hate that destructive self within our selves, but many of us are more comfortable with that manipulative, angry, scheming self than we want to admit. I think that’s why several years ago I stopped reading the funny papers. I realized that nobody in the comics was ever going to change: Garfield was never going to keep his diet; Dagwood Bumstead would always be late for work; Beetle Bailey would always be a slacker; Lucy would never let Charlie Brown kick the football. Admittedly, our deficiencies can, for a time, be almost comic. But when they persist, they can become deadly. That is what Paul is trying to say to us, that when we open our lives to Christ we begin the process of allowing Christ to make us a new creature. When conform to Christ’s values and appropriate the spiritual paradigm that Christ offers, then we escape our worst self and move toward our best self, the self that God intends. But we cannot conveniently hang on to that old and dead self, for it is deadly and pernicious. We must consciously put it behind us and must embrace the new creature that Christ is trying to make as Christ abides in us.
Such a transition from the old self to the new does not occur instantaneously. Our old self did not develop in a brief moment; it will not be escaped in a brief moment either. It entails a process where we change incrementally, perhaps even imperceptibly, but inexorably, under the leadership of Christ. During my long ministry in Charlotte my life intersected that of a man named Dr. Gordon Weekly, who long before I knew him had been a highly-successful pastor in a large, prestigious church. But then he became addicted to prescription narcotics and eventually lost his church, his livelihood, and, in a real sense, himself. Yet one evening, as he, ironically, was wandering about a graveyard in downtown Charlotte, the Spirit of God called him out of his old, dead self and granted him the power to break his addiction. Dr. Weekly eventually founded the Charlotte Rescue Mission and spent the rest of his life helping thousands of others break the bonds of addiction. I invited Dr. Weekly to address our Baptist men’s group, and when he gave his testimony he used profoundly Pauline language: he talked of burying his old, weak, addicted self and embracing the new life that Christ had granted him. Yet he knew that the death of that old self was highly dialectical: it was a self that was already dead — and yet not yet dead. Every day he knew he must bury that weak, needy, addicted self anew and, by the power granted him by God, embrace positive patterns of life. None of us escape our old self instantly; escaping our worst self involves a process that endures throughout our entire pilgrimage of faith.
Think about the question you were asked on the moment of your baptism: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord?” What does “Savior” mean in our world? The truth is, we do not live in a culture permeated by the practice of slavery, so the metaphor of Redeemer does not speak to our souls profoundly. We do not live in an environment saturated with sacrificial practices, to the metaphor of propitiatory Passover Lamb does not deeply resonate within us. But ours is a culture that understands the concept of Role Model: Paul’s language is very modern when he urges us to conform our lives to the image of Christ, when he calls us to transform ourselves by the renewal of our minds. Christ is our Role Model, who puts before us a spiritual paradigm of positive living in relationship with God and with each other, so that, slowly, by degrees, as we internalize this paradigm within our personality, as we appropriate the image and values of Christ, we become a little more like our Lord. Thomas a’ Kempis says that if we want to grow spiritually we must imitate the person of Christ. Imitate Christ! At first, our imitation of Christ will be faint, like a little boy “fake shaving” as he imitates his father doing the real thing. But over time, as we mature in our faith, our imitation of Christ can become profound and life-changing, and we can put behind us our worst self and be freed to embrace our best. During this long pilgrimage toward holiness, the dark and spiteful self will sometimes reassert dominance, but we must not despair. We cannot despair! “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” asks Paul. He knows the answer: “Thanks be to God,” he trumpets, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
HoHOjSome years ago, I met a couple of buddies at a golf resort, where we were paired with another player, a middle-aged gentleman who announced on the first tee that he had just completed six months of intense lessons. He declared himself a “new golfer.” Though we had no evidence to go by, his boast seemed incontrovertible: his swing seemed smooth, perfectly in sync – for the first six holes. However, on the seventh hole, his drive had strayed slightly from the fairway and his beautifully-struck second shot happened to hit the last limb in a tree. From that point on, it was if another golfer began to inhabit his body: gone was the slow, smooth swing; in its place was the jabbing stroke of someone trying to kill a snake. Turns out his old golf self was not quite as dead as advertised! That might be true of us as well. Our worst self, the self we hate, might not always be as dead as we would like to think. But if we indeed open our hearts to the paradigm of Christ, if, indeed, we appropriate the transformative power of Christ that the Holy Spirit offers us daily, then we can, over time, put that dead self truly behind us and become fully a new creature in the image of our Lord. Who can deliver us from our body of death? Thanks be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us the power to embrace new and eternal life, which is the very heart of our Gospel promise!