For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Romans 7: 18-20
It is difficult to read today’s passage from Romans and not to experience in it Paul’s desperation prior to his gratitude: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vs. 24-5) The more we experience our deepest human longings and aspirations for “life to the full” and union with God, the stronger our realization of how beyond our reach these are and, so, of our need to be rescued and redeemed. In this sense, our deepest desires, our most distinctively human needs are truly insatiable.
It is very difficult for us to live in such tension. There is, as Paul puts it, “a law of our members” that seeks to dissolve the tension by satisfying our desires at a more immediate level and so extinguishing the pain in the deeper and unsatisfiable longing of our hearts. An aspect of human behavior that illustrates this is our recurrent tendency to behave in ways that subvert what we think we most want. There is the parent who claims to want his or her child to develop greater independence and then persists in micro-managing the child’s life. There is the adolescent who craves the attention of her or her parents and teachers and yet behaves in ways that distances and angers them. There are those of us who long to live for God alone yet fill every moment with anxiety, noise, and needless activity. It seems fair to suggest that our “wants” are much less clear and much more ambiguous than we might like to think.
St. Paul says that when we do evil we are not doing what we want to do. Yet, the truth of the matter is that, to some degree, we always do what we want. As Paul points out, our experience of desire is a conflictual one. We desire both to serve and to control, to be close to others and to be independent, to live with and express lovingly our longings and to discharge them. We desire to be formed into the unique image of Christ that we are, but we don’t want to suffer what is involved in the process. As Sigmund Freud saw it, we are driven both toward life and death. In many ordinary moments in the course of a day, we choose to act in ways that foster distinctively human life and also in ways that stifle and destroy it. It is in knowing ourselves as fallen and conflicted that we know the depth of our need to be saved and, so with Paul, can experience the gratitude for the deliverance we are given in Jesus. “”With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
I seek refuge, you grant it.
That’s what marks us, nothing more.
If I say anything at all
with my filthy mouth,
does it ever ring true?
I have lust for women inside me.
So what if my doorstep is clean?
I seek refuge.
I could read every book,
but if there’s greed in my mind,
will I ever come into my own?
If I scrub my body
with my ego in place,
I’m left wearing the guise.
I seek refuge.
Carrying the burden of life,
I may do many good things,
but can I free myself from the fault
of being born?
God on the hill, you are my king.
Do I want more?
I seek refuge.
Annamayya, God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati