Monday, July 10, 2023

Impulses & Mortification


Romans 7:15-25

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Proper 9 / Year A

I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, 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, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

I have always found this passage from Paul to be some of the most genuine and compelling verses in scripture.  Its power lies in its brutal honesty.  It is a self-disclosure of his struggle to do the right thing - a struggle we can easily recognize taking place within us.  A comedian once quipped the bible basically talks about two things: wine and a lot of stuff that is hard to believe, but what Paul is describing here is neither.  He confesses to an inner struggle we all know all too well.

“Wretched man that I am,” says Paul!  “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”, which is a very good question.  The answer for Paul is only the atoning death of Christ can set him free, but allow me to add something to this.

Sigmund Freud holds human beings are driven by impulses.  Many of these impulses are strong and unidentified until they are denied.  We Christians who practice fasting and self-denial during Lent get a first-hand opportunity to discover just how powerful some impulses can be.  All impulses stem from basic human needs – survival, security, nourishment, love, etc. – and so they are both good and necessary.  But they can also become distorted.  The impulse for survival can become a will to power.  The impulse for food can become gluttony.  Freud believes within every one of us there is something he names the superego – a parent-like voice of morality whose function is to moderate our impulses and keep them from running out of control. 

Psychiatrists are finding the superego is not present in serial killers.  It has been destroyed by childhood trauma or simply never developed.  Thus these killers have no conscience, no sense of right or wrong, no feelings of guilt or remorse, and no internal conflict where a moral voice advocates for behavioral control.  There is only unregulated and perverted impulse.  Given this knowledge, we might want to say to Paul his internal struggle is actually an indication of health and well-being.  The mere fact he wants to exercise control over his impulses indicates he is on the right path.

Christian tradition has always made a distinction between penance and mortification – two practices which don’t get a lot of run these days.  Penance is an act of making reparation for one’s sins.  Think of it this way: when you act out on a distorted impulse – say, losing your temper – penance looks like making amends; perhaps asking the forgiveness of those who bore the brunt of your wrath.   Penance is associated with actual behavior.

Mortification, on the other hand, is associated not with actions, but with impulses.  The very word in Latin (which also gives us the word “mortician”) means “to put to death.  In the Christian tradition mortification is a conscious form of self-denial with the aim of subduing distorted impulses (those desires which, if acted out, hurt us or hurt others or draw us away from the love of God).  It is an attempt to strengthen the power of our own will and the power of God’s will in our lives.  The Christian practice of mortification falls within the gamut of self-denial, abstinence, self-imposed poverty, wearing abrasive clothing (such as hair shirts) to the extreme of self-flagellation.

Paul is right, when we want to do good evil is always close at hand.  There simply is no way of escaping it.   God has created us in such a way that the inner voice Freud identified is there to help us navigate these treacherous waters.  At the heart of the Christian faith, at the core of our proclamation, is the truth God loves us and accepts us.  Yes, God desires our perfection.  Yes, God seeks to dispel our inner darkness.  But no, God does not condemn us or forsake us because our impulses do not always conform with God’s holy will.  God comes to us in our weakness and shows us pure love. 

Jesus, seeing how the religious leaders of his day laid it on thick and heavy, Jesus, observing how they sniffed out the inner struggles of the faithful, Jesus, knowing they sought to convert the weakness of good people into self-loathing in order for their own position in the religious hierarchy of the day might be more firm and prominent, made this offer: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  I will not lessen the standards, but neither will I impose artificial burdens of human religion as a means of deliverance from internal struggles.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.  I am gentle and humble of heart and in me you will find rest for your weary souls.  My yoke is easy and my burden I light.”

The Christian Church is not a place where hurtful behavior is dismissed without the call to repentance and the command to make amends, but neither is it a place where good people are to be beaten down because inner impulses suggest hurtful actions.  The Church of Jesus Christ calls us to purity of action by providing us with spiritual resources aimed at strengthening will power.  Jesus calls this his “yoke” and in love he offers his yoke to each one of us.