I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 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. 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” (Romans 7:15, 19, 20, 22-23, RSV).
“Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3, RSV).
By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
THE DOCTRINE OF SIN has become increasingly controversial in recent years. In fact, it is often stated by those of a liberal philosophy that conservative concepts and values concerning man and his sinful nature are archaic. Today’s New Atheists typically accuse Christians of being narrow-minded, backward, or elitist. How can Christianity claim unequivocally that man is (by his very nature) sinful? Or that the only means by which man can be “saved” is through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone? The above Scriptures indicate that as human beings we are prone to follow the desires and passions of our flesh and our minds.
Paul is presenting us with a description of an ongoing struggle with sin in Romans 7:14-25. He describes himself as a “prisoner” of sin, doing the evil he does not want to do, and not doing the good he does want to do. This is what is meant by being in bondage to sin. Paul sees himself as a “wretched” man crying out for deliverance. His self-portrayal in this passage demonstrates a man who is captive to sin in two aspects: in both his conscious choices and decisions, and also in his unconscious reactions to people and circumstances. It has been said that habitual sin is lodged somewhere in our unconscious responses to stimuli.
It would appear that Paul finds himself settling on options he does not want to choose, and responding habitually to situations and people in ways which he does not want to act. From a psychological perspective, these unconscious choices qualify as habitual sins. The accepted psychological definition of habit is a conditioned, automatic response to a stimulus, performed apart from conscious thought or choice. That may sound simple and innocent on the surface, but when it comes to unconscious behavior we are talking about compulsion. The average person wishing to discontinue a habit deemed to be unhealthy or, in the present application, sinful, sees a gradual or (sometimes) immediate decrease in said behavior. But what of those individuals who are not able to change their behavior? Psychiatry would have us believe there is a neurotic or psychological component to the habitual practice of that behavior.
Compulsion is a state of mind in which an individual feels an irresistible urge to perform an action. The word also connotes the action itself. In such a state, the individual feels compelled to say, think or do something they are unable to resist which, even at that very moment, appears to him or her to be harmful, absurd, pointless, or unhealthy. Of course, this is the very root of addiction. The command to perform the action comes from within and is contrary to the conscious will. We can now see the dilemma of defining the type of behavior Paul describes in Romans 7.
The conflicts underlying habitual performance of sinful acts are (according to Paul) unconscious. Such conflicts are varied and involve difficulties like fear, hostility, hatred, rejection, persistent self-doubt, despair, and self-destruction—all of which run contrary to the instinct to act in such a manner as to assure continued health, safety, and life. Of course, Paul’s argument is that once a Christian becomes aware of his or her tendency to sin (while in the flesh), the nature of sin and its concomitant consequences should provide some degree of strength or ability to decrease sinful acts in order to promote spiritual growth. He realizes that his sinful nature (that which resides in his flesh) seeks instant gratification regardless of the consequences of giving in to temptation. In other words, he does not see a “human” remedy for this problem; only a spiritual one.
“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 7:24-25, RSV).
THE NATURE OF MAN
Most of us realize that human nature consists of a myriad of characteristics, including how we think, feel, and act. These characteristics are said to occur naturally. Perhaps one of the oldest debates in human history is whether man is basically good or essentially bad. Certainly, this speaks to our overall tendencies. Accordingly, man is both inherently good and inherently bad. We all have the capacity to love and care for others (to one degree or another) on a sliding continuum. Additionally, we have the capacity for being bad: mean-spirited, selfish, hateful, prejudice, deceptive (even murderous under the right circumstances). The extent to which we lean toward one extreme or the other is deeply rooted in a number of factors: childhood experience, personality, culture, geography, demographics, and the like.
You likely remember the tales of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. Each story gives us a particular viewpoint on the nature of man. Robert Louis Stevenson showcased the capacity within man to turn to the left or to the right—to do good or do evil. Dr. Jekyll was a member of the privileged class—a wealthy physician of public renown. He possessed an underlying evil nature which he could not control. When this sinister side took over, he said, “It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous personalities—the good and the bad were thus bound together—that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.” Mary Shelley painted a different picture. The monster Frankenstein said, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
When discussing the nature of man, we are examining whether man is a product of his environment (nature) or the result of an amalgam of his interpersonal experiences (nurture). I believe we are impacted by both. We’re speaking of “temperament,” which is a term we typically see in theories of personality development. I have found in my undergraduate studies in psychology that there are both empirical and theoretical links between childhood experience and adult personality traits. Personality seems to have an unavoidable influence on behavior. Temperament is often seen as a constitutional predisposition, observable in pre-verbal infants and animals, and tied, at least theoretically, to basic psychological processes. Personality traits are assumed to be acquired patterns of thought and behavior that might be found only in organisms with sophisticated cognitive systems.
I subscribe to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. He agreed with behaviorists relative to classical and operant conditioning, but added two additional criteria: (1) mediating processes occur between stimulus and response; and (2) behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning vis-a-vis modeling behavior of primary caregivers and other significant individuals in our world during childhood and adolescence. I also support cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients address and defeat their “irrational” beliefs regarding the world and and their own sense of worth. This can be effective with people struggling with addiction and (what used to be labeled) neurotic views of the world. Further, it dovetails nicely with basic Christian doctrine: We must come to see ourselves not as we see ourselves, nor bound to the sum of all our past mistakes; rather, we must see ourselves as God sees us as believers—a new creation, clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
Scripture sees unregenerate man as enslaved to sin and possessing a corrupt nature. In this regard, man is in need of transformation through rebirth. When a person chooses to believe the Gospel, he or she identifies with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the old nature is crucified with Christ. Paul says of the regenerate Christian, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, RSV). The “old man” or the “old nature,” as expressed by Paul, is man as he was before he was reborn and sanctified by the grace of the Spirit. Don Steward of blueletterbible.org says, “The natural man may be defined as an individual who operates entirely on human wisdom.”
Although not everyone believes in an all-powerful Creator, both atheists and theists are tasked with explaining the innately fallen nature of humans. Mankind is capable of showing kindness and love and sacrifice on one hand, and cold, calculating selfishness, hatred, deception, and murder on the other. I don’t believe these extremes are present to the same extent in every human being. I do, however, believe there is an underlying sinful and evil nature in mankind. In other words, the potential to be both good and bad exists within us all to varying degrees. Admittedly, many people have difficulty buying into the idea that from the moment of birth we are not innocent and inclined toward goodness. Instead, we are inclined toward sin.
“Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12, RSV).
Dr. Werner Gitt of Answers in Genesis believes it is impossible to understand human nature apart from biblical revelation. Despite my becoming a “born-again” Christian at age 13, I struggled for decades with the concept that I was less than what I have the potential to be. It’s been said to me recently that I don’t give myself enough credit for my accomplishments. Ten years ago, I would have been in complete agreement. But when I undertake an honest and thorough moral examination of myself, I see glaring character defects, repeated selfish and mean-spirited acts, forty-plus years of active addiction, numerous incidents of lying, cheating, and stealing, and the tendency to want “maximum results with minimum effort.” This is beyond laziness. It is akin to the sense of “absolute entitlement.”
Frankly, I am okay with this assessment. It finally makes perfect sense to me, and, accordingly, provides the opportunity for lasting change. I’ve said many times that no “human effort” (neither mine nor the relentless intervention of others) could rescue me from active addiction. Moreover, I have come to recognize (anew) the spiritual battle we all face daily, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, or atheist. I see how I’ve been a pawn in the struggle between flesh and blood, good and evil. There are powers of darkness that want to recruit us to go to war against God and Jesus Christ; against goodness and honesty, kindness and selfless service. Paul was well-aware of this concept, and he made it an integral part of his ministry.
A Personal Example
It is with some trepidation that I confess to a particular habit I have found hard to stop. I am quite fond of sex and enjoy feeling the nearly-euphoric closeness one experiences during sexual relations. For me, there is unfortunately a dark underside to this stimulus. At some point it became a form of escape. The physical sensation of achieving orgasm served as a perfect way to mask depression, anxiety, even physical pain. In this regard, these sensations became yet another form of “self-medication.” Naturally, this is not what sex is meant for. At least not when it becomes a compulsion. Moreover, the act of masturbation became yet another addiction. In fact, I was told years ago by a psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors that because I tended to mix masturbation with the use of addictive substances that enhance the physical sensations of sex, I needed to address both issues. He said, “If you don’t, it’s like having two broken legs but only having a doctor set one of them.”
In its excessive form, masturbation becomes a compulsive (perhaps neurotic) act. When it is found in this form, it serves the purpose of allaying anxiety or other uncomfortable emotions. The root of this (and I don’t mean to sound Freudian here) may stem from a number of causes. A neglected or rejected child, who early in childhood may have learned to resolve the fear of isolation or insecurity by indulging in earlier infantile pleasures, will resort to masturbation as a satisfactory relief or consolation. The obvious downside to the persistent habit of masturbation, especially while viewing pornographic images, tends to cause the individual to objectify or sexualize women. This flies in the face of establishing meaningful relationships with a member of the opposite sex.
I am happy to report that by seeing pornography and masturbation as yet another addiction, I have applied the same methods to this compulsive behavior that I have been able to apply to my struggle with substance abuse. I could admit here that I have only recently become drug-free after yet another relapse, but I would rather focus on the fact that I am clean and sober today. I finally grasp the paramount importance of taking it “one day at a time.”
THE NATURE OF SIN
David said, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 199:11, NIV). This is truly the only means by which we can hope to defeat habitual sin. Much like physical exercise—which strengthens our calves or our core muscles over time—the continual practice of sin will serve to strengthen our bad habits. It is true that Christians are often tempted to sin. It’s impossible to completely avoid temptation while we exist in the flesh. Sadly, many end up giving in to such enticement on a regular basis.
It is one thing to recognize our vulnerability while clothed in a fleshly body, but it is a completely different matter to give up and give in to the same sin time and time again. Although I don’t believe recurrence of habitual sin will nullify the saving grace and power of Jesus’s sacrifice, I think habitual sin tends to fill us with guilt, shame, and regret. It can cut us off from fellowship with God. Once this separation occurs, we become increasingly vulnerable to the practice of sin. Indeed, this becomes a vicious circle. Moreover, it taints our testimony, causing us to look like a testiphony.
For me, I tend to fall into habitual sin when I fail to believe that holiness can result in a happier, healthier, successful life. In addition, I think the root of habitual sin is not necessarily a battle for self-control. Paul was clear about this in Romans 7. Instead, the root of habitual sin can be found in the need to “feel good.” We have a difficult time quitting a behavior for which we gain something—a sense of euphoria, peace, or happiness. In this manner, said habitual actions are a form of self-medication. Or, worse, an attempt at assuaging the pangs of guilt and the sense of failure we might be experiencing. Regarding chronic use of pornographic images, for example, those who use it to feel good are actually creating a false reality.
John said, “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17a, RSV). But it is also more complicated than that. Although sin is simple by its nature, it can create complex illusions that are very difficult to identify and deny. Urges and motivations are quite complicated, often causing a tangled mess in our soul and spirit. In his epistle, James wrote, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire… Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (1:14, RSV). James had never taken a course in psychology, but he thoroughly understood two things: what sin is in its basic form; and the concept that each of us is pulled in directions specific to our own desire. This is precisely why not everyone who drinks alcohol will become an alcoholic. It also explains why not every man or woman is enticed or drawn in by viewing pornographic images.
I believe every sin is, to a great degree, a repeat of the original sin when our first parents decided to eat the forbidden fruit to fulfill their desire to be “like God.” They were not ignorant of God’s instructions. They possessed enough information to make an informed decision to obey or disobey. In fact, God told them that eating the fruit would be wrong and that they would be far happier if they refrained from eating it (see Genesis 2:16-17). Satan misrepresented the truth and told them they would be far happier if they ate the forbidden fruit. In fact, he said to Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, RSV). This sounded good to Eve.
We become enslaved according to what we believe. Accordingly, it becomes quite difficult to give up that which we’ve embraced as a means to escape an uncomfortable situation or alleviate a troublesome emotion. This makes habitual sin impossible to defeat through the power of self-denial. While in the grips of a habit that produces in us a great sense of relief or euphoria (consider the brain chemistry of dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin, and endorphins), we are powerless to stop the rewarding behavior. We can only defeat such a habit through the power of a greater desire. Sure, self-denial is necessary, but self-denial is only possible (especially over the long-haul) when it is fueled by desire for a greater joy than what we have decided to deny ourselves. One way to express this is the common phrase, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”
In other words, when we desire a closer relationship with the LORD more than we desire continued physical pleasure, we are better equipped to extinguish habitual sin. This is achievable only by walking in the Spirit and not according to the flesh. We must renounce the lies we have believed, repent for having persistently believed them, and begin to exercise faith in God’s promises through obedience to Him. Until we believe we will experience the abundant life Jesus talked about, we will remain in bondage to our flesh, our neurotic or irrational beliefs about how best to achieve peace, joy and happiness. We will continue applying a bandage to our wounds rather than seek to have them healed.