Aristotle referred to man as the “rational animal.” Aristotle was overstating things. While it's true that, as far as we know, no other animal creates symbolic logic or does scientific research or debates theology or ethics or politics, we are not nearly as rational as we like to think. Scientists have put people in fMRIs and asked them tough moral questions and seen the emotional centers in the brain respond faster than the rational parts. It seems we usually make decisions based on our “gut” feelings and then use our verbal reasoning to justify what we feel. This is what happens regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative, religious or atheist, educated or not. Which is one reason why, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, otherwise good people can disagree on what is right and what is wrong. Our positions, especially on things we value the most, are felt first and then we act as lawyers for the stances we have adopted emotionally.
Knowing this makes explicable opinions that seem unfathomable. It also explains why people's most deeply held beliefs are the ones which they have the hardest time articulating. It just feels right. It explains why all the logic in the world can't budge some people's opinions.
The fact that we are not ultimately as rational as we hoped we were would not surprise Paul. He was rational enough to notice that this conflict between truth and emotion did not merely occur between people but within people. And that is what he is talking about in our passage from Romans 7. He is exploring a problem we all wrestle with: why don't we do what is right, especially when we know it is best for us? It's not that we like to do evil; we detest it. And yet we find ourselves being drawn to the same sins over and over again. It's not rational.
This is the primary problem we encounter in life, isn't it? We know our anger gets us into trouble, we know or should know from experience what triggers us and yet we find ourselves ramping up to another destructive outburst. Or we know we are terrible with money, we know we will spend it the minute we get it, and here it is another payday, we have outstanding bills, and yet we hear the siren call of what we really want to spend it all on. Or we know we are untrustworthy around the opposite sex, we know we will shamelessly pursue an attractive person, regardless of whether they or we are married, and yet we find ourselves flirting with someone new despite the fact that we already are in a good relationship and this will ruin it.
We are not dumb. We know what the right thing to do is. We know what the smart thing to do is. We know what the rational thing to do is. And we just can't seem to bring ourselves to do it. It's isn't a matter of ignorance. It is a matter of desire.
When our dog breaks a rule we have labored to teach him, we sigh and say, “Well, he's just a dumb animal.” We can't say the same about ourselves, though. We know better. We have big brains that should be capable of telling us when to say “no.” Or maybe they do and we ignore them, walking into trouble despite the large, clear warning signs life is showing us. How else do we explain the umpteenth CEO caught in a sexual harassment suit? How else do we explain the countless respected politicians caught trying to cover up things that should have been obviously career-ending in the first place? How else do we explain TV evangelists doing the very things they preach against Sunday after Sunday? We ask ourselves, “What we they thinking?” The answer is: they weren't.
Somebody once said that if you wanted to predict what an organization was going to do, you should imagine it is secretly controlled by a cabal of its worst enemies. And you know what? It works. Want to know what a political party's next move is? Imagine it has been infiltrated by members of the opposition who want it to lose the next election. Or imagine that a charity has been taken over by people who want to destroy it by spending the money on things that will make folks look for something else to contribute to. I swear a bunch of Apple employees went undercover at Microsoft to ensure that Windows 8 would be so bad it would drive customers to buy Macs. How long have cars had ignition switches that worked fine and who at GM thought this needed to be tinkered with? Why is it that in the 21st century we have printers that can scan, copy, fax and do everything except reliably pull a piece of paper through itself without jamming? It all makes sense if you simply imagine these companies are controlled by their worst enemies.
Perhaps they are. As the old comic strip Pogo so astutely paraphrased Julius Caesar, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” We are often our own worst enemies. We all know people whose chief talent seems to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Heck, I've tried to help a few people like that. I've met people who never get along with anyone and blame each and every one of those people for their problems rather than themselves. And they can't see the improbability that their frequent trouble with others is never their fault.
We have trouble seeing our moral flaws. We are biased to see ourselves as the good guys in our interactions with others. We judge ourselves on our intentions, whereas we judge others on the actual results of their actions, regardless of their intentions. Our intentions however are always pure and noble. "Chelsea needed a reality check and so I was merely being honest, not cruel." "I wasn't careless; Jeff shouldn't have been standing where he was." "We always tell our clients that there's risk involved; they should have paid attention rather than accusing us of deception."
Naturally we need to see and be honest about our faults if we are to have any hope of fixing them. But few people can be that objective about themselves. They keep running into the same self-generated problems and chalk it up to the same run of bad luck or incompetent people they are forever encountering. They themselves are the least likely suspects in this ongoing mystery.
Some folks are able to figure out that they are deeply if not fatally flawed. It happens to those addicts who seek recovery. They have what they call “a moment of clarity.” They see their lives and, more importantly, they see themselves as they really are. All illusions, all delusions, all pretenses are stripped away. The light floods in and they see their true colors. It is literally sobering.
Sins are rather like addictions. They enslave us, bind us to behaviors that may have given us pleasure in the past but now just promise pain. I didn't believe in sex addiction until I heard a man describe how he would turn down invitations to go out with friends in order to stay home and call sex lines, how he'd stay up into the wee hours viewing pornography despite having to go to work the next day, and how he'd risk arrest and STDs cruising for prostitutes. He said that when it's an addiction it no longer fun or enjoyable. It is a compulsion that causes self-loathing.
Which sounds like what Paul is describing. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate.” That describes addiction. But Paul at this point is talking about the sin of coveting, which weirdly enough was not a problem until he heard the commandment against it. It had not occurred to him to long for the things that belonged to his neighbor until then. I don't think the impulse was not there; it's that the first whiff of the fragrance of the forbidden fruit awakened his dormant desires. Suddenly he could think of nothing else. It consumed him.
We've all been there. We learn of something we'd never heard of before and the next thing you know we are yearning for it, as if it were a long lost love. Nobody sets out to get hopelessly enslaved to drugs or joyless sex or the never-satisfied pursuit of wealth or the impossible demands of envy or self-righteous anger or self-destructive behavior. Nobody says “I want this one thing to dominate the whole of my life. I want it to leech all of the joy out of everything else in my life. I want this to become the thing to which I will sacrifice all chances of true happiness that come my way.” It starts out small, a one time indulgence. But like a cancer it grows and takes over and eventually it crowds out all else that is healthy in life. Thus what we intended to do “just this once” or “just on weekends” or “just at home” or“just among friends” infiltrates and warps our whole lives.
Paul says, “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 that dwells within me.” Neuroscientists know that everything we experience, do and think create connections between neurons in our brains. When we do something over and over, we create habits by making connections or pathways to the reward centers in the brain. These pathways bypass the reasoning centers of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex. Which is precisely what Paul and all of us experience when we activate one of these pathways: it is not us, at least not the rational part of us, that is doing this. The bad behavior which we have reinforced is in the driver's seat. The part of us that knows better is at war with the part of us that just wants what it wants.
These changes in our thinking are literally written in our flesh, as Paul puts it; that is, in the physical structures of our brains. When we indulge in bad thoughts, words and works, we reprogram our brains. But unlike a computer we can't just uninstall these programs. They become malware which infects our hard drive and eventually causes all our other programming to glitch.
What we need is new programming. We need to install the Spirit of God to root out the bad programs we have allowed to run. We need to reset our programming. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Can something non-physical change something physical, like the brain? Of course, it does so all the time. You read or hear words that resonate with your life and various neurons make connections. The words become something you memorize, something you quote, something you live your life by. Or you have an insight or a vision or a revelation that changes your perception of your life or the world. That makes the neural connections, perhaps even a continuing series of connections that changes not just how you think but how you speak and how you act.
We see this in 12 Step programs. The first step is all about realizing and admitting that the person is powerless over whatever it is that has made their life unmanageable. The second step is acknowledging that a power greater than oneself could restore one's sanity. This leads to the third step: making a decision to turn one's will and life over to one's God. Or as one AA member summarizes the first 3 steps: I can't. God can. I'll let him. The words trigger changes in thinking, which in turn trigger changes in actions.
But even the 12 step programs don't rely on words alone. The key is to truly turn one's life over to God. It's like going to a doctor and getting a diagnosis. That's vital but it's only the start. Then you need to get and follow a treatment plan. Which means changing your life. Back in college when I was in a skid row ministry I was shocked by how readily some of the men admitted to being alcoholics. But they never went beyond that. The word was merely an excuse not to do anything about their drinking. It was a cop-out.
For Christians admitting to being sinners is Step One. Then we move to Step Two, acknowledging that God can change us. And Step Three is acting on that. It's asking God to come into our lives, allowing his Spirit to move in and start making changes. Without his power in our lives, all our words are merely sounds.
There is a part of Step 3 I haven't touched on. Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, got a lot of his ideas from the Oxford Group, a Christian movement started by Lutheran minister Dr. Franklin Buchman. But Bill was having problems with the idea of turning to God until a friend suggested he choose his own conception of God. That idea has allowed AA to work in all cultures, all denominations and even with the nonreligious.
But these principles are clearly Christian and for my part, I can't come up with a better concept of God than Jesus Christ. Sure, I can conceive of God in ways that are more in line with my desires: a cosmic soft-hearted grandfather in whose eyes I can do no wrong, who forgives readily and makes no demands on me or my life. But that kind of God would be an enabler, someone who lets me continue to indulge in habits that are destructive to me and others. I need someone who will not let me get away with my B.S. Jesus had no patience with hypocrisy and even when he forgave people, Jesus never said “Go and sin some more.”
I also need a God who understands my life, the stresses and influences and temptations I must deal with daily. Jesus can because he became one of us, from birth to death. When I go to him with the stuff that I face, he knows firsthand what I am talking about. Knowing that Jesus had to deal with work and family and taxes and all the rest of everyday life and that he still stay focused on serving God and doing his will helps me do the same.
I also need a God who is not merely an adviser and guide but who can get hands-on. For some medical problems, drugs, diet and lifestyle changes alone aren't enough. Sometimes you need surgery. I need a God who can get inside me and fix what's broken. I still need to follow his orders but without him making those internal changes first, I would be like someone trying to treat appendicitis through diet and exercise. If I don't let the surgeon remove the inflamed appendix, eventually it will burst and all my diet and exercise will do is make me the most physically fit corpse in the morgue.
The best conception of the God I need to fix my irrational, self-generated problems, to undo the bad habits I have built into my brain, is Jesus. He loves me and forgives me and won't let me continue in my self-destructive ways. He gets me and he can get into me. He will make me into a better person no matter how hard it is for me. Or how much it hurt him. As far as he is concerned, my sins died on that cross with him. Now I have a new life. His life. And I'm going to let him do with it whatever he thinks is best.