Fighting the Flesh: Final installment

Romans 7&8 (Phillips)

My own behaviour baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe… But it cannot be said that “I” am doing them at all—it must be sin that has made its home in my nature…I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power…Yet if I do things that I don’t really want to do then it is not, I repeat, “I” who do them, but the sin which has made its home within me…My conscious mind whole-heartedly endorses the Law, yet I observe an entirely different principle at work in my nature. This is in continual conflict with my conscious attitude…In my mind I am God’s willing servant, but in my own nature I am bound fast… It is an agonizing situation, and who on earth can set me free from the clutches of my sinful nature? I thank God there is a way out through Jesus Christ our Lord…No condemnation now hangs over the head of those who are “in” Jesus Christ…the failure was always the weakness of human nature…But the spiritual attitude… means life and inward peace

I suppose that this is the most important part of the whole series. What bench-press-1013857__340do we do with this war within ourselves? I think it is important to reiterate that resolving the conflict of our flesh and not sinning are two different things. Even the tools that we use to prevent sinful behavior may be different. I guess the best way I could describe this is that sinful acts are like symptoms, but the flesh is the disease. Stopping sinful behaviors is one thing, reducing the conflict with the flesh is growth and healing. I do not think that all sinful behavior is a product of the flesh but the flesh always produces sinful behavior.

The first step in this process is accepting God’s grace. As Paul writes, there is now therefore no condemnation for those in Christ. The reason that parts of ourselves go into hiding and take on a life of their own is shame. In order to work through issues of the flesh we need to become aware because we are only able to see what we are willing to confront. If you feel like a bad person for experiencing jealousy or anger than those things will always get buried and take on a life of their own.

We have to learn the type of humility that accepts we are flawed without thinking we are “less than” because of those flaws. A major intervention in Gestalt therapy is becoming aware of the background. head-1965675__340The idea is that what we are focused on and aware of is in the foreground, but we also need to be aware of what is operating in the background. If I showed you the picture to the right and asked you to look at a picture of a vase, it is likely that the first thing you would see is a vase. Our expectations influence and prime us to see things a certain way, but it is in being humble and open that we discover the things in our lives that we don’t see. Having a deep spiritual understanding of the flesh should humble us. Rather than think that we have all the answers and have arrived, we should prayerfully recognize that as a work in progress we likely have many things wrong. History will likely say we got a lot wrong. How could we be the only Christians in history to finally get it right?

Parables and metaphors expose the flesh. Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to challenge the implicit bias of his audience. The prophet Nathan used a story to allow King David to connect with his sense of compassion and justice and then exposed him to the truth that he was the villain in the story.

2 Samuel 12:…The poor man owned nothing but one little lamb he had bought. He raised that little lamb, and it grew up with his children. It ate from the man’s own plate and drank from his cup. He cuddled it in his arms like a baby daughter. One day a guest arrived at the home of the rich man. But instead of killing an animal from his own flock or herd, he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it and prepared it for his guest.”

David was furious. “As surely as the Lord lives,” he vowed, “any man who would do such a thing deserves to die!…

Samuel used evocative language to engage David’s emotions. It was only when he saw the situation completely outside of his own life that he was able to see and connect with the appropriate response. We must with humility continue to search our hearts, listen to dissenting opinions, listen to the input of others around us, and seek to understand where other people are coming from.

Not I! Freedom from Shame

“Yet if I do things that I don’t really want to do then it is not, I repeat, “I” who do them, but the sin which has made its home within me…”

As I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, the “not I” seems to be less about taking responsibility and more about distinguishing part from whole. When we talk about avoiding shame this becomes a very important concept. Cognitive therapy does an excellent job of identifying this problem as a cognitive distortion. They highlight the dangers of “I am” statements. When I say that “I am a failure” rather than “I failed,” I am equating something I did to be who I am as a person. Paul is making the distinction that the sin does not define me. When the angel of the Lord sees Gideon cowering in a wine vat and calls him a mighty man of valor (Judges), he’s not lying. God does not define our whole being by an action or even collection of actions. Our habit of attributing our entire identity to a part of ourselves is very dangerous and not reality. In recent trauma research, the identification of parts has become an integral strategy in healing and recovery. I am not anxious, a part of me is/I am not jealous, a part of me is. In other words, Paul is likely saying, I did not sin, a part of me did- Christ defines my identity not an action that has been forgiven.

Willpower will fail

        Romans 8…I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power…

I’ve said on multiple occasions that we cannot “rebuke” the flesh because it is a part of who we are. But we also can’t defeat it with willpower. I remember decades ago, long before I became a therapist, listening to a Christian Counseling radio program. Someone had called in talking about a reoccurring problem in their life, I don’t remember what it was, but they talked about how they were trying to change. One of the hosts asked what he was doing to change and the caller responded that he was putting much more effort into it. The Host than replied that he would fail because if it were a matter of willpower he would have done it already. That exchange stayed with me for over twenty years and prompted me often to try and understand how we grow and heal. But I think it is this caller’s misconception about growth that is at the heart of our misunderstanding of Paul’s concept of the “flesh.”

-Willpower never really works but our American culture is obsessed with it.

Own Your Flesh         

Gestalt empty chair allows a person to get in touch with each part of themselves. We must become aware of the disowned parts of ourselves, own that part and work at healthier integration and ways to get needs met. The empty chair, which can also be done through journaling, is a process whereby you alternate sitting in two chairs while having two polar opposite sides talk to each other. For example, you might have the side that is procrastinating talk to the side that wants to get things done. Often, I find that procrastination is a part of the self that is tired of over extending one’s self and the answer is better self- care, better boundaries that allow me to have enough reserves to the things that I am procrastinating about.

The Relational Mind

“In my mind I am God’s willing servant, but in my own nature I am bound fast…” Interestingly, based upon current research, mind would also be relational- the relational part of me, the part connected to God and others doesn’t want to sin. This is the opposite of shame which seeks to hide from relationship, it is in connecting with God and others that our mind is formed and seeks to serve the higher law of love.

Ultimately, all healing comes through relationship. Relationship with self is healing as we practice self-compassion, relationship with others is healing as we allow our full selves to meet others without shame, and relationship with God is healing as we allow radical grace to color every interaction that we have with him. This relational healing allows us to recognize and accept our “fleshy” parts and reintegrate them in a healthy way or at least become aware of the way that they operate and get our needs met in a healthy way from ourselves, others, and God.

Neuroscience Addendum

I know most people aren’t into neuroscience as much as I am, but for those interested. Based on the description Paul gives, I think that the “flesh” may be the unredeemed right hemisphere of our brains. Right hemisphere operations are the area of the brain that act unconsciously and are responsible for our emotions, appraisals, and attachments. This system is formed early on, before our more rational linguistic left hemisphere and it develops as a result of our early interactions with caregivers. I believe that because of our brokenness we relate to our children in brokenness and their “right hemisphere selves” form as a result. In this way our sin nature is passed on. Were a perfect parent to solely interact with their child during those formative years, their right hemisphere would be completely healthy and capable of connecting with others in a healthy way. This is interesting to me because of the emphasis in Christianity on relationship with God and connection to Him. When Paul speaks of the Mind of Christ, from a psychological point of view this is relational. Our minds are formed in the midst of relationship- it is right brain to right brain communication. Caregivers engage in this activity and help children to regulate or dysregulate depending on how healthy the interaction is. But if we have right brain to right brain communication with Christ we are in essence taking on the mind of Christ- in that moment we are connected to Him through this neurological process and are being regulated by Him. The answer to our “sinful dysregulation” is connection with Him, but I would argue that this cannot and does not occur in completion until death. I suspect this is due to the limited interaction that we have; we are wired to have bodily connection with others for our brains to be fully engaged, so it is likely that we have to engage with God bodily in order for our full transformation to take place. We must be re-parented in a way that repairs our right brain creating a whole new attachment style that cannot be shaken. In that moment we are truly one with God and experience the true piece of a relational connection that never wavers. Amen!

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