I have been reading Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines – Understanding How God Changes Lives, where he argues that God primarily transforms us by his grace accessed by means of spiritual disciplines and practices. Part of his argument is to give a sound and realistic account of the human self and all of its dynamics, in order to properly understand how redemption of the human person is to take place.
One particular insight he makes is on the process of redemption. He says that before repentance and coming to faith in Christ, we find ourselves involved in two conflicts: (1) Our intellect and will (or spirit) is in conflict with God and his will; (2) Our lower powers (bodily desires and passions) are in conflict with our reason and will. After repentance, we surrender and submit our will to God – our will and intention becomes orientated towards knowing and loving God. However, there still remains a conflict: the conflict shifts from being primarily between God and our will, to being between our will and our body. Our body still has ingrained and embedded in it, habits and patterns of behaviour that are contrary to God’s will and our own new will, which we acquired during our alienation from God. The primary conflict shifts to within the human self: the will and our body (passions, desires, affections, habits and dispositions) are in disunity.
A good illustration of this is with addiction. When a person with a drug addiction decides they no longer want to be addicted and seeks rehabilitation, their body does not automatically stop desiring and craving for drugs. They seek rehabilitation precisely because there is the struggle between the body, with its ingrained habits and desires, and the will which is intent on being clean – will power alone cannot directly eliminate the desires and cravings in the body.
Even less extreme common everyday experiences reveal to us this conflict and disharmony between our will and body. We set goals for ourselves, after careful deliberation, that we think will markedly make our lives well off and yet often find that when the time comes to execute the goals, other desires for more immediately rewarding activities thwart our goals. We want to read more and watch less TV and yet find the TV more desirable; we want to exercise but find the alternative more desirable.
St. Augustine in his Confessions, eloquently and penetratingly describes his experience of the conflict that Willard speaks about,
“Thus I came to understand from my own experience what I had read, how “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” I truly lusted both ways, yet more in that which I approved in myself than in that which I disapproved in myself. For in the latter it was not now really I that was involved, because here I was rather an unwilling sufferer than a willing actor. And yet it was through me that habit had become an armed enemy against me, because I had willingly come to be what I unwillingly found myself to be.”
His former conduct of life which he willingly indulged in had left in his character habits and dispositions which he no longer wanted; habits that were “an armed enemy” which he unwillingly possessed and longed to be free from. The apostle Paul in Romans 7 describing this condition asks “Wretched man that I am, Who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord“. Life in the kingdom of God gives us access to resources that bring restoration, peace, harmony and unity within the human person; we become whole persons no longer divided and waging war against God and ourselves.