In his Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1950, William Faulkner said that the most important subject in all of literature and the only thing worthy of writing about is “the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself.” These are wise words for a couple of reasons: for starters, conflict itself, whether we know it or not, is something that we all actually love in one form or another. We enjoy conflict when it strokes our egos and feeds our self-righteousness, our group thinking and tribalism. We love to draw a line in the sand and loudly declare ourselves to be on the right side of this or that issue. And we enjoy the drama of conflict from a distance, on television and in literature, and certainly with competition in sports. But I think Faulkner was getting at something a little bit more profound than this, I think he was directing us to the uncomfortable truth that the human condition, that the universal experience of all men and women, that the thing that consumes so much of our mental and emotional energy, and the experience that rings true and connects with all of us is the experience of conflict raging within ourselves.
Conflict can feel like our constant companion whether we like it or not. Whether you’re a conflict avoider, who thinks you can avoid it by escaping difficult situations or difficult relationships, or you’re someone who takes those situations head on and does your best to sort them out, the true struggle is that whether we’ve avoided or resolved the conflicts surrounding us, we can’t avoid ourselves. And we can’t avoid being in conflict with ourselves.
A few weeks ago my wife Courtney could see the stress of being quarantined with two children under the age of two mounting on my face. So, she graciously kicked me out of the house to get some fresh air. I went for a short run and instantly felt the anxiety and the conflict of trying to be a good father and to be a good husband dissipate. I had a moment all to myself. But before I could break a sweat, which honestly didn’t take very long, my mind raced to the questions of why haven’t I called that friend back, why can’t I forgive that person, why did you say that when you knew it would upset her, and of course why in the world did I let myself get in such bad shape?
Or just last night, Courtney and I have gotten a few months behind on goodnight’s sleep. We know we need more sleep, it’s all our bodies want and ask for most afternoons, and yet, our kids go to sleep at 7:30 and night after night we find ourselves staying up until midnight watching reruns of the OC. We can’t help ourselves, and it’s not because the show is too good, I promise you it’s not that, it’s because we just can’t help ourselves. We’re in conflict with ourselves.
St Paul’s words in Romans 7 are about you and me and all of us. They describe the unfortunate truth about what it means to be a human being. Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…” Too often we do the things we wish we didn’t, and we can’t bring ourselves to do the things we wish we would. Truer words have never been said.
And yet, this passage from Romans 7 is much debated by theologians, by biblical scholars and other folks who work themselves into a pretzel trying to determine whether Paul is talking about someone before they become a Christian, or if he’s speaking rhetorically about this or that group, because he couldn’t be talking about us, right? Not us religious people who work so hard at presenting ourselves to the world as people who have it all figured out. This inability to make the clear connections between Scripture and our actual lives was actually one of the things that I found so frustrating about seminary and academia, but I think the astonishing resistance to an honest and direct interpretation of this passage is actually something to take note of. Why is it that folks are so adamantly opposed to simply hearing what Paul is so clearly saying about human nature, about all of us? Well, I think it’s because this simple truth about human nature makes any theology or philosophy incomprehensible that places the power of change or the power of sanctification and salvation in our own hands. And if Paul is actually describing us as we are today, well then the fear is that we kind of end up sound like a bunch of losers.
What’s so frustrating about the conflicts raging within us is that they’re accompanied by a voice telling us that if we don’t win the conflict, if we don’t take control of our will power, if we don’t stop making mistakes, start exercising, start listening more, volunteering, giving, praying and loving more, then we’ll lose. And if we lose, then we simply won’t be enough. We won’t be loveable.
And here is where Paul drops another blow, but don’t worry, it isn’t the last word. Paul tells us that the outcome of this conflict that we’re so desperate to win, that unfortunately the battle has already been lost, in fact it was lost for us all by Adam a long, long time ago. The problem is that the conflict within ourselves comes from within ourselves, it comes from that factory of fools that we call our hearts. “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” Paul says.
And yet, in miraculous and gracious wonder, the long-lost battle has been decided by God in our favor. We may be losers, but covered by the blood of Christ, God has declared that we have won. This is what it means to be at the same time a sinner and a saint. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about the power of the unconditional love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Christianity isn’t about progress, at least not in the way that we’d like it to be. We’d all like it to be some divinely inspired form of self-help and improvement. Some sort of work out for our spiritual and emotional muscles leading to less mistakes, less anger, and ultimately less sin. But what Christianity is actually about is the realization of our own inability to fix ourselves and then the appropriate response of casting ourselves unto Jesus Christ. “Who will deliver us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
When we hear the truth of Paul’s words about ourselves, and the truth of his words about our forgiveness and salvation and belovedness in Jesus Christ alone, then the anxiety of defeat may subside, and into our conflicted hearts may come the comforting words of Jesus himself when he tells us;
“Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”