A friend mentioned to me recently that despite the fact that he fully accepts the Lord in his mind, his will still struggles. In his words, he finds it difficult to surrender fully to God. I might suspect that this was a unique problem that affects only him and myself, if it were not for the fact that this issue is so often discussed in Scripture. The Lord Himself says, “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41). He gives this directive to the Apostles. St. Paul is even more stark: “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched mind that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:22-24).
If this struggle is one in which even the Apostles had to engage, I assume that many are going through the same. I hope, therefore, that the words of Paul give us pause. Here is an Apostle of Christ, who has converted countless people, who has seen the Lord (cf.1 Cor. 15:8), who has himself performed great miracles (cf. Acts 14:8-18), and yet he says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” How much more desperation should we feel, who have seen and done none of these things?
Luckily, that is not all that Paul says. Christ is the answer to our desperation. Later in the same letter, he says: “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will life. ... For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:13, 15).
That is the proper Sunday School response. Not for naught do people say that the answer is always “God” or “Jesus.” I hope, however, that we do not nod our heads and move on, as if to say, “Ah, got it! It’s Jesus, of course, why didn’t I think of that?” There are a few nuances which that reaction misses, which I will try to enumerate below.
First, we should realize what kind of struggle this is. The Apostle says “put to death,” not merely wrestle against, or just shove away. This struggle is a struggle to the death; in other words, it is a war. Perhaps we cry out with St. Paul too little, not too much. It is usually those who are insufficiently afraid who are the first casualties of war. The soldier in the foxhole who believes he is camping is in great peril.
Second, we should realize that the Apostle says “are putting to death” and not “have put to death.” This war is not a one-time thing, but a continuous disposition. By the grace of God, we must continuously wage it. Scott Hahn recounts that at some point, he confessed his frustration to his spiritual director, because he found himself committing the same sins over and over again. Bemused, his director asked him if he was hoping to start committing new sins instead. The same is true for us. We must struggle until we sin no more, but in the meantime, let us be thankful when we do not add to our tally.
Third, we should realize how Christ is the answer to our struggle. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out that “since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). God shared in our weakness so that we might share in His strength. And yet, He does not tell us that we will share in His strength immediately and we would not really want to. That would be a bit like waking up tomorrow and finding out that you suddenly look like you have spent every waking minute in the gym for the past few years. It might sound really cool, but deep down you would know you do not belong in that body. Likewise, God calls us to take up our cross and follow Him. He calls us to struggle, knowing that if we cooperate with His grace, we will see the end of our struggle and the eternal reward which only He can give.