(This is second in a five-part series of posts. To start at the beginning, click here.)
In Controlling the Narrative, Part 1: Dilemma, we looked at Paul’s agonizing over who was responsible for the shit (see explanation) he described in Chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans. He closed the chapter seeming spent, resigned. But Paul wasn’t someone to accept being stumped. Resign himself to a situation that he felt passionate about? Not this guy.
Paul the Resolute… (and a bit conflicted)
Although there’s a simple way to avoid taking Paul for throwing in the towel, I’ve never heard it preached from a pulpit or described in a theological work. It implies a determination and a radical unselfishness that suit him better. It also accounts for his telling exclamation, the one that you might have noticed I bypassed in the close of Part 1. If Paul was resigned to a condition that he felt was intolerable, why exclaim, “Thanks be to Good through Jesus Christ our Lord!”? Thanks for what — that he found no option but to lay down? I don’t think so.
Apparently, Paul was very grateful for a predicament that deeply distressed him. Can you recall an experience when you simultaneously felt wretched yet bursting with gratitude? Either Paul found good reason for jubilation or he lost his mind.
The Greek word that Paul used for “wretched,” ταλαíπωρος, (transliterated talaipōros — just imagine a Texan saying, “‘Til Ayh pour us…”) has been translated variously as wretched, unhappy, pitiable, or miserable. J. B. Phillips’ translation characterized Paul’s wretched dilemma as “an agonising situation.” The only other use of talaipōros in the New Testament is Revelations 3:17:
Talaipōros doesn’t connote much jubilation. So, why be happy? I think Paul discovered a secret; one of those illuminations that Jesus was glad were hidden from the wise and intelligent, thanking his Father that He “revealed them to infants;” the kind of insight that “will make you free.”
I imagine Paul on trial for the crimes of his “flesh.” Who was the real culprit? The crimes were serious, and much was at stake. Would he be judged and condemned as the perpetrator, or would he be acquitted?
Did I Do It?
My analogy falls short on a subtle but important point. A wrongly accused innocent knows from the start the he didn’t do it. In contrast, Paul admitted:
You can feel his bewilderment. To begin with, he thought he possibly was guilty, that he could have done it. Maybe he blacked out, then came to later, the deed done, bloody knife in his hand, blood on his clothes, and a body at his feet.
Later, in custody awaiting trial, Paul thought his predicament through with the dispassion of an inmate with nothing better to do hour after hour than muse. He retraced his movements, at every step examining his motivations and considering the evidence. He went over the events from one angle, then another:
- But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.
- So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but shit which dwells in me.
- …the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.
- For the good that I want, I do not do…
- …but I practice the very shit that I do not want.
Finally, he came to a remarkable conclusion.
In spite of everything against him, Paul became certain that he didn’t do it. He couldn’t prove it. He had no evidence. He knew, but he didn’t “just know,” as if some ethereal or intuitive conviction crept into his soul, nor because he just decided it was so. He knew for a very simple, straightforward reason. He realized that if he did something he didn’t want to do, then he was not the one responsible. It wasn’t a question of competence. He wasn’t pleading insanity or diminished capacity. This was a question of identity. Paul concluded that doing something we don’t want to do proves that something else did it, not us. Paul predicated identity on desire. The one who wants is the one who genuinely exists. I want, therefore I am. The one who does what I don’t want is not me, but a usurper, an impostor, or a bad habit.
Paul absolutely disowned his shit and everything connected to it because he hated all of it and wanted none of it. The crimes were done by someone or something else, some alien entity, his “flesh,” that forced him to act against his desires, intentions, and better judgment. Paul never did have much good to say about the “flesh.” His flesh — not he — served the law of shit. The criminal was another, not him.
I think Paul’s outburst of gratitude was like what anyone would feel if a “not guilty” verdict came in. In fact, by the time he closed the chapter, Paul seemed so thoroughly convinced, relieved, and grateful that he did not do “it,” I’m not sure that a guilty verdict would have changed his exuberance.
Paul the Evader?
That’s about as far as I can stretch that metaphor, because it just raises questions about who turned the verdict in and why. Looking back over the passage, Paul was apparently the only one in the courtroom: judge, jury, prosecution, defense, and defendant were all the same guy. So how did he manage to grant himself such a favorable verdict? Was he dodging responsibility? Was he just in denial, scapegoating some esoteric abstraction called the “flesh?”
If this was a formula for irresponsibility, I’d think it would get more use, especially since “it says so in the Bible!” But Paul’s was an unusual kind of “scapegoat.” Normally, people handle bad behavior one of two ways. They either identify with their shit and accept responsibility for it — what we call “owning” it — or they disown it by blaming someone or something else. Paul avoided both ditches: he disowned it and refused to blame others, admitting that it was his but it was not him. (Take a few turns around that sentence. It’ll grow on ya!)
I’m Sane, Honest!
Like some other examples of Paul’s logic, this seems pretty twisted until we get a line on his priorities. We’ll get into those in the next installment, Controlling the Narrative, Part 3: Method. Far from a recipe for eventual schizophrenia, Paul’s approach might be the only way to remain simultaneously honest and sane.
If we honestly identify with our shit, guilt can drive us crazy. No lack of examples on that front in the Prozac Nation. The alternatives — denial and scapegoating — might not seem like they make for crazy, but therapists disagree. Denial and scapegoating, along with a host of other dysfunctional tactics, are the way of crazy-makers, narcissists, psychopaths, and monsters. They might not think they’re crazy, but the rest of us take exception. Their sanity becomes clearly questionable once curtains of lies and bullshit part, giving glimpses of warped, conniving minds hiding behind. When the inane but inevitable feigned innocence, ignorance, and cover-ups begin, it’s a wonder they can keep straight faces. No sane, honest person can maintain composure in the face of insurmountable, damning evidence like these guys do. They actually think we’re that easily fooled.
Grave abuse is enough to drive people to deranged extremes, but it doesn’t induce different symptoms in smaller doses, just less dire ones. All of us are afflicted with some level of toxic irrationality. Maybe that would change if we adopted Paul’s approach to identity.
I saw my own experience reflected in Paul’s disclosure to the Romans. I struggled to do good, but realized that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried and prayed and agonized and resolved, I kept failing. No matter how far I stretched, the bar was always a little further and higher; sometimes much further and higher. Not that I failed to do any good — no, I did lots of it. I saw good results and people thanked me for them. But the good we do does not erase the shit we do. Each has its own consequences. No matter how much good we do, shit still stinks, causes pain, destroys trust, and leaves us feeling like failures — like shit. No amount of count-your-blessings or turning lemons into lemonade or looking on the bright side of silver linings can change the undeniable facts that shit happens and we wish it didn’t.
The Ever-Present Shit Principle
Paul realized that the source of his dilemma was “shit which dwells in me,” but that wasn’t the end of it. Not only was it his, but it had a long history, the history formed a pattern, and the pattern indicated a principle.
He couldn’t put it behind him. Shit was ever-present, bound to happen again and again. How demoralizing is that? Not only did it pop up in the past, where in 20-20 hindsight we can find “reasons” for it, but it will keep popping up, in this life at least. As I contemplate my next move, covering all the angles, planning for every contingency, prodding myself to go ahead and do the right thing, I have no guarantee that my intentions will succeed. In fact, I’m convinced that they might backfire and accomplish the opposite just as easily. It can be dejecting, enough to drive you cynical. Even stellar successes involve messy, dirty clouds and a black hole or two. You know — the stuff we take pains to keep to ourselves, out of sight. Is there an honest alternative to sweeping it under the rug? Who will set us “free from the body of this death?” When he answered his own desperate cry, Paul didn’t postpone his groaned-for liberation until next year or the next life, and neither do I.
Paul discovered an insight that was simple, elegant, and radical. It wasn’t a function of privilege, as if “for saints only.” He obviously didn’t consider himself a “saint” in some angelic sense of word. We can relate to him, because his struggles were the same as ours. We don’t need to great lengths to grasp it, as he makes clear later in the same letter:
Paul’s solution is within reach and always available to us because it consists of a simple choice that we always have the capacity to make: divorce ourselves from our shit and reaffirm ourselves as those who love Good, the children of Good, and the ways of Good. Paul didn’t mention any other conclusion in Romans 7. You’d think that he was copping out if not for his earnestness and the fact that he was an apostle and a saint, if anyone ever was. How did he know, and how do we know that we’re not copping out by following his lead? Because wanting it is to be the one who wants it, not someone else. If Good is what we want, then that is who we are.
Will the Real Paul Please Stand Up?
In Paul’s view, that’s knowing enough to keep things straight, which seems to have prompted his grateful exclamation: on one hand, he served the law of Good with his mind and, on the other hand, the law of shit with his “flesh.” Confusing ourselves with the culprit is a case of mistaken identity.
Volumes of text and centuries of discussion have wrangled over what Paul meant by “flesh.” I say first things first and go with what you know. Our shit comes from somewhere, and mine doesn’t come from you or someone else. My “flesh” is where mine comes from, and your “flesh” is where yours comes from, whatever “the flesh” might be. Blaming you for mine is just as bad as blaming myself, and vice versa. I’m sure there’s more to know, but we don’t need more in order to know where our shit comes from and avoid confusing it for us.
According to Paul we have options. The one he chose provides a way out of despair and cynicism. The one we choose serves as our answer to the question, “Who is my storyteller?” Will we let our shit characterize us or let others characterize us, or will we take charge and characterize ourselves? Who controls the narrative?
In this part, we saw how Paul got himself off the hook for his shit. Concluding that he was not guilty is only part of his solution. In the next part, Controlling the Narrative, Part 3: Method, we’ll see how he settled the rest of his identity quandary.