The heart wants what it wants.
It was the enlightenment thinker David Hume who once wrote that “reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions”—or maybe Bruce Springsteen said it better when he sang that “everybody’s got a hungry heart.”
HOMO ROMANTICUS—THE HUMAN AS LOVER
We are lovers before we are thinkers. This has been the conclusion of many men (and women) throughout the ages. We love, we desire, we worship. In his celebrated address to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace told his audience that “everybody worships:”
“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing …is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things…then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly….Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
The things we love have the capacity to consume us if we are not careful. Paul seemed to know something about this from his own personal experience. Sure, he admits; the law is unsuitable as a source of salvation, but the law also serves to diagnose the weak spots of my heart:
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12)
Paul says that the law exposes all the places where we have allowed ourselves to love the wrong things—and these are the things that have the capacity to eat us alive.
SIN AS DIS-ORDERED LOVE
This is the true nature of sin. In the fourth century, a man named St. Augustine described the human soul in the language of ordo amoris—literally the “logic of the heart.” The easiest way to understand this is to think of the human heart as a pyramid. You will never flourish, Augustine would say, unless God occupies the apex of that pyramid—meaning He is your supreme source of joy and satisfaction. All our other loves occupy other spaces beneath.
But here’s what sin does: sin seeks to re-order that pyramid so that something else—money, fame, sex, what-have-you—becomes the supreme object of worth. “You are what you love,” says James K. Smith in his latest book. Rearrange the food pyramid and it’s bad for your body; rearrange the pyramid of your heart and it’s bad for your soul.
LIVING AS BOTH SAINT AND SINNER
Paul admits that even after he began to follow Jesus, his heart was a mess of competing loves:
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:13-20)
Now, for clarity, I should mention that many writers believe that Paul isn’t describing his Christian experience here, but maybe he’s referring to his life before Christ, or to Israel as a whole, or maybe even pointing all the way back to Adam and Eve. But frankly, I think the most natural way to read this is to hear this as a tormented description of what Paul went through as he began to grow in Christ.
And that’s a source of great encouragement. If sin is a form of dis-ordered love, then as we follow Jesus we can expect our heart to be gradually set in order. But this takes time, and until then we will have experiences where we feel at war within ourselves, struggling against desires that we just can’t shake.
Martin Luther would say that we are simul iustus et peccator—“simultaneously righteous and yet still sinners.” We are both sinners and saints. It’s that bizarre double-identity that Paul wrestles with here in this chapter—which is encouraging for all of us who struggle with knowing that the “victorious Christian life” often seems like more a myth than a present reality.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25)
Ultimately, though, Paul recognizes that the way out of his messed-up heart is the supernatural work of God. There remains a state of competing loves, yes—but Paul places his lasting hope in the redemptive work of Christ. This is why sanctification—that is, the process of becoming transformed into Godly character—doesn’t depend on our efforts any more than our salvation does. Our transformation doesn’t depend on white-knuckled performance, but on God’s grace. What we need is for our hearts to be set in order again; sanctification is nothing more than re-ordered love.
HOPE LEADING TO CHARACTER
In one of Wendell Berry’s novels, two characters discuss the trajectory of their lives and whether they will ever truly learn anything. “It may take a lifetime,” says one friend to the other. “And I’ll tell you something else,” he continues; “it may take longer.”
We are justified for our sinful past. We are being transformed—sanctified—in our struggling present. But one day, we will be glorified in God’s wonderful future.
So today, take heart. You’re not in this alone. You’re in the company of many men and women who, throughout history, have experienced the inner war of competing loves. And this is to say nothing of the God who, by His Spirit, is at work in you to re-order the loves of your heart so that you may grow in the full stature of His Son.
Until that day let us proceed forward not with the white-knuckle grip of our own “sweat equity,” but by allowing our love of the Savior to grow as we ourselves grow closer to Him.