It doesn’t take a long look at the news to find examples of failures—failures of marriage, failures of remaining within legality in general, failures of sobriety, and just out and out failures of being good persons. Some would tell me: “Well, if people ‘walked the line’ in everything all of the time, you priests and ministers would be out of a large part of your jobs.” Trust me; we would not mind a bit!
But, alas … such isn’t the case, and doesn’t look like it ever will be. Ever those darned old bad habits, temptations, irascibilities, selfishnesses, etc., are always goading us to where we may not really want to go … but often go anyway. “Just this once”, or “Nobody will see” or some other lame excuse we make to ourselves trip us up and we fall down on our moral face. We surrender when we should fight, we acquiesce when we should refuse. And yet, does not all of civilization and social peace depend on our resisting immediate animal temptations—much of it in the commonly-called “seven deadly sins” of lust, greed, envy, gluttony, pride, anger, and sloth—our constant adversaries.
Many, of course, will ridicule or dismiss the idea of these as things to be avoided, especially in our day. But do we not witness the carnage they produce—from the smallest to the highest levels of society … from interpersonal relations to relations between nations?
We see the conflicts even within ourselves. While most would love to be Bezos or Musk wealthy, they may also condemn them for having too much … “not paying their fair share” or being ungenerous. But are WE generous with what WE have? Or, sadly, pornography is one of the biggest businesses on the internet—not valuing persons as who they are, but rather by the lust they engender. How ironic that we are supposed to not judge persons by appearance, and yet so many tie their own self-worth to that very thing—displays of selfies dominant on social media, or just about anything to get attention. Our poor youth these days!—so manipulated into finding self-worth in accumulating “likes” by posting things which they often should not, rather than focusing on things that really matter such as virtue, selflessness and service for the general good of persons.
But we’re reminded of St. Paul who had the very same struggles, and the non-Christian can also surely relate to the principle he expounds upon regardless of faith: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do … Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me … waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:18-25)
Paul laments his own weakness … this troublesome humanity of ours which often plagues even the stoutest of hearts. Thus we can avoid despair and discern hope to ourselves, through God’s grace. We can be heartened even after our lapses: “If Paul had so much trouble with temptation and is still a saint, then I still be so as well!”
Indeed we can … to our very last breath. But not waiting or being presumptuous, but rather exerting necessary effort in the here and now. Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, but did also admonish her: “Do not sin again.” (John 8:11) Let us change now. As we see in faith’s history, today’s sinner can be tomorrow’s saint. And “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
We can all empathize with St. Paul in this at one time or another; we long to do good with our minds, but then selfishness or temptation of the body thwarts us. This battle within describes the war that goes on within all of us—that war of excessive or disordered passion against conscience—our conscience and the natural law imbued within which knows the law of God and of what is truly right. As Paul writes elsewhere: “…the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.” (Galatians 5:17) … our continual battle necessitating lifelong vigilance.
The letter to the Romans is probably the last of the letters that Paul wrote, probably when he was in his late 50s or 60s—still fighting with temptations. Thus WE need not ever despair of changing of self, repentance and conversion. We can grasp firmly onto strength already given us and fix our gaze upon the good, for God grants grace to do so. For, as Paul writes elsewhere: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
So, as Paul says as he anticipates his end, we might be able to say at our own as well with a truly founded hope and good conscience: “…the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
Editor’s note: Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.