Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 9, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Zech 9:9-12; Ps. 145:8-15; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30
In the climactic scene of his Confessions, the fourth century bishop and theologian St. Augustine finds himself alone in a garden. It’s not a mountaintop, but it may as well be, as it has taken him a long, arduous journey to get here. As a child, he resisted the entreaties of his devout mother, and spent much of his youth carousing with friends and enjoying various forbidden pleasures. His brilliance won him early academic fame, yet the philosophical fads of the time failed to satisfy his restless mind. It was the unlikely combination of eloquence and wisdom that he found in the great bishop of Milan, Ambrose, that prompted Augustine to reconsider Christianity, and he came to the conclusion that it offered the most compelling worldview, providing answers to his deepest questions about the origins of the universe and the nature of evil. But he still could not bring himself to make the decisive move. He could not will himself to believe.
Things come to a head in the garden. What is stopping him from crossing over? The conflict is not so much in his head as in his heart. He feels torn between the new desire welling up within him for the life of faith, and all the old desires that he could once indulge without thought but are now rapidly fading from view. Augustine is badgered by voices: “Do you imagine you will be able to live without these things?” (8.11.26). The problem, as Augustine comes to articulate it, is located in his will. It’s not the familiar tension between mind and body, where the body refuses to obey the mind’s commands; no, his body stands at attention, prepared to receive its orders. The problem is that he is caught between two wills, one leaping forward towards a new future, the other dragged from behind by the past, and he stands in the middle of them, paralyzed, unable to move, unable to mediate between them, unable to believe.
Augustine discovers that willing something and being able to do it are two different things. The distinction is subtle, but something confirmed by a variety of everyday experiences. Think of the time you wanted to move your leg but couldn’t because it was in a cast; when you wanted to see what was stirring in the corner of the room but couldn’t because the electricity had gone out; or when you wanted to drive home but couldn’t because your car was out of gas. In each of these situations there is some limiting factor that prevents you from doing what you want to do. Often times what prevents us from doing what we want lies outside ourselves; in some cases, it might be a weather condition or in other cases, a person or some societal injustice deprives us of the freedom to do what we want. In the garden, Augustine is wrestling with another kind of constraint, one that is not external, but internal, imposed not from without, but from within, a product of many years of acting in particular ways. He is wrestling with the force of sin, which manifests itself in the form of habit. What may have started as an experiment has become a way of life, a set of patterns that not only constrains his body, but also his desires. Now as he feels a new desire stirring within himself, he finds that he cannot act upon it, but immediately feels his old habits pushing up against, resisting, and negating it. It is one will against another, and given the internal resistance, he is unable to will one thing singly and wholeheartedly. He’s torn between the will to believe and the will not to believe. Here the difference between willing something and being able to do it is felt in the will itself. The thing standing between him and belief is himself.
The scene reads like an extended commentary on this morning’s epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Note how Paul draws attention to the same basic distinction between willing and being able to do what we will: “I can will what is right,” he writes, “but I cannot do it” (7:18). Paul, the convert to the Jesus movement, is further along than Augustine in the garden. He is struggling not so much with the will to believe, but the will to do right in the course of one’s faith journey. It’s a struggle that may resonate more deeply with many of us here, and one no less intense than Augustine’s. Somewhere between willing what is right and actually doing it, there is a gap, a breakdown. Like Augustine, Paul is not struggling with external constraints, although he could easily point to religious persecution as a hindrance to belief. For him, the relevant constraints are within. He says that while his “inmost self” (7:22) delights in the law of the Lord, there is also the “sin that dwells within [him]” (7:17), which operates like a law of necessity, pulling him in a direction he does not want to go. So antithetical is this impulse to the desire he feels for God, he says he does not even feel like the agent of his sins. As he puts it, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:20). It is like the external Paul, whom we know through his actions, is a different person from the internal Paul, whom we know through his will. One follows the law of sin, the other the law of God; one constrains his members, making his body feel like a prison, the other stirs a desire for what is right, making him feel free.
While some of their language is different, both Augustine and Paul land in basically the same place: they are unable to do what they will. Some may leave these accounts feeling skeptical: if we don’t do what we will, then we never willed it to begin with, right? As it says, “You shall know them by their fruits.” Maybe the will is an invention of our minds, designed to excuse our actual behavior through an appeal to an inner realm where things allegedly stand different. None of us enjoy hearing from the person who has offended us, “I didn’t really mean it.” Sometimes willing and doing are the same.
But sometimes they are not. The last thing Augustine and Paul are trying to do is excuse their behavior. Their behavior is precisely what disturbs them, and they are trying to get to the bottom of it. In pointing to the possibility of a gap between what we want and what we do, they are showing us something of the depths of the human being and how complex we really are. Whitman was right: we contain multitudes. We will not one thing, but multiple things, all the time. We experience various and conflicting loves, impulses, appetites, and passions. We feel pushed in one direction, and then another, and then another. That is who we are. Yet if this were not enough to handle, we complicate things by denying this is the case. We deny that it’s a struggle to do what’s right. We tell each other that all is fine inside. Worse, we try to convince ourselves of the same thing.
What’s striking about Paul and Augustine is how honest they are about the fact that they are so internally divided. They may exhibit other pathologies, but denial is not one of them. Paul comes right out and says it: “I do not understand my own actions!” (7:14). Augustine puts it no less emphatically: “Within the house of my spirit the violent conflict raged on” (8.8.19). As intense as this struggle is, it’s easy to forget that to get to the point of feeling and acknowledging such a struggle is itself a sign of enormous spiritual growth. Note that Augustine only experiences the intensity of the internal struggle near the end of his book, at the conclusion of his journey. He has gone most of his life unburdened by his sins and unwilling to change; it’s only after considerable intellectual growth and exposure to compelling models of moral excellence that he begins to find new desires stirring within. Paul, too, did not have any second thoughts when he was persecuting the church; it’s only after his conversion that he begins to feel the internal tension.
On this point, ethicists like to speak of the difference between two kinds of vice: one they call intemperance and the other incontinence. Intemperance is when the passions overwhelm us to the point that we experience no opposition or reflection. We are simply unconscious slaves to sin, asleep at the wheel. For those suffering from the vice of incontinence, the problem is slightly different. They know the good and actually want it, but they feel held back by the weight of past decisions. While they cannot overcome the temptation to sin and eventually yield, they at least have a conscience. Paul and Augustine are both narrating different forms of incontinence. It’s not where they want to be. But that they have gotten past intemperance is saying something. They are conscious. They are awake. They are no longer in denial. That’s further than a lot of people get.
Still, experiencing this internal struggle is no fun, and it stands in marked contrast to what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel lesson. “Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Rest is the exact thing Augustine and Paul do not have, but it is what Jesus promises. How can this be? Jesus does not say that belief will be free of any challenge. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” he says (11:29). Jesus is clear that it is a yoke that his disciples are being asked to harness. Elsewhere he frames it even stronger terms, challenging his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (see Matt. 10:38). The gate, as we know, is narrow and the road hard that leads to life (7:14). But Jesus goes on to say, “my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (11:30). Therein lies the paradox of faith: it is yoke, but an easy one, a burden, yet a light one.
Paul and Augustine have made dramatically clear in what the yoke and burden consists: brutal honesty about how things really stand with us, the pathos of unfulfilled longing, the impotence of willing but not being able to do. As the first part of the Gospel reading shows us, Jesus’ message is a yoke and a burden to sinners, as he criticizes the present generation for not responding to his call for repentance. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (11:17). Jesus says “woe” to those who do not hear the message of judgment and repentance. So he brings a yoke. The law he fulfills and holds before us is a burden. We are constantly reminded of how far we fall short of it. But this very awareness of sin also has the strange quality of a liberation. “If it had not been for the law,” Paul says, “I would not know sin” (Rom. 7:7). We can now face reality. We can now tell the truth about ourselves. We can stop telling myths about ourselves. We can put a stop to the denial. It’s an opportunity to step into the light, and if at first the light feels unbearable, by it we will shortly begin to see.
If facing the truth about ourselves entails struggle, it is not a struggle we bear alone. Jesus chooses his images carefully. The image of the yoke is one of his most carefully chosen. A yoke is a harness shared by two oxen that multiplies their power to the extent that it lessens the burden each bears. Jesus gives us his yoke, and he bears it beside us, making an unbearable load light. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul asks. He knows the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (24-25). Jesus is carrying the load beside us, tilling the ground of our sin, laying the seed of our redemption, preparing the harvest of our perfection.
The real wonder is the discovery that God has been doing this long before we become aware of it. I hate to spoil things, but in that climatic scene that I mentioned from the Confessions, Augustine does finally convert. The details are the stuff of legend. Just as Augustine is at his wit’s end, literally pulling out his hair because he cannot overcome his divided will, a mysterious vision of Lady Continence appears, the beauty of which causes him to weep uncontrollably. He then hears something even more mysterious, the voice of a young child singing, “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read” (8.12.29). Augustine picks up his Bible and opens to Romans, where it says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires” (13:14). Instantly, he is converted.
Most commentators take the child’s voice to be a symbol for grace: when we reach the end of our capacities, God takes over, lifting the obstacles that constrain our will, and freeing us to love Him with singleness and purity of heart. Yet the Confessions is not about a dramatic conversion story. It is the story of how Augustine becomes aware of God’s presence throughout the whole of his life. The real drama comes in the operation of Augustine’s memory, in the joy that accompanies the discovery of God’s intimate movement at every point of his life: his birth, his education, his promiscuous adolescence, his loves, his losses, his philosophical searching, and yes, all those wrenching, internal struggles. “You were ever present to me,” Augustine writes, “mercifully angry, sprinkling very bitter disappointments over all my unlawful pleasures, so that I might seek a pleasure free from all disappointment” (2.3.4). Later, reflecting upon a decisive encounter, he puts it this way, “Unknowingly I was led by you to him, so that through him I might be led, knowingly, to you” (5.13.24). What was so unbearable as he went through it is revealed as fantastically light and joyous when he discovers that God was present through all of it. Even the darkest moments take on infinite value when, through the work of memory, God waits to meet us there.
The memory of sin, whether in the form of habit or shame, is what holds most of us back, preventing us from walking into the new life that Christ offers us. What if sin itself, the struggle we feel within ourselves between willing the good and actually doing it—what if that very struggle was revealed as a manifestation of grace? As a sign that we have already been touched, that God is already more intimately present to us than our own inmost self (3.6.11)? What if our every remembered heartache were an entry point through which we were able to know and experience God, and what if every present struggle was already an experience of the God whose yoke is easy and burden light? What if sin was not an end but a beginning?
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” says Augustine. And God says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Amen.