Concupiscence II – Scott Hahn

September 11, 2012

Saint Paul: “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin.” Guercino, San Paolo

In order to overcome the effects of concupiscence, we must first know what they are. Tradition names three.

  1. Our intellects are darkened. Our faculty of reason now takes direction from our glands and our gut. It is only with God’s grace, revealed truth, and our own effort that we can think past the promptings of our flesh.
  2. Our wills are weakened. The will can only will the good. But the will acts upon the data provided by the intellect, which is now working in darkness. Thus our will is often misdirected — not toward God as our ultimate end, but toward creatures as our proximate end. The will still chooses good things; it just chooses lower goods, apparent goods. Nobody every chooses evil as evil, even the person committing suicide or murder. Hitler thought he was doing good by ridding the world of Jews, Gypsies, and Catholic priests. That’s how twisted human nature can become, once concupiscence is allowed free rein.
  3. Our appetities are disordered. Our desire for food, sleep, sexual intimacy — all of these are good in themselves, when they are ordered to God, as they were created to be. But through concupiscence they become disorderly; and so our bodies have a tendency to drag us down into gluttony, laziness, lust, and other habitual sins.

    You can see the ravages of concupiscence now. The intellect is darkened, so it is not feeding the will. Thus, the will is weakened further still. Finally, the desires of the flesh have become disorderly because the soul is no longer governing the body as it should.

By now we should better understand the cry of Saint Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Like Paul, we should also be sure that our deliverance comes from Jesus Christ our Lord. We must, however, learn to discern Christ’s call to repentance in our everyday lives, for these are the appointed moments of our deliverance.

Sin begins, for us, with our disordered desires. First we are tempted by a hankering after something we should not have. Our first level of obligation, then, is to resist temptation: to reject the desire and remove ourselves from the situation that is agitating us. If we fail to do so and we sin, we have a graver and more difficult obligation, because we have placed ourselves in greater danger. We must now repent of our particular sin, confess it, and do penance for it.

But what if we don’t repent? What if, instead, we go back for another round of the forbidden pleasure? Once we fail to fulfill the second level of obligation, then we face God’s punishment. Even this, however, is not what we might expect. God doesn’t ordinarily punish sinners by sending a lightning bolt from a sunny sky. The worst punishment we can receive is the attraction the sin exercises upon us. When people choose a forbidden pleasure, the punishment for sin becomes the pleasure they experience illicitly, because once they experience it, they want it more. If God abandons us to our illicit pleasures, we find we can no longer resist them at all. Before long, we’re hooked. We’re dependent, or codependent, or addicted.

Once we’re hooked on a sin, our values are turned upside down. Evil becomes our most urgent “good,” our deepest longing; what is actually good stands as an “evil” because it threatens to keep us from satisfying our illicit desires. At that point, repentance becomes almost impossible, because repentance is, by definition, a turning away from evil and toward the good; but, by now, the sinner has thoroughly redefined both good and evil. Isaiah said of such sinners: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

Concupiscence run amok is God’s punishment for unrepentant sin, and it’s a punishment that fits the crime. When people persist in choosing the lesser good, God eventually removes their restraints. In the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul explains that “God gave [the pagans] up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity … because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator” (Romans 1:24-25). “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (1:26) and “to a base mind and to improper conduct” (1:28). In punishing people, God respects their freedom. He “gives them up” to the lusts, the passions, and the conduct that they themselves had chosen. But when God — Who gave them life — has given them up, can they be any more dead?

I’ll say it again: The pleasure in sinning is the first punishment for sin. This comes as a surprise to most people. We think of divine punishment as a vendetta by which God gets even with sinners. But the worst temporal punishments God allows are the attachments that arise from sins freely chosen.

Drunks, for example, don’t start off as drunks. They start off by getting drunk once, then again, then again. So if we desire alcohol and we don’t moderate that desire, we find ourselves intoxicated; and the drunkenness is the punishment for the sin of immoderate drinking. At that point, we should realize that we have failed in our initial duty to resist temptation; we must then repent, confess, and do penance. But if we don’t repent — if, instead, we go back for another drunken binge — then we will feel within our souls the weight of this illicit good drawing us downward, further away from God.

That’s what happens when the intellect is darkened and the will weakened. We render ourselves almost incapable of repenting, apart from some divine intervention — a car wreck, abandonment by our family, eviction from our home, the loss of a job. When disaster strikes, the sinner usually thinks that God is finally waking up and beginning to punish him. But that is not divine wrath; it’s divine mercy, saving the sinner from a worse and everlasting fate.

What we then see as punishments, as wrath, are really the flashes of sudden, brilliant light that God sends to illumine a soul darkened by concupiscence and sin.

It is important that we come to understand God’s punishments in the right way. The Old Testament speaks of God’s “anger” or His “wrath” 168 times. Yet we can say with conviction that God does not “get angry”; He does not “punish” us in His “rage.” For God is eternal and unchanging; thus, He does not undergo the movements and changes that human beings experience in our emotions and passions.

When the Bible speaks of God’s “wrath,” it is speaking metaphorically, as it often does. Think, for example, of the Psalmist’s reference to God’s “right hand and His holy arm” (Psalms 98:1.). This does not mean that God has limbs and members, any more than He has emotions and passions. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains: “When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power” (Summa Theologica 1.1.10 ad 3m).

What does the metaphor represent? Anger is a relational word. If we are angry, we must have an object of our anger — someone with whom we’re angry. Since anger cannot properly refer to something in the Trinity — for unchanging God has no eternal anger — it cannot refer to God’s eternal relations. It must, then, speak of a temporal relationship between God and man. Saint Thomas is helpful here: “Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment becomes an expression of anger. Therefore punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God…. [Still,] anger is never attributed to God properly, since in its primary meaning it includes passion” (Summa Theologica, 1.19.11, c).

Divine wrath, anger, and punishment are terms that help us to understand the actions in our lives, and in history, by which God achieves justice and restores order. But these are not the ragings of a “hanging judge.” They are, rather, the instrument of His mercy and kindness. God’s punishments are like the chastisements of a loving father, or the press of the shepherd’s rod and staff that guide us in right paths. They are remedial, restorative, redemptive, medicinal. Said Saint Paul: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

God’s anger has been defined as “the greatest disasters and blows which may strike people as the outcome of sin, as `punishment’ which is bound to sin because God has willed it.” Saint Paul said: “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things” — that is, who sin (Romans 2:2).

God often punishes us in ways we do not expect. But His punishments are never vindictive or arbitrary; they are the inevitable consequences of our free choices. Indeed, His punishments — even the ultimate and everlasting punishment of hell — are the very safeguards of human freedom and assurance of divine love. For no love can be coerced. We must be free to choose God’s love or — tragically, ultimately — to reject it. If we did not have the option of choosing sin and hell, we could not have the freedom of truly choosing and loving God. If God did not permit us to say no to Him, our yes would be worthless, the programmed response of a machine.

We have to face the fact that when we sin and opt for something instead of God, we’ll get what we choose.

Unfortunately, because we must make our choice using faculties weakened by concupiscence, it will always be a struggle. Concupiscence can only drag us in one direction: downward, away from God. Moreover, its gravity is overwhelming, overpowering us body and soul.

We can begin to overcome concupiscence through self-mastery and self-denial — indeed, we must do so — but even that is not enough. We need the help that only God can give: the grace He dispenses freely in the sacrament of penance. That grace works with divine and creative power; it creates anew the heart that sin has disordered, disfigured, and disgraced.

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