Concupiscence and the Battle of the Spirit

One of the big differences between Catholic teaching and a great deal of the sort of dilute Protestantism that floats around in our culture is the Church’s teaching on temptation and failure after we become Christians.  Not a few Protestants have been troubled over the years by the fact that their faith in Christ did not seem to have “fixed” them.  That worry can and has taken the form of the question, “If I really believe, why do I keep sinning?”  Various approaches are taken to deal with this troubling reality.  If the sin is committed by one’s self, then the tendency is to wonder if I “really meant it” when I committed my life to Christ.  Alloyed with this is an often uneasy doctrine of “once saved, always saved” which attempts to paper over the anxiety by proposing that it is impossible to lose your salvation once you have made a sincere confession of faith.  However, the question “Was I really sincere?” goes on haunting the tender conscience of many Evangelicals whenever they are confronted by the ongoing fact of their weakened will, darkened intellects and disordered appetites. 

If the sin is committed by somebody else, another common Evangelical strategy is the easy proclamation that fallen one “was never really a Christian.”  This is a useful way to distance oneself from, say, injustices done by the Inquisition or Christians who sucked up to Hitler.  It becomes more and more difficult when the same attempt is made to distance oneself from a fellow Protestant.  A friend once listened as a rabbi who was teaching a class on the Holocaust read a nasty anti-semitic rant and ask the class who had said it.  Evangelicals in the class responded that, whoever it was, he wasn’t really a Christian.  The rabbi replied, “Are you seriously expecting me to believe that Martin Luther wasn’t really a Christian?”

Catholic theology doesn’t take any of these routes.  It acknowledges that you can pick your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives.  A baptized Christian who sins is a Christian sinner, not a non-Christian.  He doesn’t need to question whether he really meant it when he was baptized.  He needs to get to confession, not back into the baptismal.  And what is more, he needs to understand that just as sin does not name him, neither does the struggle with temptation after Baptism mean that his Baptism was ineffective or his faith in Christ insincere.

Baptism removes original sin and confers the life of the Trinity.  But it is grace, not magic.  And because of this, the Church teaches that the effects of original sin remain, much as we can still have a “trick knee” after the knee surgery is finished and healed.  Baptism gives us the life of grace to strengthen us.  But precisely why we need strength is that we are still left to struggle with the darkened mind, weakened will, and disordered appetites–in a word, concupiscence–that result from original sin.

The reason this matters is that concupiscence is not, in itself, sinful.  It is merely the “tinder for sin”. So what?  Well, if you believe that sin is the reality of who we are–in short, if you subscribe to some sort of half-baked notion of Total Depravity–and you believe that virtue is the mask, then every temptation will be seen, not as a moral battlefield upon which we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling with the help of a loving Father, but as further proof of what a scum you are.  If you believe that every time you are tempted, God is standing there saying, “And you call yourself a Christian!  What a scum you are!  If you really loved me, you wouldn’t feel tempted!  This just shows what you really are!” you are going to react differently than you would to a God who is rooting for you, interceding for you, and supplying you with grace to help you in your hour of trial.  If every temptation is seen as further proof of “what you really are”, then every repentance will be dismissed as one more phony attempt to deny who you “really are”. If every temptation is seen as the field of battle upon which you are being given the chance to join with Christ in the great struggle for holiness, then you will see your struggles in a very different light.

Understanding concupiscence makes the difference between seeing God as a Father who is pleased with the heroism of his Spirit-filled children or as an impatient, exasperated Critic who never has a good word to say to losers like us.

That’s all the difference in the world.


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