“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
This is just a snippet from a passage that often seems tortuous to read. It describes the incredible frustration of doing something that you actually didn’t want to do. But if you didn’t want to do it, why did you do it? It clearly says that there is more going on within us than simple willing.
This is a passage that, for me, undermines the claims of an unfettered freedom of the will, or the exaltation of the will to the key position within our lives. There is something, St. Paul reasons, that seems to stand between who I am and my ability to actually access that reality. St. Paul concludes, “It is sin that dwells within me.”
Now, you might think you know what that means – but the meaning is far from obvious. The worst conclusion to draw is the notion of a “sin nature” (a horrible theological error). A “nature” (by definition) is “what a thing is.” If we have a “sin nature” then we not only sin – we are sin. This is blasphemous. Sin is extraneous to what it is to be human – it is a parasite. St. Paul doesn’t say, “It is sin, which I am.” He says, “It is sin that dwells within me.” If you need an image, think of the alien thing (like in the movie) dwelling inside you. It’s a bother (to say the least), and it can be devastating, but it’s not you. You are not sin.
What can it possibly mean to say that “sin dwells within me?”
First, I will note that St. Paul speaks of it as “something.” It’s not a legal issue (“Father, is this a sin?” – meaning, “Did I break a rule?”). No, this is a “thing” of some sort, spoken of in a substantive manner. It is not my nature, or some collective way of speaking about my bad stuff.
I think there is a good candidate for thinking about this sin – one that is familiar to many. That candidate is what is termed “toxic shame” in some modern discussions. It is distinguished from “healthy shame” and has some interesting characteristics. The Book of Sirach has this:
“For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” (Sir. 4:21)
The “shame that brings sin” is synonymous with toxic shame. It has a very vicious character. Toxic shame operates like a “second self” without being the self at all. It is something like a false personality and filter or window through which we see the world and relate to it. We come away from an experience of toxic shame with this kind of thought (for example): “Why did I say that?” In some cases, though an incident or conversation might seem embarrassing, or poorly thought-out, the motivation or context behind it may seem entirely opaque. These actions (in my experience) do not have the character of “willing.” It is as though we were watching someone else speak in our place (while at the same time assuming that it is the self that is speaking, which only deepens the shame – “How did that happen?”).
The “second self” of toxic shame can, in shame-bound personalities, become almost a default position, the “window” through which the world is viewed. It may be a window of anxiety, of worthlessness, of awkwardness, or perfectionism (and a much longer list, as well). It can be such a familiar “second self” that we have come to imagine it as an actual expression of who we are. It is, however, not “who we are.” It is much closer to being “sin that dwells in me.” At the very least, it is an ersatz personality that acts as though it is us. We come away from its actions feeling unclean, disgusted, embarrassed, frustrated, or simply confused.
The second-self of toxic shame leaves the true self with a feeling of isolation and alienation. Indeed, the true self can live in a hidden state, feeling alienated from the world at all times, unable to break free from the false, second-self. Our inability to be in communion with the world leaves us feeling out-of-communion with the self. It is easy in such situations to begin to doubt that there even is a true self, to imagine that the shame-created false self is all there is. Adam and Eve were naked and ashamed and felt as strangers in their own bodies. The fig leaves made no difference. Sin is not a legal problem. It is a matter of the loss of communion. Nothing is more lonely.
When I think of this existential predicament, my mind turns to Christ’s descent into Hades. We are “trapped” within the confines of toxic shame, and discover that we cannot simply or easily will our way out. We need a savior. On an emotional level, there is a need to identify and break open the secrecy and hiddenness of the shame itself (and this can be a slow process). It requires safety and love (lots of it). On some level, depending on the nature of the toxic wounds, we may find ourselves as exceedingly vulnerable “children.” Much of the personae that are developed in adolescence and adulthood are constructs of the toxic self. The truth of who we are may well have been hidden for years.
Who wants to be like a little child in the presence of another adult? Who wants to be that vulnerable or naked? What adult can be trusted with such a thing?
The answer, of course, is – very few. Nevertheless, God makes possible what often seems impossible. Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not quench.” (Matt. 12:20) The meekness and gentleness of Christ is truly “the safe place.” He enters into the loneliness of the various “hells” we inhabit in order to bring us out, and to crush the toxic lies of the shame that seeks to silence us.
I have heard His voice whispering softly that it is so.
The ascetic and pastoral ministry of the Church is rightly focused on this existential liberation of us all. We do well to lay it to heart that our encounters with other people are often “behind glass,” that is, we are ourselves behaving through the distortions caused by shame in our lives, as are others. The rarest thing on earth, I think, is the actual encounter of the true self (whether our own, or someone else).
I have had the profound experience through the years of hearing confessions, including those of young children (starting around age 7 or 8). Often, at those early ages, the fragmentation caused by shame is negligible. I’ve often come away from those confession shaken to my core – the intensity of seeing and hearing purity of heart in a child can reveal the very darkness within my own. At the same time, I’ve had the deep sadness of slowly seeing that purity fade over time and the fragmentation begin. We are not born depraved. Anyone who thinks that is profoundly mistaken.
I believe that if we would attend to the moments of clarity (however brief), points when the dark veil of shame is pulled back but a bit, and in that attending, would cling to Christ, we would find greater strength for the whole of the battle.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made. May God reveal it to you and, and, by His grace, to the world as well.