The Desires of a Divided Soul


“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
(Romans 7:15)

“He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
(James 1:8)

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
(Sören Kierkegaard)

There is some controversy over whether St. Paul was speaking of the Christian or pre-Christian life in the seventh chapter of Romans. I take the chapter as transitioning at verse 15 where he begins to speak in the present tense, first person. The rest of the chapter is an apt description of the Christian life and one that I am very thankful to have. For otherwise I think the pains of regret we face in this life could be unbearable. It is one thing for Christians to rejoice in their salvation, it is another to live in the tension between our two homes. Death is division – division of the soul from the body, between one person and another, or even within oneself. St. James says to endure that we might take on the characteristics of virtue – and warns that to do otherwise is to divide the mind itself (ch. 1). Paul here gives a picture of the struggle to heal this division.

In Romans 6-7, the question comes down to choosing our master. Prior to salvation we are under the mastery of sin. Sin comes “naturally” – we obey it without question if we can get away with it. We are “free with regard to righteousness.” (How terrifying!). Christians, however, have been liberated from this sin master and given the choice of making Christ our master or returning to the old one. So why in the world would we ever choose the latter?

St. Paul’s illustration here is a good place to start. Imagine a man enslaved to another for many years. He is used to doing what he is told, perhaps without thinking much about it. Then one day he finds himself freed from his slavery. Now suppose this newly freed man is walking down the street one day and runs into his old master who then orders him to perform some task. Because of this man’s past actions and lifestyle, his inclination will be to obey his old master. Even if he knows deep down that he is no longer a slave to the old master, it feels unnatural to disobey. It would be easier and, in a sense, make the man happier, to just do what the old master says even if he is no longer required to do so.

I think this illustrates our post-justification state. Romans 7 is in the “sanctification” section of Romans – not the justification or glorification sections. In this state we are being made into something – indeed, we are being re-formed. But what is it that is being reformed? Not our bodies – no, unfortunately those have to wait. But our souls can be. When St. Paul speaks of trans-formation (instead of conformation to the world), he means the renewal of the mind (Gk. “nous” – the meaning is deper than “intellect” – closer to “inner person”). The renewal or transformation of the mind is the key to ending the division of the soul (St. James, in the quotation above, uses the word dipsuchos – literally “one with two souls”).

When we speak of the mind in human beings we refer to two powers in the soul: the intellect and the will. The intellect seeks truth and the will seeks goodness. When we make a choice, our intellect grabs onto reality (truth) and shows it to the will. When the will identifies something in the intellect as a good it produces desire – specifically desire for union. We want that good! We find rest when we attain the good, and we suffer when we do not. The problem is that in this life there are always multiple – and often competing – goods for the will to consider. Because we live in a finite world, all we have to choose from are limited goods. This limit shows itself in two very frustrating ways.

First, we always want more of a good than we can get. I see pizza, my will seeks it as a good, I eat it, and my will is satisfied – but only temporarily. Eventually my desire for pizza will rekindle. But perhaps by then there is no pizza – no way to fulfill my desire and put my will to rest. Thus, we suffer.  Second, limited goods are often in competition. I want the pizza, but I also want to be fit. I now have two goods to consider, and only one can win. My intellect may be show me more good in one choice than the other, and then the will can more easily do its job. But either way I suffer. We tend to think of choice as something positive – I choose this thing and gain it – but every choice is a choice against a hundred other things. Every choice is a sacrifice, and so every choice involves suffering loss.

This potential loss activates a peculiar ability within the will. Since the will governs my actions, and thinking is an action, my will can, in a limited sense, govern my intellect. If I have two goods before me, my will can direct my intellect to stop thinking about the good of one and only consider the good of the other. This is deliberation (or, often in my case, rationalization) – the will moving the intellect to consider different goods in order to make a choice. But what if the will is divided?

The form or “shape” of the soul (I am speaking non-technically here) just is what our wills and intellects are like. What form does the soul have prior to salvation? One shaped by sin. This form affects the intellect and the will (the two constituents of the human soul), along with the emotions that follow from the body. The picture St. Paul gives of the old master is really us in our pre-justified state. In that state our souls are conformed to sin – the will seeks goods, but does not see many evils for what they are. The intellect presents some possible action (theft, fornication, gossip, lying) and the will (which still seeks good) finds the good in those things (for evil is always a corruption of a good thing, not the thing in itself) and latches on. So for example, if lying will get me out of an uncomfortable social situation, that good may be all my will considers. So I choose to lie, it works, my will finds rest, and my soul conforms to that result. The next time I consider lying, it will seem that much better. And so it continues.

But let us say that I become saved. What is saved? Me of course! In other words, my soul. But it is my soul that has been formed by sinful action that is saved, not replaced.  It is still my soul. That soul with the will that saw lying as a good cannot simply be eradicated or what would salvation mean? Saving a child from getting hit by a car does not consist in letting the child die and replacing him with another. Rather than being replaced, my soul needs to be reshaped or transformed.

To be human in the image of God we must have freedom – we must have wills that can function in non-coerced ways. Yet how can my soul, formed in sin, ever will the highest goods?  Having a book full of rules cannot help unless I see duty as a higher good than anything else my will sees as a good. But because my soul is formed in sin, this is difficult. I want that thing that I cannot afford, and knowing that I am obeying a good rule by not stealing does not satisfy me, because I still want that other good too!

Duty can only get us so far. For the legalist the law functions as a guide but offers no hope of success. For the licentious the law only provokes sin. Duty is a good that must be learned, but it cannot by itself really help us to desire the good. For it is only when the will chooses the good because of its goodness that it can rest in that choice. I might go some time merely following a sense of duty – but I will be miserable. Eventually I will fail and be miserable for failing. In this case there is no way out. Because the soul is divided it is logically impossible to find satisfaction. Pain is all one can choose. Despair will come if the will can never find rest.

I might expect God to simply wipe out the old form of my soul so that my will would only seek true goods. But that would, in a frightening sense, be to act against my will. God would be destroying me in a sense, if He changed my soul without me truly, deeply, desiring it. And can a soul desire itself to be destroyed? No, not truly. But can we desire to not desire? Yes.

The good news is that the soul conformed to sin can be trans-formed. Sinning conformed my soul to sin, doing good will transform my soul into one conformed to good. But this is a process – a process my soul must go through if I am to remain me. God’s salvation begins at justification (thankfully apart from doing good!), but it continues with our actions throughout our Christian life. This is sanctification (“saint-making”). This salvific process is seen in that salvation is said to be by God’s grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), but that this is for good works (Ephesians 2:10). Our works – what we choose to do from now on – will form our souls. Certainly God gives us much help – so much that we can take no credit for what we do (“giving up” our striving against God is hardly a heroic action, but it is an action nonetheless!).

But why bother? If we are justified we will also be glorified (cf. Romans 8). So what does it really matter what we do? I think here we need to consider the nature of death and the afterlife. Eternal life, says Jesus Christ, is knowing God. The division of spiritual death will cease. So the intellect will get to see God – but will we want to? Will we see God as a good? Will our wills rest in Him?

Western theology says yes – God, as the ultimate and infinite good, cannot help but be desired by our will. Being in the presence of God is heaven for all. Eastern theology says no – God as the ultimate and infinite good can be shunned in this life and the next. Being in the presence of God for one who shuns His goodness will hell for them. What is interesting is that both affirm degrees of happiness / suffering in the afterlife, and each affirm that it is the state of the soul at death that determines this experience.

Now, if the state of our souls at death determines our experience of the afterlife, and our souls are in a state of transformation out from sin, and our choices and actions are what reform our souls – then every single thing we do takes on significance. Our post-justification lives are not just an add-on, not just an opportunity to get more people off the sinking ship of the world. It is time for us to prepare for heaven (conversely it is time for unbelievers to prepare their souls for hell).

This makes a lot of sense out of the judgment/reward/punishment language in Scripture that is applied to both saved and unsaved alike. It also helps make sense out of the final state of the moral person who dies in unbelief and the immoral person who experiences a deathbed conversion. It also helps to explain James chapter 1 where we see the function of suffering through trials. Nothing will reform the soul faster than suffering. Suffering helps us to stop willing only finite goods, for they are fleeting and often have bad consequences. And suffering prepares us to even better appreciate the infinite good that we will see “face to face” one day (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But only if we choose to seek it (Mt. 7:7).


2 thoughts on “The Desires of a Divided Soul

  1. Pingback: Escaping the Vicious Life | Soul Device

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