Ethics and the Redemption: The Journey to Self-Control

In this post, we discuss the nature of sexual ethics given the reality that we all start from a place of sinfulness, not from original innocence. All of this is still in an attempt to further understand Christ’s teaching about “adultery in the heart.”

Purity and the Redemption: Victory in Jesus

Christ’s teaching about adultery “in the heart” is new. New in the sense that it was a break from the external purity of the Old Testament, but also new when it first reaches each person at every time in every place. It is specifically Christian and not part of the natural law.

This new morality, a new level of purity, is possible only because of the reality of the redemption. We can never return to original innocence – that ship sailed long ago! But as we discussed at length earlier in this series, there is a fundamental goodness of our creation that persists in spite of sin. Our goodness is deeper than sin. Christ calls us to return to this goodness, and this is possible because we are redeemed. We are to become a “new man” in and through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

This “new man” shows himself in us inasmuch as the redemption of Christ wins the victory over original sin in our hearts and in our actions. One of the primary battlefields is sexuality. How do we know if Christ is winning? He wins through temperance and chastity, through self control, the ability to reject some desires and to embrace others. As this  ability grows stronger, our values change. We begin to value the spousal meaning of the body – we see our own bodies and those of others as expressions of a person and means of giving a very personal gift. If we are not able to decide which of our desires and urges to reject and which to embrace, if we blindly follow instinct, it means that we do not value the body or the person in this way. Instead, we see bodies as means to our personal pleasure and people more like animals, following instinct.

Can self control feel lonely?

Temperance, chastity, self control – whatever you want to call it, this ability to be the boss of our own instincts does not just appear for us suddenly because we want it to. (It has for some saints, though, so feel free to pray for that!) It’s a process. Even St. John Paul acknowledges that when we first embark on the road to chastity, it doesn’t always seem as great as Theology of the Body might have you believe – spousal meaning of the body and the gift of self and a lot of other nice sounding, if confusing, philosophy. In fact, it can seem downright lonely. (He phrases this as being “left hanging in the void of the subject.” Even if you were relating to people in the wrong way before, perhaps through lust, pornography, hooking up, serial dating, etc., at least you had someone to relate to! Now what?

As we walk further along this road of chastity and make progress, though, we begin to see the fruits. At some point you realize that perhaps for the first time, you are actually in control of yourself. This realization, this ability, is necessary to actually experience your dignity as a person. After all, free will is the primary difference between a person and an animal. Before you have control over yourself, your free will is limited and you are in some ways like an animal. Now you can begin to actually experience the spousal meaning of the body – you can realize for yourself that your own body is able to be given in a variety of ways as a gift to others. You cannot give what you do not have. If you are not in control of your own body, you cannot freely give it to anyone else. Whatever relationship, especially sexual, you may have had was somewhat involuntary, based on lust and instinct. Now that you can resist those instincts, you can choose to share as much or as little of yourself with anyone you wish. You can give the gift of self.

JPII beautifully writes here that this is “when the deepest layers of his potentiality acquire a voice, layers that the concupiscence of the flesh would not allow to show themselves.”

Because every person is subject to concupisence and has impure desires, the first stage in purity must necessarily be knowledge of your own sinfulness. A person who claims to be unaware of having any impure sexual thoughts or instincts, ever, is either a very special saint in the making or is actually too immature to identify sin and has not even begun the process of growing in chastity. The one who sees his sin has already taken the first step.

Perhaps the journey toward true freedom and self-mastery sometimes takes us back to rediscover original solitude before we can reach original unity. Relationships built on the foundation of temperance and chastity are much more personal and fulfilling than those built on lust and self-gratification.

In the next couple of posts, we will be getting into Pauline theology and discussing the battle between the spirit and the flesh.

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