The Dynamics of Choice

Romans 7:13-25.

Paul’s Complaint ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’.

Who does not identify with Paul’s dilemma? We hear in this cry Paul addressing not only his own individual experience but the collective experience that is common to us all. As Paul struggles with the concept of the Law and what freedom from the Law means. Following the Law misleads us into thinking that the task is to be good. But God is not someone to be pleased by good behavior. God is someone to be be in relationship with.

The dynamics of choice

We like to entertain a simple notion that suffering results from making poor choices. We place a huge importance on conscious intention. How many times do children with tears in their eyes proclaim their innocence with ‘ but I didn’t mean it, Mummy – its not my fault!’ Here lies the rub about choices. How to tell the difference between good from bad ones. We like to think its simply a matter of intention. Because I didn’t intend a certain consequence then I am not responsible for its coming about. Even though my action has caused harm its OK because I didn’t intend it – it just kind-of happened. Sometimes upon reflection we swear ‘well I won’t do that again!’ only to find that this is exactly what we end up doing again and again. Most of us are trapped in a reality in which we continue to make the same choices while expecting different outcomes and like children we are often heard to say  ‘but I didn’t mean it, Daddy!’

Paul observes the disconnect between intention  and action – between what we think or want to do and what we actually end up doing. But he only has the Greek philosophical concepts of spirit and flesh to work with. Hence his distinction between the intention of his inmost self and the sinful actions of his members. This leads him to picture a struggle between inner and outer – between spirit and flesh. Spirit is good and flesh is bad.

Scholars such as Dominic Crossan – a Catholic and Marcus Borg – now an  Episcopalian of Lutheran background in their book The First Paul argue very convincingly that the idea of the spirit and the body being at war  owes more to Augustine and Anselm than to Paul . However that may be, in my experience the disconnect between intention and action results not from a failure to subjugate the flesh but from being all to successful at splitting-off our passions – feeling that these have no place in a pure spiritual life.

Contributions from depth psychology

Today we have an understanding of the psychological processes that go to make up our human nature. This enables us to move away from the simplistic and dualistic distinction between spirit and body. We have a finer distinction in the difference between conscious and unconscious motivation. There is a struggle but its not so much a struggle between good and bad parts of ourselves as between aspects of ourselves we are aware of  i.e. are conscious of – and aspects of ourselves that we remain unaware of  i.e. unconscious of.

Going back to my earlier comments about choice. We feel badly for ourselves when we make a mistake which is simply the realization that the unintended consequences of our choice have hurt us or others. So we vow that next time we won’t make that mistake only to find that -low-and-behold- we make exactly that same mistake again. The popular definition of madness -making the same choices hoping for different results captures the nature of the problem. We say this time it will work for me because I am different or the situation is different. In relaitonships we proclaim that this man or this woman will love me because they are different from the one who hurt me before. On and on we go. The psychological explanation for this is that we believe that change is only a matter of conscious intention. We fail to recognize that it’s the unconscious intentions that trip us up. Unconscious intentions never show up in our mind. That’s why we call them unconscious. They always express themselves in our actions and our behavior. If we want a true location for the unconscious we need to look to our bodies. Its in the tissues of the body that unconscious repressions show and its in the neural pathways of the brain that the well worn groves of unconscious behaviors can be traced.

That which we cannot remember we are destined to repeat – (Sigmund Freud) I do a lot of one to one and group work in my role as Canon Pastor.  Informed by my psychological training I know not to listen too closely to what a person tells me he or she thinks or feels. Instead I am paying close attention to what they do both in terms of the behaviors they describe to me and those behaviors I note present in the room with me. This is for me the clue to what is going on in the unconscious of the person sitting with me. To misquote Freud who said that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious I want to say that its behavior which is the royal road to the unconscious.

The source of the disconnect between intention and action lies in the actions of  memory. We are creatures who are dominated by our brain’s need to map new experience to familiar memories which then operate as dominant templates for future experiences. So new situations that have the potential for new outcomes  become contaminated by the transference of old patterns of expectation and behavior. We long for the familiar. There is a saying- that the mind only recognizes what it is already looking for. We recognize only what we already know. New situations become overlaid with patterns of expectation, feeling, and response that reflect past experiences. This phenomenon is the basis for the operation of psychotherapy. The client replays with the therapist what is familiar to them in the field of relationships and relational styles. These familiar relationship templates are the very things that serve the client so poorly and forces him or her into therapy. The therapist refuses to react as the ordinary people in the client’s life react. Into this tension something new is introduced and a modification to experience emerges.

Back to St Paul’s complaint,  ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing  I hate’. He cries, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death’? Paul’s answer is that it’s God who saves through the death and resurrection of Christ.  This is no doubt the truth, but the devil is in the detail.

Dynamics of spiritual change

The dynamic of change as it occurs in psychotherapy is a dynamic of interruption. The inappropriate transference of past feelings into the present is interrupted by the way the therapist does not react to the client’s invitation to repetition. Can we see in this process a spiritual model for change through the interruption of Grace?

In spiritual direction the task is to discern the movements of  God’s Spirit through the establishing of a relationship of companioning. A widespread discovery within this process is that God does not react according to our expectations.  In this way Grace intervenes between the familiar-known (past) and the yet to become known (present to future). We note that conscious intention has a limited psychological power to ensure that unconscious motivations cooperate to bring about our consciously desired result. In spiritual theology intention has been traditionally been understood as the capacity of Will.  Will is the divine energy of agency. We establish a direction of travel from the known into the yet to become known through the operation of Hope supported by our capacity of Will. In this way while we as yet cannot see the outlines of the future we yet make a conscious investment in the yet to become known. As we risk an openness to that which is yet to become known the intervention of Grace is enabled in ways we are barely aware of. Grace orients our opening to a participation in the dream God has for who we might become. Left to our own imagining we could never conceive of the surprises and richnesses which inhabit the divine imagination for us.

We can believe the right doctrine. We can live lives of strict discipline controlling anger and desire. We endeavor with all our might to follow the rules i.e. the Law and still find ourselves in the predicament Paul speaks of. Alternatively, we can place ourselves deliberately in the path of Grace so that Grace bumps into us. We do this not through being strict but through being faithful in prayer and loving and forgiving in relationships. We accept the inevitability of a mismatch between intention and action while learning to listen more deeply through regular reflection, engagement with Scripture, faithfulness in worship. What we are learning to listen for are the voices of the familiar (memory templates for experience) which through bitter experience of pain and disappointment caution us against opening ourselves to the possibility that God’s dream for us offers more than we can imagine for ourselves.

We all long for change. Yet at the same time we fear to change! The agent for spiritual change is Grace. We encounter Grace only when we participate in the spiritual life of worship, habitual recollection now more commonly referred to as meditation or contemplation, study and common prayer. This is the way we bridge the disconnect between intention and action. It is in the daily patterns of our spiritual practice that we begin to recognize the old voices calling us to endless repetition of choices that don’t work for us.  In prayerful recollection we begin to identify the voices which tell us that its safer to have low expectations, to hope little and thereby protect ourselves from disappointment.

When we begin to discern the old voices that have nothing new to tell us we begin to make room to hear a new voice with a new message. This at first whispers quietly seeking space to be heard, beckoning us into the yet to be known. It is in the yet to become known that we become changed by a fresh encounter with God. The old voices do not disappear, certainly not over-night. However, when they become more identifiable we are enabled to make a choice – do we continue to believe them or begin to ignore them?

In my experience God meets us in the space before us which I am here calling the yet to become known. The encounter with God that leads to change and only occurs when we have the courage to move into a landscape as yet unfamiliar. We brave the fear and uncertainties of the unknown and find ourselves met by God.


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