Expecting More Than Creation Can Give

When we try and acquire things through the exercise of our will it is as if we are trying to see with our ear, or hear with our eyes. The “carnal will” is the human will that loves something other than God. It is not even necessarily that we love the gift more than the Giver. The simple fact that we loving something other than God is sufficient to undo us and cause our downward spiral into grief and our subsequent neurotic flight from our own life. Once we exercise our will in the service of our desire for people, things, wealth, possessions, we kill off by little steps any gratitude to the Creator.

Centered as it is on the self and the desires of the self, the gnomic will is a stranger to gratitude and blinds us to the reality that creation is gift to be received from God. And as our lack of gratitude grows creation, and eventually even God Himself, become merely instruments in the service of my own self-satisfaction. Creation, the things of creation, and even my understanding of God, all become substitutes for God. Or, to use Augustine more economical mode of expression, lusts.

If these lusts are not resisted, they eventually become habits; without even thinking about it, I begin to relate spontaneously to people, events and things in terms of how they can please me, gratify me, promote my agenda and me. Eventually, I become enslaved to the habit of my lust. I can no longer live, except that I exploit the world around me for my own selfish ends. Ironically, the very things that—at first anyway—brought me pleasure and even happiness become my master and I become their slave.

The problem then, for Augustine, is not (as it is for the Manicheans) the body, but the will. Sin arises not out of the body, but out of the will’s attachment to the body rather than to God. In effect, I sin because I prefer the body and the things of the body (for example, sense knowledge, emotion, food, drink, pleasure, status, etc.) to God. And so Augustine says:

Thus with the baggage of this present world was I held down pleasantly, as in sleep: and the thoughts wherein I meditated on Thee were like the efforts of such as would awake, who yet overcome with a heavy drowsiness, are again drenched therein. And as no one would sleep for ever, and in all men’s sober judgment waking is better, yet a man for the most part, feeling a heavy lethargy in all his limbs, defers to shake off sleep, and though half displeased, yet, even after it is time to rise, with pleasure yields to it, so was I assured that much better were it for me to give myself up to Thy charity, than to give myself over to mine own cupidity; but though the former course satisfied me and gained the mastery, the latter pleased me and held me mastered (VII.5.12).

But again, the real perversion, the real corruption of the human, is not desire as such. It is rather that, as Augustine says in Book IV of his deceased friend, that we expect from creation what we can only reasonably, truly, expect from God: To be a worthy object of the human will.

For Augustine, unlike Horney, the will is not the vehicle of human desire, but the faculty that attaches us to God. And it is from that attachment that our identity arises. It is less that our will is damaged, and more that our will is attached not only to the Eternal God Who does not change, nor even to temporal, created realities that are in constant flux. No the “problem” of the will is that it is attached also, and even primarily, to itself.

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