August 18, 2023

The War Within

The fight is a good sign.

Ty Gibson

No doubt you’ve heard someone say, “I am my own worst enemy.” Maybe you’ve said it yourself.

We intuitively understand that there is some sense in which the I stands against the me. Part of me wants to be something other than what I am, to do otherwise than I do, to relate differently than I relate.

Truth is, I’m engaged in a psychic civil war.

And so are you.

Diametrically Opposed Wills

Paul pinpointed this internal conflict when he wrote, “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind” (Rom. 7:23). In other words, I discern a deeply embedded principle at work in my bodily appetites and impulses that wages war against my higher reasoning faculties.

Your mind is a war zone, your body a battlefield, and your soul the territory at stake.

Ellen White nailed it when she wrote, “The warfare against self is the greatest battle that was ever fought.”1 In this statement the individual person is described as if he or she were two persons: I am at war with my self.

Spiritually—by which we simply mean mentally, emotionally, and volitionally—we are at odds with ourselves. Two diametrically opposed wills are fighting against each other inside of us. Polar opposite motives rip and tear at our humanity. There’s blood on one of our hands and a feather held gently in the other. We are bent inward toward ourselves, upon ourselves, against ourselves, in vicious and covert attacks in which we are both the victim and the victimizer.

Ellen White described the fall of humanity with the simple and insightful words “selfishness took the place of love.”2 Martin Luther described sin as homo incurvatus in se, Latin for “man curved inward toward self.”

One of Two Directions

This is precisely our predicament. And each of us is going to go one of two directions in the battle: either we’re going to follow the natural trajectory of our inward bent toward self to its inevitable end, or we’re going to rise up within, and against, ourselves as spiritually mobilized warriors.

Allowed to run its course, the inward bent (what the Bible calls “sin that dwells in me” [Rom. 7:17]) will incrementally form a nightmarish inner world of complex and convoluted thoughts and feelings that will close in around one’s inner landscape until all others are blocked from emotional view. Others will be seen, but not felt with empathy. The soul will increasingly find itself alone in the darkness of an acute self-interest—an aloneness composed of the inability to genuinely feel the feelings of anyone other than one’s self. Paul insightfully describes this state of being with the terrifying words “past feeling” (Eph. 4:19)—in other words, beyond the emotional capacity for conviction, beyond sensitivity to the Spirit.

But there is another direction we can travel.

The salvation that is present in Christ—fully present as an achieved reality in His humanity, which is our humanity—invites the fallen human being into a beautiful liberation from one’s self, and, simultaneously, a restoration of one’s self on the only premise that the self has viability at all, namely, to exist for others rather than for self. Said another way, in Christ we are called upon to war against our carnal mode of existence and to be reborn into a whole new way of being human, which is, in actuality, the old way of being human as God originally designed humanity to function.

According to the gospel, someone must die, and it’s you. Also, someone must live, and it is you. The you that must die is the you God never intended you to be, while the you that may come alive through Christ is the real you God always meant for you to be.

Knowing Is Half the Battle

Paul describes the introspection of those engaged in the battle:

“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 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” (Rom. 7:14-19).

This may seem complex upon first reading, but Paul says “we know.” That is, the reality he explains is self-evident to anyone who cares to pay attention. We are experientially aware of the fundamental conflict that exists between God’s good law and the carnal self. So if you identify with what he’s talking about here, you are alive in Christ even as you wage war against your carnal self. The fact that you are consciously engaged in the inner battle between good and evil means you are on the right side of the conflict, although, paradoxically, the target of your onslaught is you. You are at war with you.

On the other hand, to not “know,” that is, to not understand what Paul is talking about here, is an indication that you are still living, without resistance, in the delusional matrix of unchallenged self-centeredness. If you are not awake to the conflicted nature of your case, you are residing under the oppressive control of the carnal self. Unawareness of the inner war is the most immediate evidence that you are in a defeated position, obeying, without a fight, the urges of tyrannical King Self.

The Gospel Is the Victory

But while awareness is the most immediate precursor to victory, mere awareness is not sufficient.

Paul would have us understand that we must engage in a specific and deliberate spiritual maneuver in order to win the battle that rages inside of us. But it is not the kind of maneuver you would suppose necessary. It is, in fact, a maneuver that might be characterized as a nonmaneuver because it shifts the focus outward away from my own inner resources and rivets my trust elsewhere. Paul does not call for a valiant act of will. He does not attempt to whip into action a tenacious or skilled or seminar-trained exertion of internal grit. He does not adopt the Nike slogan Just Do It!

Not even close!

It is not more of you that you need.

You are your problem (remember?).

You need something else.

Somebody else, more precisely.

You need an exodus from self into the promised land of complete dependence upon the ultimate Other, the One who is alone of sufficient power to break the power of yourself over yourself. Having described the inner conflict that the spiritually alive person wages against self, Paul now comes to the brilliant bottom line of his theology (aka the gospel):

“O wretched man that I am!” the apostle cries out in full recognition of his imprisonment and impotent state. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24, 25).

Paul does not merely describe a wretched man, but rather a man who knows his wretchedness and flees to Christ for deliverance.

If this is you, with one part of your mind you feel the impulse to feed the craving for self-preservation, self-exaltation, and self-gratification in all of its insatiable forms. But with another part of your mind you genuinely desire to live for God and for others above and before yourself, in humility, gentleness, and self-forgetful love. The internal civil war between the carnal mind and the spiritual mind, the old man and the new man, rages on inside of you, but in the midst of it all, you cry out for Jesus, rather than merely crying out for more self as if you were, in yourself, sufficient for the battle. You know that “the law is . . . holy and just and good” (verse 12), but you also know that all your best efforts to keep the law in your own strength are futile, powerless, and even enslaving. You know that “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24, KJV), and it is to Christ you have come. The law is intended to bring us to the end of ourselves and turn our “desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9) selves to a power outside of and above ourselves.

Ellen White succinctly encapsulates the idea:

“Not only intellectual but spiritual power, a perception of right, a desire for goodness, exists in every heart. But against these principles there is struggling an antagonistic power. The result of the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is manifest in every man’s experience. There is in his nature a bent to evil, a force which, unaided, he cannot resist. To withstand this force, to attain that ideal which in his inmost soul he accepts as alone worthy, he can find help in but one power. That power is Christ.”3

This is an extremely important concept.

Power to overcome my sin and guilt does not lie innately within me. I am, in Paul’s words, “without strength” (Rom. 5:6). The apostle does not mean, of course, that I am without physical strength, but rather that I am without moral strength. He’s confronting me with the uncomfortable reality that I am bankrupt of moral ability to cancel out the shame that haunts the deepest recesses of my conscience or to refrain from the self-defeating behaviors that I know I ought not to engage in. Plain and simple, in myself I am in bondage to my natural inclination toward self-serving motives.

If I am awake to the true reality of my situation, I realize that I am utterly powerless to fight and win my internal battles if left to my own power of will. I need foreign energy to be infused into me, a new principle of operation, a different motive to actuate me, a power that cannot be conjured up from within, but must be uploaded into my moral hard drive from an outside source. My cognitive processing, my emotional firing, and my bodily impulses need complete reconfiguration in the light of God’s love poured out upon me in Christ.

“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (verses 6-8).

When I turn my attention and my trust away from myself to Him, new things begin to happen: liberation from guilt and victory over sin.

I am my own worst enemy.

But Jesus is my truest friend. I give myself to Him, broken, fragile, self-serving—just as I am—and He turns right around and gives myself back to me, mended, empowered, indwelt by His Spirit, and actuated by His selfless love.

1 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 43.

2 Ibid., p. 17.

3 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 29.