O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Romans 7:24
"By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine? By what precedent can I judge him? Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him. How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever? How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me? ... I embrace him. And I turn away from him. What is this mystery in me? What is the principle this mixture of body and soul?" (John Climacus Step 15)
Our struggle can earn a crown or punishment, says St. John. The struggle with the flesh is a real struggle that has been a theological hairball for a long time. We say that grace overcomes all things and indeed it does, but why is there still such a struggle. In us are yearnings of the spirit that are in conflict with the passions of the body. Lust, pride, covetousness, wrath, self-pity, and the like wage war against the gentleness, love, patience, and peace of the inner man.
In this struggle is the danger of despair which is a precursor of death and is a sin because the soul marries grief and guilt while rejecting repentance. It is the embrace of condemnation. The darkness overwhelms us and swallows us whole in temptation, trials and defeats. The mortal hollowness collapses under the weight of judgment. Our flesh, unruly as it is, is our eternal companion who will rise with us at the judgment to bear witness to our struggle. The struggle matters and that it is won matters too.
God has given many aids to overcome this situation. There is confession and contrition, a medicine of antiquity. There is the brotherhood where prayers are offered. Additionally there are the scriptures, vigils and contemplation. If we are successful in faith the flesh will enter the glory of Christ with us. If we indulge the flesh, it will bear witness that and lead us to perdition. So the struggle is not the success; rather, it is in the outcome of the struggle we are rewarded. We succeed in faith through grace which enflames, illuminates, and enables our lives. It is Christ who saves us, after all. We are called to make the sojourn here complete by struggling for the spirit and against the flesh for the lifespan of our years. Glory be …
Fr. John Mark McMonagle, D.Min. ’11, is pastor of Saint Brendan the Navigator Western Orthodox Mission, Honeoye Falls, N.Y.
In the Old Testament book of Joel, we see the author warning the Israelites about a plague of locusts which will come and overtake their lands, destroying their crops, and leaving them with no food. This coming locust invasion is the direct result of their disobedience to God. But it’s not too late, this invasion can be stopped if the people will just repent of their sins and follow God.
In 2 Corinthians, we also see a call to repentance. Paul is telling the Corinthians that they too need to be reconciled with God. There is one big difference between the two, however. Had we kept reading in Joel, in verse 28 we would have seen the promise of the coming Savior. “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” The difference between the two is that the Savior had come. God’s Spirit has been poured out on all people.
Still, the call to repentance was just as real for the people of Corinth in the 1st century, as it was for the people of Israel 900 years earlier. And that call to repentance is just as real for us today, too. Because even though we know Jesus as our Savior, even though the Spirit has been poured out on us, we too struggle with sin. We still struggle to do the right thing, and not do the wrong thing. The ways of the world still look so inviting.
Paul knew all too well what it’s like to struggle with sin. He was no “holier than thou” prophet that didn’t understand what he was asking. He knew first hand. He confessed this in his letter to the Romans, in Chapter 7. He wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep doing.” Does it sound like Paul was struggling with sin? You bet he was. At times in his life he struggled with doing the right thing. Sin was ever around him tempting him.
Does his description of his struggle with sin sound like your struggle with sin? He doesn’t tell us what sin he struggled with—it really doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that he struggled too. He could relate to us all to well in this regard. What did he do? Did he give up? He was a preacher, an apostle, who struggled with sin—he should have given up, shouldn’t he? I mean, really, if he couldn’t get past this sin struggle, what hope do we have? We might be tempted to think that because we struggle with sin that we should give up. No. Paul didn’t give up because as much as he knew the power of sin, he also knew the grace of God. And so he kept going. And he urged the Corinthians to keep going. And he urges us today to keep going. Because God’s grace is stronger than the power of sin.
Steven Dygert (M.Div. ‘02) is pastor of Almond Union of Churches in Almond, N.Y.
A guest post by David Ketter, presenter at the New Creation conference
In the 21st century, many take for granted the notion that Christian faith is at its most fundamental level a story. Whether we encountered it in Donald Miller, Michael Horton, or N. T. Wright, we are all enchanted with this idea that we are so naturally storytellers that we would need to be saved by a story. As Tolkien wrote, “Man the story-teller [is] redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.”
This is by no means a new idea, however. Christian theology is ripe with many plot structures and character profiles for this storied understanding of the Faith. Some popular tropes are the classic German heilsgeshichte of the critics, the covenantal narrative favored by our Presbyterian brethren (i.e., Williams’ Far as the Curse is Found), and the many-charted dispensational readings. All of these narratives do generally follow the same basic narrative, concisely articulated by Wolters: creation, fall, redemption, consummation.
Of course, the Wolters plot, which I (unjustly) use to represent the traditional reformed narrative, is largely focused on the past. It rightly hinges on redemption: the once-for-all death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It draws us to consider that Jesus did not come to redeem mere souls or some disembodied consciousness, but a whole creation that has fallen and is groaning, as recounted in Romans 8. Even the final plot point, consummation, calls us to recognize that there is a cosmic scope to God’s redemptive work that spans from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. The big picture really is a thing of beauty.
But friends of other Christian traditions, especially those who are rooted in the Radical Reformation, would be quick to remind us that the cosmos is not God’s only agenda. “What about the Kingdom of God?” After all, the Gospels are written to display the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus heals, teaches, restores broken lives, and ultimately sacrifices himself on the cross and overcomes death to take all authority on heaven and earth. The heart of this Christian spirituality takes its cue from the Lord’s Prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The reign of God perfectly accomplished in the midst of all his creatures is a portrait of harmony that appeals to our hunger for peace in troubled times.
Which story is right? Our intuitive sense is that we cannot deny either the cosmos or the Kingdom. Rather than redirect or reject that intuition, I believe that the Scriptures call us to affirm it. The Christian faith does not hinge ultimately on our story of cosmic redemption or Kingdom inauguration. Rather, it is sustained entirely by its “author and finisher,” Jesus Christ, who did not come in the flesh in order to end creation’s bondage to decay (Rom. 8:21) or to announce his unquestioned authority over all things (Mt. 28:18). Creation is redeemed and the Kingdom is inaugurated for a much larger purpose in the redemptive plan of God.
At some point, however, the honest pastor has to ask: so what? As long as we have a framework that helps read and understand the Scriptures, and as long as it depends on the death and resurrection of Jesus, is it not enough? The problem with any hermeneutic, any story through which we understand the faith, is that if it is only a story and only a lens, then we face the issue of having no pastoral purpose. Any Christian theology, if it truly has a burden for rightly dividing the Scriptures, properly serves those who hear the Word. And unless that story aligns with the realities men and women encounter every day, what hope can be offered and what sort of faith can be maintained in the face of such a disconnect?
 Tolkien, J.R.R. 2000. Ed. by Humphrey Carpenter. “Letter 88.” Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 101.
 Wolters, A. M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., p. 12.
 Mk. 1:14-15; Lk. 4:43.
David Ketter is an M.Div. student at Trinity School for Ministry (www.tsm.edu) and presented a scholarly paper on this topic at the New Creation: Scripture, Theology and Praxis Symposium hosted by Northeastern Seminary, October 2013.