The Divided Self: How To Win Your Biggest Fight

by | Jul 27, 2018

When I was younger, I could handle the way the world fit into my neat little boxes. There were the good people in the red corner and the bad people in the blue. He-man was a goodie and he had to escape the grasps of badman Skeletor and Michael Jackson was my pop idol. Life and people were simple. And it was a simple case of cornering the blue corner and body-slamming all the evil douchebags if we wanted to “heal the world and make it a better place”. 

As I’ve grown older, the “bad hombres” were no longer over there. My mental aerial picked up mixed signals and the lens through which I viewed life made things blurry. This fuzziness paved a way for my aerial to pick up a better signal and I was now seeing things at a higher resolution. Bad people were capable of loving their children and good people were seduced into doing selfish things.  Good people didn’t do foolish things for the sake of it, sometimes they become afraid of losing their reputation and self-image. In order to manage it – they contemplate saying and doing unreasonable things. 

As my antennae sharpened, I too became aware of the personal part I played when coming up against social obstacles. Through family, work and life and all its disruption, it has revealed the selfish parts to me. Life has become more ambiguous and the “sinful people” were not always “over there”.

This same complexity is mirrored in cinema today. The archetypal hero and the villain in today’s dramas are not so obvious and well defined because in real life they don’t exist. Batman the heroic cape crusader becomes the Dark Knight and family man Walter White in my favourite TV drama “breaks bad”. 

What made Walter White in “Breaking Bad” such a runaway star was that he was an everyday man that we could relate to; a loving father who struggles to meet the financial needs of his growing family. And these mounting pressures drive him into the lucrative drugs trade. By day, he’s a chemistry teacher who also cares for his pregnant wife and cerebral palsy son, by night he makes crystal meth. Publicly he is known as a family man, Walter White. Privately, when the world sleeps, he becomes Heisenberg. 

WHEN THE HEART BREAKS BAD

On some level, I’m drawn to these characters because they remind me of “me”, of being a fully dimensional human. Like Walter, we are all complex characters with complex motivations at heart. Whilst we desire to do good, our heart’s proclivities are bent on “breaking bad”. Freud would call this the “superego”,  George Lucas would call this “the dark side”.  The Bible describes this as our “sinful nature”.

As the series goes on, Walter White gets deeper into the drugs trade and rises to become a drug lord. His struggle to the top leaves deep devastation in his wake. He rationalises the worst of his behaviour by pointing to the finance he has secured for his family. In the end, Walter finally makes a profound insight and confesses to his grieving wife, Skylar:

“I did it for me, I liked it. I was good at it. I really was – I was alive”

This admission of Walter’s deep hidden motivation is similar to how Paul in the Bible grapples with the complex character of his “sinful nature”. He talks about it deeply here.

 “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”. (Roman 7:15 NIV)

Here Paul understands that he doesn’t understand why his motivations and behaviours don’t correlate.  Even in his confusion, Paul is wrestling with this paradox. This contrasts with Walter White who didn’t fully admit to the complexity of his motivation and depth of his sinful nature until it was too late. We too can find it difficult to come to terms with the parts of us we’d rather remain unnoticed and unchallenged. It’s far easier to locate our life problems to our social environment or to “them over there” and underestimate the seductive nature within us that creates conflict.

In the film “Fight Club”, Tyler Durden succinctly put it :

“We have no great war. No great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war”. 

What he is expressing is the idea that we’re not helpless victims of our social systems or our upbringing. Rather a battle is located within us and “our great war is a spiritual war”.  How then are we to know and understand the character of our sin? How do we get to grips with our sinful nature before it produces devastation? The book of Roman 7 helps us to see how much Paul reflected on his humanly self, it’s this self-awareness that created a humility in him before God. 

LAW EXPOSES THE SIN

In Romans 7 Paul introduces the idea of the “Law” and how it can be used to identify and expose sin.

“What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7 NIV)

The line at which we understand the true nature of our sins is drawn at different points. For Film Mogul, Harvey Weinstein, it was only after sexual allegations against him were made public that he was finally forced to face his offences and apologise. For the cyclist Lance Armstrong, he cheated but so have many other cyclists who competed. He denied for years that he was cheating and even went on Oprah to publicly state so. Only when overwhelming evidence was stacked against him did he finally admit that he had taken drugs during all seven of his Tour de France wins.

“Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed”. (John 3:20 NIV)

In the Fight Club, the lead character has to blow up his own apartment to finally break through to himself and contend with his alter-ego. But the Bible has something different to say about how we are to “break through to ourselves”, in other words how we are to contend, grapple and do battle with our sin. Sin are like bats, they thrive in the dark and cavernous places. Turn on the torch and the bats scramble inside their secret caves. 

The law illuminates the secret motives of the heart, it shows us what fosters in our hearts. That’s why I read my bible, it acts as a mirror and shines a light on the shape and extent of my sin. It reveals itself when certain bible passages jump to my mind when I catch myself being quick-tempered with others. Spending time reading parts of the Bible can often be challenging to me as my heart motivations behind my frustrations are unveiled. Writer of “Enemy of the ego”, Ryan Holiday understands this feeling well and explains:

“Getting hit with that spotlight does not feel good-whether we’re talking the exposure of ordinary self-deception or truths evil – but turning away only delays the reckoning. For how long, no one can say”.

The law’s purpose is not to save us but to point to our transgression. It searches the most difficult places of our hearts that only we have access too and God knows. Only God knows the deep and hidden things, he knows what lurks in the darkness (Dan 2:22 NIV). I don’t have to wait for an explosion or a public crisis before I properly contend with my sinful nature. Daily exposure to the light and the word gives me regular heart checks without resorting to an operational bypass. A small quantity of light can shed equal exposure to my sin that could otherwise lead to serious self-deception down the road. It’s far more preferable to deal with the gremlin now than remain in the dark and allow it to multiply and wreak havoc.

“The way of the wicked is deep darkness, they do not know what makes them stumble” Proverbs 4:19.

THE PERSISTENT INTERNAL STRUGGLE

Once we confront and acknowledge our sin, we are faced with another internal struggle. That is, we are not fully capable of carrying out pure good.  A duality exists within Paul that produces this conflict.

“For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me”. (Romans 7: 19-21 NIV)

Here, Paul oscillates between doing good and doing evil. He talks about the desires to want to do what is good, but another undesirable power that incubates in his heart and holds him back. Paul is not fully in control of carrying out absolute good as he is deeply flawed because of the “evil that is right there with me”. To give a better understanding of what this looks like, here is US rapper Kanye West talking about his ultimate goal in life: 

“I’m not living particularly to make money or to have a song go number one. I’m more living to carve my place in history. The best way to do that is to help other people. You can’t make it just by helping yourself. The more people you can help, the better chance you have of being remembered”.

Kanye West is a talented rapper and has helped many other youngsters hone their talent and produce great music. Kanye admirably identifies that his primary aims are not to be the most powerful person through means of money or having the most awards. His desires to help others is his chief aim. If we deconstruct this primary driver, we see that his noble aim to “help others” still stems from a self-serving desire to have a “better chance of being remembered” and “carve his place in history”.

Our human tendencies are to evaluate the good works that we do by the satisfying buzz it gives us more than the real benefit it has on others. Perhaps Paul is right in his evaluations, even when we do good – we are still selfish. We are still pre-occupied with ourselves and our image. This persistent internal struggle happens when we do bad and even when we do good, this selfish nature is constant and deep-rooted in us. 

Psychologist, Jordan Peterson in his book “12 Rules for Lives” understands “the evil that is right there with me” occurrence well and makes this observation. Peterson sees that when we are sick, we don’t properly take care of ourselves and don’t follow medical advice. However, when our pets are unwell, we go out of our way to find them excellent treatment and appear to care for our cats, dogs, ferrets and bird more than we do ourselves. Peterson asks the pointed question:

“How horrible is that? How much shame must exist for something like that to be true? What could it be about people that makes them prefer their pets to themselves? 

Jordan Peterson delves deeper and finds the answer to these perplexing questions in the Old Testament. Peterson agrees that something has gone wrong and something has been corrupted.

But what is this corruption?  Corruption in our hearts is when something has departed from its original form or from what is pure. We were originally made to be in perfect union with God, we broke away from that union by eating from the tree of knowledge. It was a wilful desire to do something for no other reason than it was forbidden. It was the fruit that the snake enticed Eve to eat. Immediately their visibility was transformed and they saw themselves and their faults for the first time.

WHY WE COVER AND HIDE

They saw their transgressions and felt shame, shame about their true motivations “to be like God”. To take the driving seat away from God and determine for themselves what was right and wrong. This explains why at the beginning of time we have been sewing fig leaves, covering our shame and hiding away from God.  We cover ourselves today at work and shame others to cover up our own sense of inadequacy, we cover our faults on social media and make ourselves look presentable and socially decent to others. We have whole PR teams dedicated to managing public perceptions. 

But most of all we feel shame from our Maker and hide away in the bushes. That when God appears to Adam – Adams fails miserably to repair some of that damage. Like Adam, when we are vulnerable and our faults are on display. Exposed, we fear to tell the whole truth and snitch, blame and judge the  “Eves” around us to cover the “evil that is right there with me”. Our compulsion to cover up shows we possess guilt. We have a self-awareness of the “evil that is right there with me”. If we didn’t have that sense of corruption then we would all be capable of doing some heinous things.

Just look at the history books and the horrors that have taken place in the last century alone. Hitler was once an innocent babe in his mother’s arm, he grew to become an evil tyrant that orchestrated mass murders. But to focus on Hitler would absolve those around him of their responsibility, freeing them from the role they played in enabling, sustaining and perpetuating mass evil. 

Sadly, average moral people can be seduced into doing terrible things as shown in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment split a group of college volunteers into two camps, prisoners and guards. After a couple of days, psychologists observed that the guards abused their role. Many of the prisoners were emotionally traumatised and many had to be removed from the experiment early.  Some of the guard’s behaviours were dangerous and psychologically damaging. One-third of the guards exhibited sadistic tendencies. Humans beings are capable of great damage.  

Psychologist Jordan Peterson’s sees this moral corruption in humans clearly and answers his initial question “Why are we more likely to take care of our pets more than ourselves? He points out:

“Who can deny the sense of existential guilt-that sense of inbuilt corruption and capacity for wrongdoing, a man is one step from psychopathy? Human beings have a great capacity for wrongdoing. It’s an attribute that is unique in the world of life. We can and do make things worse, voluntarily, with full knowledge of what we are doing. Given that terrible capacity, that proclivity for malevolent actions, is it any wonder we have a hard time taking care of ourselves, or others- or even that we doubt the value of the human enterprise?”

As we have seen, we understand sin to be more than just serious wrongdoing but as the philosopher, Kierkegaard puts it in the Sickness unto Death. “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God”. Because God is God, his benchmark is perfect and we are all way off the mark. 

HOW ARE WE TO BE?

Tyler Durden in the film “Fight Club” locates the battle not externally but internally as he grasps the deep duality and conflict of man, he notes:

“We’re the middle children of the history man, no purpose or place, we have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives”.

His understanding of himself and others is profound and it’s this greater awareness that leads to a final sense of resignation, he surmises “Our great depression is our lives.” Durden’s coming to a sense of hopelessness paves the way towards a nihilistic world-worldview.  When we know ourselves well, we also know what others are capable of and we doubt the “value of the human enterprise”. This despairing outlook creates a feeling of meaninglessness. When there is no regard for others, as we see in the film – it leads to total anarchy.

When there is no sense of hope from saving yourself and others, what’s the point? It’s very easy at this point to think that once we grasp our sinful nature, the solution would be to counteract this through “religion”. Many people carry around this misconception that being a Christian is about doing the right things and making the right choices. This common view of Christianity doesn’t stop with secular people but when religious people are guided more by their particular tribe’s “code of conduct” and traditions, they too can find their salvation in their internal law and thus become “their own saviours”.

Paul use to be a religious leader so he probably understood more than anybody that religious moralism doesn’t save you. He recognises that even “do-gooders” can be corrupted which is why Paul says “When I do good, evil is right there with me”. Even when we have the ability to carry out good works, there’s also a deceptive heart motivation to want to draw attention to ourselves. It’s still centred on self and therefore self-centered. We take our identity from our “moral acts” and find more fulfilment from our “clean scoresheet” which leads to a smugness to compare ourselves and look down on others.

Sadly, if our discipleship looks more like “religious moralism” it will not be a surprise when our faithful younger friends enter college and university and start to question the faith they were brought up in when they meet atheists who possess upright and moral characters just like them.

FACING OURSELVES IN THE MIRROR

The Bible says coming to the admission of the “evil that is right there” is necessary. Paul draws his inner dialogue to a poignant and decisive question (v24).

“What a wretched man I am, who can save me from this body of death?”. 

This is not Paul being self-effacing but it is a deep and sober reality check of himself and his need for redemption. How can we face ourselves in the morning and confidently walk with this tension that we carry?  There is a proper response, that is not a solution centred on us, which is fragile and susceptible to corruption as we have seen with our self-centeredness to even carry out good.

The only solution that doesn’t lead to a dead end has to be outside of ourselves. We cannot be our own saviour, Jesus exchanged his life so we can walk in wholeness and transparently with our God, just like God’s original plans for us at the beginning of time. Here Paul draws this passage to its own natural conclusion:

 “What a wretched sinner I am, who can save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

We no longer need to sew fig leaves and cover ourselves with our positive self-image. God already knows the parts to us that have a mind of its own. If we come to an apprehension of our serious shortcomings and nature of our sin. We can walk in the light and come to a place of immense awe and reorient our lives to the one who has made it possible for us to walk upright and as one with our God. 

Written by Ann Ajet

Ann Ajet is a lead writer at Bread and is based in London.  She covers real-life issues in the Christian walk. When she’s not writing, she’s exploring street food markets with her husband and daughter.

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