Following God’s law is hard. Even for Christians who were baptized in infancy, and have lived holy, prayerful lives for many years, following God’s law never becomes automatic. It certainly does become more natural over many years, especially through the development of good habits called virtues. On the contrary, fostering bad habits develops vices. The reason following God’s law is difficult is because we all suffer from concupiscence.
Concupiscence is an inclination to sin that we have all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We as human are complicated creatures because we exist as a composite of body and soul. Angels are pure spirits, so they are not subject to physical desires or weakness of mind like we do because of our bodies. (This is also the reason angels no longer fall to become devils and vice versa; they made their decision once and for all). Animals are purely bodies, and although they do have an animal soul, they are never conflicted about how to live their life. They have no spiritual life, so their only goal in life is to fulfill their nature by reproducing and surviving as long as possible.
I describe angels and animals in this way to show that we are stuck somewhere in the middle. We have souls which are destined to live for eternity, but our physical bodies are destined to corruption. God intentionally made us this way, but when he originally created our first parents, he gave them an additional spiritual gift called “original justice.” Original justice was a gift that would have allowed Adam and Eve to live forever, with true harmony between their bodies and souls. Our first parents experienced no disordered desires at this time, such as the desire to eat more than was good for them. However, when Adam and Eve committed the Original Sin, original justice and friendship with God were lost. Through baptism, God restores us to friendship with him, but we still deal with the effects of Original Sin, one of which is concupiscence.
If that explanation is confusing, just think of this example. After a delicious and hearty meal, your body is sufficiently nourished and satisfied. However, you still have a strong desire to eat more – just one more bite of dessert, or one last drink. I’m sure we have all experienced this desire to eat more than is good for us, and this is an example of concupiscence. We tend toward things that harm us both physically and spiritually, unless God’s grace stops us from doing so. St. Paul summed this human experience up well when he wrote, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).
God restores us to friendship with him through the sacraments, but he does not take away concupiscence. Why would God allow us to experience the pain and conflict of concupiscence? This can only be understood through the Cross of Jesus. In God’s Providence, it is better for us that we suffer in this way. By fighting against concupiscence through prayer or penitential practices such as fasting during Lent, we can become holier and even share in the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. St. Paul compared Christians with athletes who run to win. Runners deny themselves all sorts of things for the sake of their goal, which is winning the race. The same principle applies to Christians who are fighting against sin for the salvation of the world.
Concupiscence is not fun, but it is a part of our lives, and there is only one way to deal with it: through God’s grace. Our Weekly articles will be focusing, in large part, on following God’s law for the next several months. This is never meant to be overwhelming or discouraging, but rather to encourage us to rely more fully on God’s grace so that we can all share in the Resurrection of Jesus.