How to Become Spiritual: Intractables

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I’m sure none of you reading have fallen for the illusion that if you just do this, this, and then that, then Voila! You have a robust spiritual life! It can be two steps forward, one back, or three forward and four back. But then, hopefully, two forward, two more forward, just one back.

I write today about a prickly aspect of the spiritual life: what I call the “intractables.” You may have an addiction, or you self-medicate, or you surf where one should not surf, any habit that you knew was a bad habit before you got serious about your spirituality. And you thought you’d find the cure. But it’s intractable. Frustrating. You beat yourself up over it. You want to chuck the whole spiritual thing – if it can’t fix this one thing.

The Bible embraces this intractability in the loveliest way. Paul, who complained about some unnamed “thorn in the flesh,” something he just was stuck with in his soul, poured out his maniacal thoughts and tortured emotions in Romans chapter 7: “I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I know that nothing good dwells within me. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to sin. Wretched man that I am!! Who will deliver me? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

That was Paul, the ultra-holy champion of the Christian life. We Americans love to laud our cherished freedom of the will. But try to kick a nasty habit, or the death-grip you find yourself in spiritually – and you realize how much of a weakling your will really is. Paul has gritted his teeth and done his best, only to confess he is a captive in thick bondage. He needs delivering – and ends his tirade by thanking the only one who can, and will help.

Everyone has a thorn. Everyone has something they just can’t conquer. Humility isn’t a reach, is it? Paul might not be able to do the good that he wills, but he does understand the heart of God, which is boundless mercy. God doesn’t give up after you’ve had three tries. God stays, nurtures, embracing you, refusing to turn away. God knows the real you. The world says you’ve slinked back into your old self; you’re “only human.” God sees an imposter who’s usurped your mind and body – temporarily. God knows the beautiful You that God made and has destined for glory. And holiness.

And so you too can stay. You refuse to turn away from the mercy – however ugly or unspeakable or thankfully private your struggle may be. That’s the first truth.

The second is that the deliverance isn’t yours to deliver. It’s not about trying harder or doing better. It’s trusting God to do the work in you. We speak of “sanctification” in theology. Holiness isn’t me willing and achieving good. Holiness is God doing a supernatural work in me, through me, in spite of me. Relax. Rest. Let God do God’s thing in you, in spite of you.

Most likely, it will take time. A long time. You didn’t get your intractable in a minute or a day or a month. God’s unravelling of what’s gotten entwined in your good soul is delicate, tender work. God won’t rush things. Be patient. You’ve no choice, really. But trust: one day you’ll be free. One day you’ll be whole. One day you’ll be holy.

Try this: Say out loud “I will be free one day” 3 times. Do this several times today.