Confessions: Stiff-Necked Will
Your mercy, faithful from a distance, was hovering above me. But how great were the wrongdoings into which I rotted away, as I pursued them with desecrating curiosity! This induced me to desert you and sink to the lowest depths, to faithless, cheating service to the demons, to whom I offered up my offenses…
Hence you whipped me severely as a punishment, but not to the full extent of my guilt, my God, my preeminent mercy, my refuge from the terrifying criminals among whom I wandered. Placing altogether too much faith in my own stiff-necked will made me retreat far from you, because I loved my paths and not yours, because I was in love with the “freedom” of a runaway slave.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 3.5
What caused Augustine to sin so deeply? In his own words, it was “desecrating curiosity.” Although far from God, from a distance, God was faithful. Sending him hardship to direct his course, a preeminent mercy to slow him down. It appears that Augustine was curious about sin, he knew how addictive it could be, but he trusted in his “own stiff-necked will.” He believed he could step in and then back away after trying it; that was not the case.
And that is never the case. Many of us have a very immature understanding of what freedom is. We believe that freedom means that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, and no one can tell us otherwise. But that is not what freedom is, that is anarchy. Freedom is like a kite. A kite can only fly as long as it is tethered to a string. In the same way, we are only free as long as we are tethered to some restriction.
In our culture, we have been taught that freedom is the ability to disobey God, sin, and the ability to choose death. The opposite is slavery and mental bondage. “Be free of religion” they say, “be free of God” they say. But Who is the one who is really free? Freedom is not merely the ability to do something, but also the ability to not do something. If God's law/word gives us life (Deut 4:1, Prov 4:22, Matt 19:7), the who is the one who is truly free? The ones who live by it or against it? If science tells us that smoking is addictive and causes cancer, who is truly free: the smoker or the non-smoker? In the same way, freedom is the ability to obey and to refrain. It is the ability to obey God and refrain from sin. It is the ability to choose life over death.
Who can blame us for being curious? But let us not put too much faith in our stiff-necked will. Let us put our freedom to good use, to live life fully, not enslaved to bodily passions.
For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.—Romans 7:5-6
Lord, prevent us from trusting in our own stiff-necked will. Teach us how to live free.
Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.