Editor’s note: I’m beginning summer travel this morning. I’ll be in Colombia and South Africa over the next two weeks. I plan on keeping up the three-a-week schedule, but it is possible I’ll be forced to slow down some. Consider yourself notified.
If I were forced to distill the central challenges of the moral life, I’d name two: knowing what the right thing to do is, and having the will to do it. Each dimension contains its own pitfalls—and each has their own therapeutic treatments. It is possible to grow in our understanding of how one might live well in this world, even when circumstances are hazy (as Hebrews 5:14 so poignantly indicates). And it is possible to strengthen our wills, to put ourselves in positions to more frequently perform the goods that we discern.
Only how instill fiber into our wills is something of a challenge, as we all know. It is one thing to be told over and over to flee temptation (wise advice); it is another to prepare ourselves to not succumb when temptation is inevitable. We might think that there’s nothing that can be done until temptation strikes, that we won’t really know our own wills or characters until they have been tested. And in a way that is true. But there are preparatory acts, attitudes, and choices we can make to instill resistance to temptations within us that incline us to do the right thing even when the wrong seems so alluring.
For the most part, I have thought about temptation through a framework that moves questions of sin and righteousness to the foreground. In a context where we are tempted to do morally bad things, that is understandable. But we may well be tempted toward acts that are not at all morally bad, but which might still be conducive to weakening our wills in a certain direction. The person who undertakes a fast, for instance, and breaks it does not do anything wrong. But by giving up prematurely on their abstention, they weaken their own ability to endure discomfort—which may actually matter if they are tempted to do something immoral.
This weekend, however, I began to think of temptation in terms of the present and the future selves—thanks to this interesting TED talk by Daniel Goldstein
. My consumption of the genre is almost exclusively limited to the snippets I hear from NPR’s TED Radio Hour,
but in this case I was glad it was playing on the car radio. Goldstein’s description of why temptation is hard to resist is helpfully illuminating. From the transcript:
The other reason that it’s difficult to resist temptation is because it’s an unequal battle between the present self and the future self. I mean, let’s face it, the present self is present. It’s in control. It’s in power right now. It has these strong, heroic arms that can lift doughnuts into your mouth. And the future self is not even around. It’s off in the future. It’s weak. It doesn’t even have a lawyer present. There’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams. So there’s this battle between the two selves that’s being fought, and we need commitment devices to level the playing field between the two.
Thinking about ourselves in terms of our future being either weakly or dimly present to us generates helpful strategies for resisting temptation. Goldstein speaks of ‘commitment devices,’ or penalties or restrictions we impose on ourselves in order to constrain us from choosing immediate satisfactions over long term pleasures. But he also suggests that we might make our future selves stronger, or more imaginatively dense to ourselves. If we have a thicker, more robust understanding of our future lives, we will have more internal resources to do what we need to do.
We might put all this in theological language: saturating ourselves in the eschatological state to which we are headed is actually the source of our power to resist sin and temptation here and now. Paul inverts all the terms: the future self is being ‘renewed day by day,’ while the present self is weak and corruptible. It does “not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” Note that even here the future self is opaque to us: no eye has seen, and all that. But our future selves in Christ is one aspect of the eschaton we are called to immanentize: by locating our lives within a community with practices ordered toward invigorating and intensifying our participation in the eschatological life, we are constantly reminded both of our mortality and of the hope toward which we live. And this, more than anything, is the basis and grounds for saying ‘no’ to sin and those temptations which would corrode our character.