Losing Control of Sinful Desires

Think about the seven deadly sins: lust, pride, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, and envy. Many people, whether or not they are a Christian, do not want these sins to characterize their lives. They recognize the misery that comes from these sins, largely because they see the misery these sins cause within their own lives.

But some people pursue these sins. They don’t think these sins lead to misery but instead lead to a good life. What do we say to these people? Can we show them that these vices are, indeed, undesirable? I don’t know if we can convince them, but I came across a passage in Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin that argued that one problem with these vices is that one is never really in control of them. The sinful desires arise at inconvenient times, even for a person who generally desires them.

But Augustine argues that there is another problem. We cannot express these sinful desires when we want to. We are not sufficiently in control of ourselves to make them happen. Apparently, Augustine thought an example of this was that sometimes men who desire to act upon their lust cannot because of flaccidity. In reference to this, Plantinga has this engaging footnote describing Augustine’s view on this:

“In The City of God 14.15-16, Augustine speculates that the enfeeblement of our will – shown in particular by its failure to govern the various forms of libido – is poetic justice: insubordination at the heart of our lives mirrors our insubordination to God. One dramatic instance of this, Augustine delicately suggests, is that male erections are no longer voluntary. Both tumescence and flaccidity have become (often unwanted) events rather than acts. The soul is so divided that impotence bedevils not only the godly who are earnestly attempting to beget children, but also lascivious playpersons who are impotent even to do evil.” (23 n. 27)

So one reason vices are unwanted is that they are uncontrollable, no matter how much we desire our life to be characterized by them. Not only does this teach us not to seek a life of sin, but it is also poetic justice.

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