On The Ubiquity Of Concupiscence

We now come to the conclusion of our discussion of the problem of concupiscence (see previous discussions here and here).  We have seen that our society has declared war on the idea a unified category of evil desire that we must war against and has, in many cases, viewed the existence of an intense longing as a sign of its legitimacy, although not on a consistent basis.  Additionally, we have seen that whatever historical understanding existed among Bible readers and translators in the past about there being an overarching unity to the problem of evil desire has been replaced by vague language and even in some cases (like with The Message paraphrase) an active desire to avoid wrestling with the problem of evil desire at all.  An obvious question remains for us to address, and that is why we should care about having an overarching term to describe evil (but intense) desire in various forms and what we should do about it.  And that is a question well worth answering at least briefly.

At present, we tend to deal with evil desires in a very scattered fashion.  In many cases there is a tendency to use medical language for evil desire and to render it as an aspect of an addictive personality that absolves the sufferer of intense and problematic desires from a great deal of the responsibility of having to effectively mortify such addictions.  In many cases there is a tendency to blame troublesome longings on nature or nurture so that someone else is to blame for their presence in our lives.  Additionally, we tend to categorize such longings, so that we distinguish between workaholics who may use work to satisfy materialistic longings or to avoid the problems of their personal lives from those who are addicted to alcohol or food or shopping or illegal drugs or sex or video games or television or any other number of subjects.  Additionally, there is a strong tendency among people to try to categorize various aspects of evil longing as better or worse, so that someone who is addicted to exercise will look down on someone whose food addictions have led them to be morbidly obese, and that someone who is compulsively clean and neat will look down on someone who is an obsessive hoarder, even if all the people involved are dealing with some sort of intense desire.

This approach, while common, greatly harms our ability to build empathy with others.  To the extent that we focus on the specific ends to which concupiscence is directed, we will lack compassion for those whose longings are different from our own.  A flagrant fornicator will look down on, say, someone with same-sex attraction or someone whose longings are directed at underage love interests because they will view their own longings as being less evil because they are not so flagrantly against the laws of God or man, respectively.  The fact that, as James says, desire leads to sin and sin leads to death, and the recognition that there are many ways to sin but that any sin brings with it the deserved penalty of death, regardless of the specific sin involved, does not seem to enter into the equation.  By all rights we ought to have empathy for people who struggle with concupiscence because it is something we should all be able to relate to in some fashion.  The existence of boundary lines that make something off limits often has the unfortunate tendency of making that which is off-limits even more attractive.  This was true with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and it remains true with a wide variety of things, including the property of other people that we are denied, the offices and positions we fight over with rivals, those people who the Bible or the laws of mankind say are off-limits to our sexual intimacy due to species, sex, age, or marital status, and just about anything else.  To the extent that we recognize our own intense longings for that which is forbidden, we can be empathetic towards others who struggle with the desire for what is forbidden even when others desire different forbidden things than we do.

In order to build this empathy, though, we need an overarching category that we can connect these various desires under.  So long as the question is one of blame or responsibility we will continue to minimize our responsibility for our evil longings, seek to avoid stigma, and treat the longings of others with less generosity of spirit and graciousness than we demand for our own.  This desire to distinguish ourselves in the face of a common problem is itself an evil desire, in that it is a prideful refusal to deal fairly with other people and to love them as ourselves.  Evil desire is unified by several qualities, including a refusal to accept the boundaries set by God for our behavior, a lack of self-government in restraining and governing our desires and in directing them to godly ends, a tendency to make idols out of our own hearts and the objects of our longing and desire rather than to our Creator and God, and a persistent tendency to hold others responsible for their evil longings while we deny the wrongness of our desires and our responsibility in governing them.  While the word concupiscence is by no means an easy word to recognize or spell or understand, it does allow for an overarching term that the translators of 16th and 17th century Bibles saw as useful in describing a technical term that Paul was fond of using from the Greeks to deal in general with intense but ungodly longings.  Since our age is full of intense but ungodly longings that are directed in all kinds of ungodly ways, we need some larger concept to remind us all, because we need reminding, that we are all in the same boat.  For so we are.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to On The Ubiquity Of Concupiscence

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Your blog makes the apostle Paul’s warning of the foolishness of comparing ourselves among ourselves even more dire. If we looked at sexual sins the way God does, every sexual act other than the sanctified one in marriage is pornography; something that He states is grounds for divorce.

    All compulsive behavior makes a person a junkie and an idolater. It doesn’t matter if they are in-the-gutter drunks or functioning over-exercisers; they are slaves to that master instead of God. The truth is harsh. Each of us has to look in the mirror to see the sins that afflict us and put all of our efforts into ridding those gods from our lives. We can then fully appreciate and empathize with our fellow brethren because we see ourselves in the same boat as them. We all operate under the universal umbrella known as “sin.”

    • Yes, it is quite dire, and yes, all compulsive behavior makes someone an idolater and an addict, something that is certainly harsh. That is why it is ubiquity. And yes, our self-awareness of our own struggles with evil desire ought to make us empathetic about the struggles of others. When we resist the pull of evil–whatever it is–that we have to deal with, we will be compassionate on those who are struggling with it in their own lives, even where the precise evil desires may be different.

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