Everyone born with original sin has to spend a lifetime coping with the fallout of this inheritance. Paul himself groaned over the struggle, which is the lot of earthly existence. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would” (Gal. 5:17). “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . For I do not the good that 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 the law of sin which dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:16, 19, 23).
For Paul the flesh means not only something carnal, but any form of disordered self-love that in some way grieves the Spirit. Our unruly self is intruding on our better self. We do not of ourselves have a total control over our passions, the inclinations which strive to gain their own fulfillment and satisfaction. We have a tendency to use created things, the things of this world as they are available to us, for whatever pleasure they can give us, ignoring, or not caring, whether or not they can or are leading us to or away from God. We experience a pull in various directions. The continuous assaults of these urges will of themselves never develop in us what is most humanly noble. Such inborn disabilities are summed up in the traditional term “concupiscence,” the previous inclination to sin. Concupiscence can never be rooted out; it is always providing new incentives, suggesting new possibilities for self-satisfaction. Its degree and coloring is very personal to the individual. Baptism removes original since and restores friendship with God, but concupiscence remains to provide the trials of life whereby we with effort can earn, with God’s help of grace, the reward destined for those who remain faithful to the requirements of the divine friendship.
In this respect we are reminded of the words of Revelation 3:15-16 to the church of Laodicea: “I know your works: You are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. ” And the Psalmist says: “I hate men of divided heart” (119:113), those who hesitate between faithfulness and unfaithfulness to God.
Lukewarmness in the following of Christ gets us nowhere; it robs us of sufficient energy to withstand temptation, moral difficulty, sadness, or depression. Spiritual lukewarmness and mediocrity are closely related; the Christian should not go down these paths. Christian life is not easy. It was not meant to be. It is a yoke and a burden. Christian morality is very demanding on us, as it requires constant curbing of those expressions of independence arising from the residue of original and of personal sins. But the Christian burden and yoke are light and easy (Matt. 11:28-19) for those who come to Christ and use his help. “Any other burden oppresses and crushes you, but Christ’s actually takes weight off you. Any other burden weighs down, but Christ’s gives you wings. If you take a bird’s wings away, you might seem to be taking weight off it, but the more weight you take off, the more you tie it down to the earth. There it is on the ground, and you wanted to relieve it of a weight; give it back the weight of its wings and you will see how it flies” (Augustine, Sermon 126) “All you who go about tormented, afflicted, and burdened with the burden of your cares and desires, go forth from them, come to me, and I will refresh you, and you shall find for your souls the rest which your desires take from you” (John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1:7:4).
If the joy that should be enlivening Christian life is weakening or absent, we will look elsewhere for joy or satisfaction, seek more agreeable companionship than the friendship of God would appear to afford. We will gravitate toward pleasures of the flesh of some kind or anything else here and now in life that provides the satisfaction we feel we need. Sometimes this lack of spiritual joy results from undue concentration on the miseries of life. The satisfaction of the spirit in a good conscience, of being right with God and neighbor, has less and less appeal and finally none at all.
What is then developing is a spiritual or moral sluggishness, a growing reluctance for the spiritual aspects of life, even of making an effort to be faithful. In its extreme form it is what has traditionally been called sloth, a sadness or weariness about what is a spiritual or eternal good, even a detestation toward it. It is a reluctance to ask for and to use God’s grace.
Thomas Aquinas wrote: “No man can remain long without pleasure or in sadness, and so he withdraws from sorrowful things or he turns to other things in which he delights. Those who cannot enjoy spiritual delights for the most part transfer themselves to corporal delights” (De Malo, q. 11, a. 4).
There are many things in life that cause us sadness: physical problems, difficulty in fulfilling one’s duties, injustice done to oneself or to close ones, loss of family or friends, loss of employment, the constant pressure of a passion, the strong pressure from others to perform or cooperate in some wrongdoing, the illicit pleasure which certain lifestyles afford. Only love of God and trust in his providence can bear all this with patience, endurance, and long-suffering for the sake of the good which is the service of God. The martyrs, despite the sadness caused by the evils from without which they faced, rejoiced because of the interior spiritual good which they were fostering. When life is good, when things are going our way, we forget about God and the soul and adapt to an easygoing lifestyle. Our spiritual weariness insinuates itself into our behavior patterns almost without notice and leaves us open to the transgression of the moment.
An early monastic figure in the West, Cassian, wrote: “No one should attribute his going astray to any sudden collapse, but rather . . . to his having moved away from virtue little by little, through prolonged mental laziness. This is the way the bad habits gain ground without one’s even noticing it, and eventually lead to a sudden collapse. ‘Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall’ [Prov. 16:18]. The same thing happens with a house: It collapses one fine day due to some ancient defect in its foundation or long neglect by the occupiers” (Collationes, 6:17).
And so, this sadness, this loss of heart related to spiritual things, this reluctance to stay the course of Christian witness, this tendency more and more to slip away in small ways that lead to further mischief – this is a lifestyle that increases with further and more serious failures. There develops a bored tediousness about what is involved in Christian living, an absence of joy. This easily spawns a curiosity focused on the realm of the worldly pleasurable: sex, avariciousness, envy of what others have or have achieved leading to injustice in speech or action, loss of hope in duties beginning with Sunday Mass obligation, confession, prayer, respect for human life, a spiteful opposition to the Church’s teaching or to the promoters of that position, even to the point of vilification or to violence.
The route sign on this spiritual highway points to a loss of love of God and of love of neighbor, a sadness of spirit about the divine benefits shared by man, the abandonment of joy in the friendship with God for the joys our world at hand can provide. The gradual disintegration of the spirit is like a cadaver eaten by worms. In practice, the slothful person subscribes to the pagan attitude that ignores or rejects an afterlife: “So eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. “
Our Western civilization is in its current perilous state because too many Christians on all levels have become slothful. The fire of the Spirit has been lacking in too many hearts. Whether this proceeds from ignorance or error, whether outside factors are attributable, whether others are partly responsible for the state of affairs, the individual has some responsibility, “for it is imputed to a man for sin if he does not take care to learn what he ought to know” (Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, 8:1-7).
Christians cannot remain lukewarm. If we allow ourselves to lose contact with the spiritual, we will become spiritually cold. We can come in out of the cold because the grace of Christ is always there to provide the opportunity. “We need to submit to the spirit, to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to keep the flesh in tis place. By doing so our flesh will become spiritual again. Otherwise, if we give in to the easy life, this will lower our soul to the level of the flesh and make it carnal again” (John Chrysostom, Homily on Romans, 13).