Psychic Civil War

Psychic Civil War

by Ty Gibson  |  October 25, 2013

No doubt you’ve heard someone say, “I am my own worst enemy.” Maybe you’ve said it yourself.

We intuitively understand that there is some sense in which the I stands against the me. Part of me wants to be something other than what I am, to do otherwise than I do, to relate differently than I relate.

Truth is, I’m engaged in a psychic civil war.

And so are you.

Paul pinpointed this internal conflict when he wrote, “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind” (Romans 7:23). In other words, I discern a deeply embedded principle at work in my bodily appetites and impulses that wages war against my higher reasoning faculties.

Your mind is a warzone, your body a battlefield, and your soul the territory at stake.

Ellen White nailed it when she wrote, “The warfare against self is the greatest battle that was ever fought” (Steps to Christ, p. 43). In this statement the individual person is described as if he or she were two persons: I am at war with my self.

Spiritually—by which we simply mean, mentally, emotionally, and volitionally—we are at odds with ourselves. Two diametrically opposed wills are fighting against one another inside of us. Polar opposite motives rip and tear at our humanity. There’s blood on one of our hands and a feather held gently in the other. We are bent inward toward ourselves, upon ourselves, against ourselves in vicious and covert attacks in which we are both the victim and the victimizer.

Ellen White described the Fall of humanity with the simple and insightful words, “selfishness took the place of love” (Steps to Christ, p. 17). Martin Luther defined sin as, “homo incurvatus in se,” Latin for, “man curved inward toward self.”

Your mind is a warzone, your body a battlefield, and your soul the territory at stake.

This is precisely our predicament. And each of us is going to go one of two directions in the battle: we’re either going to follow the natural trajectory of our inward bent toward self to its inevitable end, or we’re going to rise up within, and against, ourselves as spiritually mobilized warriors.

Allowed to run its course, the inward bent (what the Bible calls “sin that dwells in me” Romans 7:17) will incrementally form a nightmarish inner world of complex and convoluted thoughts and feelings that will close in around one’s inner landscape until all others are blocked from emotional view. Others will be seen, but not felt with empathy. The soul will increasingly find itself alone in the darkness of an acute self-interest—an aloneness composed of the inability to genuinely feel the feelings of anyone other than one’s self. Paul insightfully describes this state of being with the terrifying words, “past feeling” (Ephesians 4:19)—in other words, beyond the emotional capacity for other-centeredness.

But there is another direction we can travel.

The salvation that is present in Christ, fully present as an achieved reality, invites the fallen human being into a beautiful liberation from one’s self, and, simultaneously, a restoration of one’s self on the only premise that the self has viability at all, namely, to exist for others rather than for self. Said another way, in Christ we are called upon to war against our carnal mode of existence and to be reborn into a whole new way of being human, which is, in actuality, the old way of being human as God originally designed humanity to function.

According to the gospel, someone must die, and it’s you. Also, someone must live, and, you guessed it, it’s you. The you that must die is the you God never intended you to be, while the you that may come alive through Christ is the real you God always meant for you to be.

Paul describes the introspection of those engaged in the battle:

“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Romans 7:14-19).

This may seem complex upon first reading, but we get it.

That is, if we are among those who get it.

“We know,” Paul says.

Of course, not all humans know. But Paul is here addressing those who do know, those who are experientially aware of the fundamental conflict that exists between God’s good Law and the carnal self. So if you identify with what he’s talking about here, you are alive in Christ even as you wage the war of death to self. The fact that you are consciously engaged in the inner battle between good and evil means that you are on the right side of the conflict, although, paradoxically, the target of your onslaught is you.

On the other hand, to not “know”—that is, to not understand what Paul is talking about here—is an indication that you are still living, without resistance, in the delusional matrix of unchallenged self-centeredness. If you are not awake to the conflicted nature of your case, you are residing under the oppressive control of the carnal self. Unawareness of the inner war is the most immediate evidence that you are in a defeated position, obeying, without a fight, the urges of tyrannical King I. The spiritual experience Paul describes in Romans 7 is one of awareness rather than denial or suppression. He’s addressing the person who knows that he or she is at war with self.

But while awareness is the most immediate precursor to victory, mere awareness is not sufficient.

I am my own worst enemy. But Jesus is my truest friend.

Paul would have us understand that we must engage in a specific and deliberate spiritual maneuver in order to win the battle that rages inside of us. But it’s not the kind of maneuver you would suppose necessary. It is, in fact, a maneuver that might be characterized as a non-maneuver because it shifts the focus outward away from my own inner resources and rivets my trust elsewhere.

Paul does not here call for a valiant act of will. He does not attempt to whip into action a tenacious or skilled or seminar-trained exertion of internal grit.

Not even close!

It’s not more of you that you need.

You are your problem (remember?).

You need something else.

Somebody else, more precisely.

You need an exodus from self into the promised land of complete dependence upon the ultimate Other, upon the One who is alone of sufficient power to break the power of yourself over yourself.

Having described the inner conflict that the spiritually alive person wages against self, Paul now comes to the brilliant bottom line of his theology (aka, the gospel):

“O wretched man that I am!” the apostle cries out in full recognition of his imprisonment and impotence state. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).

Paul does not merely describe a wretched man, but rather a man who knows his wretchedness and flees to Christ for deliverance.

If this is you, with one part of your mind you feel the impulse to feed the craving for self-preservation, self-exaltation, and self-gratification in all of its insatiable forms. But with another part of your mind you genuinely desire to live for God and for others above and before yourself, in humility, gentleness, and self-forgetful love. The internal civil war between the carnal mind and the spiritual mind, the old man and the new man, rages on inside of you, but in the midst of it all you cry out for Jesus, rather than merely crying out for more self as if you were, in yourself, sufficient for the battle. You know that “the law is . . . holy, just, and good” (Romans 7:12), but you also know that all your best efforts to keep the Law in your own strength are futile, powerless, and even enslaving. You know that “the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us onto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24), and it is to Christ you have come. The Law does not call our willpower into action with the real expectation that we will be successful in saving ourselves, but rather the Law calls our willpower into action to reveal how truly impotent we are to morally elevate ourselves. The Law is intended to bring us to the end of ourselves and turn our “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9) selves to a power outside of and above ourselves.

Ellen White succinctly encapsulates the idea:

“Not only intellectual but spiritual power, a perception of right, a desire for goodness, exists in every heart. But against these principles there is struggling an antagonistic power. The result of the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is manifest in every man’s experience. There is in his nature a bent to evil, a force which, unaided, he cannot resist. To withstand this force, to attain that ideal which in his inmost soul he accepts as alone worthy, he can find help in but one power. That power is Christ” (Education, p. 29).

This is an extremely important concept.

Power to overcome my sin and guilt does not innately lie within me. I am, in Paul’s words, “without strength” (Romans 5:6). The apostle does not mean, of course, that I am without physical strength, but rather that I am without moral strength. He’s confronting me with the uncomfortable reality that I am bankrupt of moral ability to cancel out the shame that haunts the deepest recesses of my conscience or to refrain from the self-defeating behaviors that I know I ought not engage in. Plain and simple, in myself I am in bondage to my natural inclination towards self-serving motives.

If I am awake to the true reality of my situation, I realize that I am utterly powerless to fight and win my internal battles if left to my own power of will. I need foreign energy to be infused into me, a new principle of operation, a different motive to actuate me, a power that cannot be conjured up from within, but must be uploaded into my moral hard drive from an outside source. My cognitive processing, my emotional firing, and my bodily impulses need complete reconfiguration in the light of God’s love poured out upon me in Christ.

“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

When I turn my attention and my trust, the entire weight of my dependence, away from myself to Him, new things begin to happen—liberation from guilt and victory over sin.

I am my own worst enemy.

But Jesus is my truest friend.

I give myself to Him, broken, fragile, self-serving—just as I am—and He turns right around and gives myself back to me, mended, empowered, indwelt by His Spirit, and actuated by His selfless love.

Ty Gibson Co-Director
Light Bearers
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  • Amen. So I am crucified with Christ – death to self – and its not I that live – im dead – but Christ who lives in me – By the Holy Spirit John 14 – This is the answer to victory over self and sin 🙂 Christ in you Col 1:27

  • Jeffrey & Norma Cleasby

    Beholding the self-emptying love revealed at Calvary is our work. Thanks Ty, James, Fred, Jeffrey, David, etc. this is our “work” of faith! Ahhhmen!!!

  • Whew! and what a battle it is.

  • “There’s blood on one of our hands and a feather held gently in the other.” Love that.

    I recently read Gary Chapman’s (5 love languages guy) Love as a Way of Life. I really liked it, and I’m picky. He called the better impulses our “true self.” I stumbled over that a bit but decided he meant more like our “best self.” I agree that, “power to overcome my sin and guilt does not innately lie within me.” But free will does, I think, lie innately in me and through some process I don’t understand it connects to God, who gives the free will back to me because that’s the way He rolls. The indwelling of the Spirit never displaces the individual but rather empowers it because God is all about freedom, which forms the basis for individuality.

    And blah, blah, blah I could go on forever about this. But thanks for a great article on biblical psychology. We need more of this type of thing.

  • Kelly Kinsley

    Thanks for clearly defining the battle and path to victory!

  • Elaina Mathisen

    It seems to me that when life circumstances change dramatically the battle only intensifies. The need for a continual focus on Jesus and others becomes more desperate. Even momentary inward focuses can be devastating. I praise God that we have a mighty healer/defender. He is an all powerful undefeated warrior that is on our side and we can trust!

    I have found scripture promises, praise to Him and singing to be wonderfully helpful tools.

    Thank you Ty, this ably describes the malady and the cure.

    I was truly blessed. It is a gruesome battle and we have no hope without our precious Lord.

    Elaina Mathisen

  • Kate Hanson

    The references to malady and cure seem fitting..but it seems to me,the truth is with any great malady a cure may only mean remission…I do not know a Christian who is perfect. I do not see internal life made perfect with a relationship with Christ, I see it made hopeful. Hopeful that selflessness may have priority over selfishness more than not…free will still stands as first choice..just as it did in the garden…so a cure can be tenuous, there is some responsibility of self as to how effective the “cure” is and how long it maintains. We have choice to run with it and develop the divine properties of the cure or ignore them and mingle them in a somewhat mixed bag of self and selflessness, which seems the unfortunate reality of life. I often feel when reading articles like this that they are so wise and full of great information, and so off putting at the same time…they imply that humanity can be and now…Im betting you cannot find a single man without sin here and matter how close his walk to God..and if one says they are perfect,they are lying, which settles that debate. I wonder if Jesus wanted to become an easy cure by his death on the cross…or our heavenly father who supports us with wisdom and compassion, who allows us access and connection to the heart for him, that we were all born with, who helps us to grow through education and understanding of ourselves and our own failings. This may be what you’re saying in your article, but it sounds like instant gratification…you accept Jesus and you will be fixed.. that your battle will be won and you will be a selfless person..maybe (this is no way implying that if this was God’s will it wouldn’t be done), but more likely the battle will remain and so will some selfish tendencies (which you may not even recognize as selfish), your odds of and will to overcome the battle and selfishness may have stronger resolve and the grace of God’s will as support, but the battles will still likely be present in your life to fight. You just won’t battle them alone. I appreciate your article, it’s beautifully written. Lovely way to start Sabbath morning, hopeful. Thank you.

  • Brett Hereford

    Amen…im learning 🙂

  • brett hereford

    If we did not realize the “ongoingness” of our sinfulness in our human nature, we simply would not need and sense His ongoing forgiveness . To lay our glory in the dust and to exalt him in praise and gratitude is our “work”. Faith that works by love is a gift of the Spirit given by a God who adores us and allows us to love one another. He searches the earth seeking faith. If He were to bestow the fullness of the gift of His Spirit to us before we were able to fully rely on His merit, it would be to glorify man and place all creation in jeopardy. We must believe more if we would have more of Jesus. He is the Alpha and Omega of our righteousness in which we claim no part. We should glorify Him with our “thorns of the flesh” or else what would we be thankful for-that were not like other sinners? To walk in the light means more of walking by faith in Jesus that it does bible knowledge. This is why the sinners and publicans went into the kingdom of God before the religious community.

  • Rogelio Pulido

    Thank you very much for this uplifting article. My soul has been blessed. I praise God for his vessels, in which he imparts Words of life through. Keep strong brother. I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.
    Blessings, from you brother in Christ.


  • You shouldn’t be surprised that the Spirit can bring about that kind of change in you too. Born of the Spirit, you believe in God, and He produces that faith that is vital and powerful. Born of the Spirit, worship isn’t a dull routine but joyful praise. Born of the Spirit, you have the power to do some important things in the Lord’s work, to make a difference and bring some change to the world.

  • pwlsax

    In postmodern terms, we are always striving to be the subject, but we are never content to be the object. That requires we put ourselves fully under our own control, or that of a benevolent deity. (Strict, harsh deities have an easier time.)