Me, Saint Paul, and Everyone Else: On Not Doing What We Would Do

I had an extended conversation with a student today regarding whether or not people ever can and do change. While he remained cynical about anyone’s attempt to become different, perhaps even better, than a former self, I maintained that we all can change through God-given free will. I argued that we can pause before we act and choose how to respond to any situation, and every choice shapes us differently. It is, of course, easier to argue this point philosophically than it is to live it out.

Perhaps one of Saint Paul’s most recognizable passages in his letter to the Romans regards his own frustration at a failure to do better, to choose what is right: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (vs. 15; NRSV). What is most remarkable about this is that Paul/Saul is held up by most Christians as a symbol of true transformation, of pharisee to disciple, of a persecutor of Christ to one of His most devoted followers. And yet, in this letter we see that even after his encounter on the road to Damascus and his desire to turn away from sin, he fails again and again.

What strikes me about my conversation with my student and my study of this passage is that how it connects what we now refer to as “growth mindset” to the larger discussion of whether or not people are even capable of change. As a woman, I often find myself at odds with Paul and his writings, but in this passage I see a common desire to do better and a bewilderment at my shocking propensity to fail. Despite my values and goals, I still find myself eating sugar, being judgmental, and, what’s worse, justifying those and other bad behaviors.

The conclusion my student and I came to was that there is and will always be a pull toward this self we are fighting against, what Paul refers to as “the sin that dwells within me.” The key is to keep fighting and, with God’s grace and enough years, to hopefully truly become someone better.

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