Satan’s take-down of Adam and Eve was just the beginning of what would become a classic struggle between grace and nature.
In his book, The Imitation of Christ, Thomas Kempis explains it this way: “Carefully observe the actions of nature and grace, for both move in opposite directions and in such subtle ways as to be indistinguishable except by the spiritually enlightened.”
For instance, human nature always has its own advantage in mind but grace seeks the exact opposite. “Grace is not concerned with its own profit,” Kempis writes, “but with what may benefit others.”
Nature loves to be honored and respected. “Grace refers all honor and reverence to God.”
Nature loves leisure. “Grace cannot be idle and gladly embraces toil.”
Nature would rather rebel than obey. “Grace always wants to live under God’s direction . . .”
Nature is enchanted by rarities, luxuries, and costly things. “Grace takes joy in humble and simple things.”
Nature loves to horde and clings greedily to its possessions. “Grace is kind and unselfish . . . and rightly judges that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
When misfortune arises, nature is quick to complain. “Grace gladly bears poverty with constancy.”
Nature loves a crowd and boasts about its many friends. It likes to flatter the rich and impress the powerful. Most of all, it likes people who share their same opinions. “Grace . . . loves even its enemies, and does not boast of having a large circle of friends . . . . It favors the poor rather than the rich; and has more in common with the simple and the innocent than with the influential.”
Nature craves the secrets of its neighbors. “Grace cares nothing for the novel or curious.”
Nature thrives on the limelight and wants to be noticed. “Grace teaches us to control our senses, to shun all vain pleasure and outward show, and humbly hide anything that might win human admiration.”
Nature is elated by material gain and discouraged by losses. “Grace is intent upon things eternal . . . for its treasure and joy are in heaven . . . where nothing is lost.”
These examples show us how mightily the two powers operation, how they pull us in opposite directions.
The goods news is that these two powers are not equal. Divine grace is the more potent of the two and is the only power than can conquer the human tendency toward choosing what is more pleasing to self rather than to God or neighbor.
Kempis describes divine grace as “a supernatural light and a special gift of God. It is the proper mark of the elect . . . . It lifts a person above the things of earth to the love of heavenly things, making a spiritual person out of a wordling. The more nature is kept down and overcome, the more grace fills a human soul.”
So how do we keep our human nature in check so that we can be filled with grace?
For starters, we should do everything in our power to eliminate obstacles to grace such as mortal sin and, to a lesser extent, venial sin. Lack of forgiveness and harboring resentment is also a wall that we build between ourselves and grace. Our tendency toward self-reliance – acting as if we don’t need God’s help – is also detrimental.
Keeping human nature in check also requires a special kind of vigilance to avoid allowing ourselves to become consumed by inordinate desires. This isn't easy in today's material world! We want all kinds of things that we think will make us happy – money, status, comforts, luxuries. But an honest look at ourselves and the sources of our anxiety will quickly reveal that the very things we think are making us happy are actually what are causing us the most stress – the car, the mortgage, the clothes, the job.
And if our anxiety isn’t coming from one of these things, it’s coming from the people in our lives. This one is driving us nuts; that one just doesn’t care. If only we had a more loving spouse, more obedient kids, more generous employers.
We need to be on our guard and frequently remind ourselves that all of these things are passing - the money, the comforts, the pleasures, even the people. If we make the mistake of basing all of our happiness upon these worldly things, when they go south, so will our happiness.
Through the writing of Kempis, Jesus gives us the perfect advice: “I understand well how desires sway you this way or that; but you should consider whether you are moved mainly for My honor or for your own interests. If I am the cause, you will be at peace whatever I do with you. But if self-interest is your motive, this will hinder you and drag your down.”
In other words, in this primordial battle between nature and grace, human nature is always better off playing dead. Let grace win!
If we do, we’ll quickly learn that the only difference between Jekyl and Hyde is usually nothing more than one blessed cry for help.
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