There is a very basic moral principle that guides many of the actions of our life: pleasure is a moral good and pain is a moral evil. It is this basic moral principle that undergirds the morality and ethics of the modern world in its pragmatist-utilitarian ethic; we should determine the goodness and badness of certain actions and states of affairs based upon the pleasure and pain principle.
Now, to be clear, there is something important about this principle. It is part of a our biological ‘programming’ that means we have a visceral reaction to extremes of life, both in mountain peaks of of love and in the valleys of hate. This principle guides us towards those sources that quite literally sustain life and guides away from and to fight those sources that destroy and take it.
But there is a problem with this principle: most of life is not experienced in and lived in the extremes of pure good or pure evil. Life is radically complex and radically mixed between things we would consider to reflect the prototypes of true good and true evil. For instance, imagine a case where the same person can be a genuinely devoted spouse but can also cheat in their workplace. Is this person truly good, truly evil, or a mixture in between? While his spouse might think he is good and his employers think he is evil, it is likely that he is something in between. But, each person’s own experience of them, the pleasure that spouse has received from his devoted attention can mask them from seeing the darker sides. The pain that their employers and coworkers received might make his better side. The problem with pleasure and pain is this: it is a reliable guide at the extremes of life, where what is life-giving and death-dealing is clear and distinct, but it isn’t reliable in telling us the truth about the more complex things in life.
This is true not just for people, but also actions. Lets consider the condition of divorce. For most Christians, it is an obvious wrong that we should avoid. Jesus Himself argues vociferously against the practice of divorce, but perhaps Jesus speaks hyperbolically to get people to recognize the clear evil that comes with covenant-breaking in marriage, but was never intended as a law-like pronouncement that divorce is in every single instance impermissible by all parties. Elsewhere, we do see Paul consider Jesus’ teaching on marriage to be fit to be compared with other teaching on marriage that he himself had in 1 Corinthians 7.10-16, as if Jesus’ words were not intending as a law-like universal prohibition that allows for not consideration of other concerns. So, if a person who has been severely abused divorces their spouse, is the act of divorce a wrong, sinful action? We might recognize the rightness of protecting the abuse victim. But what if it causes a deep sense of pain to the perpetrator? Many of us would intuitively recognize that the experience of the pain of the abuser does not obligate the victim, nor that is makes her actions wrong or evil. Nevertheless, there is the very real experience of pain by the abuser.
In the two examples above, I am seeking to point out something: the experience of pleasure and pain is not a reliable guide to what most of us would consider morally good and evil. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest people whose sense of right and wrong and is strongly and primarily determined by the pleasure and pain principle are actually people who are dangerous to others; that to treat pleasure and pain as a basis for most morality is a moral evil because it actually leads to reversal of how one interprets the extremes, where good is called evil and evil is called good. Many an abuser responds from the pain they really feel and even use to justify their own abuse towards their victims. If the abuser has power and influence over the person and others, they can frame ‘morality’ such that they exhibit increasing abusive control of their victims.
The problem with the pleasure and pain principle is that it is essentially egotistic. While the extremes can evoke a sense of awe or aversion that makes us ’empathetic’ with the feelings of many others who would respond the same way, for the most part, pleasure and pain is egotistic. It imagines moral good and evil from the specific situatedness of the person, or even the persons they empathize with, but it does not provide us a complete picture of complexity reality. Instead, it motivates an instinctual response that does not motivate us to stop and think about what is happening, but to react immediately to appearances.
This is good in the extremes of life: spouses who love each other should ideally not have to stop to think if this love is real, as it can create a distancing from one another. A person faced with an immediate danger should not stop to think, because their life and well-being will be on the line. But most of life is not lived in these extremes. However, the more we make moral decisions about life based upon the pleasure and pain principle, the more we simplistically evaluate the world as it they operate in the extremes. As a consequence of this, we can inflict pain on others who bear no responsibility nor were no threat and we can try to get pleasure from those who share no love for us. Life lived solely by the pleasure and pain principle makes someone see another person in the most egotistic of manners, making others subservient to whatever the emotions, desires, and aversion a person has in that moment.
This does not mean we should ignore pleasure and pain in our moral thinking. It simply means that pleasure and pain of a person or a specific group of should not have the first and last answer on morality and ethics if a group of people seek to move towards a life where we experience the extreme goodness of life and do not experience extreme evil in life.
This brings me to what Paul says in Romans 8.10:
if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.1
Paul’s usage of the terms of life and death are complex, and I can not hope to give a fair and appropriate evaluation of them in this blog post, but I will summarize it to say this: whereas we in the West tend to see life and death in terms of a specific biological state, life and death was understood more so as encompassing both 1) what we consider the specific biological states and 2) the experiences associated with those biological states. In other words, to speak of death is not only a reference to the biological cessation of life, but the experiences of pain, suffering, etc. that are a part of the experience of biological death.
In this case then, I would propose that Paul here in Romans 8.10 is actually giving a fully embodied account of human life lived when one is in Christ. When one is in Christ, one experiences the forces of death that are coming from the body, that is, pain and suffering but one also comes under the forces of life, which can include joy and peace, through the Spirit in virtue of the submission of one’s life being lived according to the Spirit. This then points forward to the resurrection in the following verse: the final, ultimate experience of the life-giving Spirit.
However, Paul does not explain the idea of death and life here much further. He previously expanded on it in Romans 6 as it bears relation to one’s union with Christ before then bringing back up again in 8.10, but Paul gives no real explanation as to the why, as that is not his purpose.
However, if I can try to reach for an explanation, I would offer it as follows with more modern ideas and language: our instinctual nature towards pleasure and pain can lead us to egoticity. However, once we let go out of all our egotistic actions and pursue the good that God calls us towards, we begin to experience the pain that comes from such self-denial. It can be the pain and suffering of those who have previously harmed others learning to be different; Paul is a pivotal example of his. It can also be a very real pain and suffering that can even emerge from the injustice that has been or is being done to us, where we commit ourselves to life and peace. 2 Regardless of who we are in relationship to others and the world, when we commit to follow Christ life and the leading of the Spirit, we are subjecting ourselves to certain experiences of pain and suffering that come from our body. By failing to be egotistic in our behaviors, but rather commit and submit ourselves to a way of life we may not even understand at the start because we trust the One from whom it comes, we are committing ourselves to a very real experience of pain.3
But, this is not the reversal of the pleasure-and-pain principle. It is not to state that pleasure is bad and pain is good. This would be a quick route towards calling good evil and evil good. Rather, it is the recognition that pain is part of the process and that the process is not evil simply because it creates bodily, visceral pain and emotional suffering for oneself. The presence of pain can certainly give us a recognition that something is wrong still, but it may not always be clear what the real culprit(s) are in our pain, whereas when we are instinctively reacting to pain we tend to act with confidence that we know the culprit(s) and their evil action(s).
However, Paul does not envision this experience as pure suffering and pain in Romans 8.10. The life lived in seeking righteousness leads to the emergence of life by the Holy Spirit, which can include joy and peace. Pain is not the only experience of the life of obedience in Christ through the Spirit.
However, we should note something very clear here: while Paul does refer to life and death here and that it probably refers to the experiences that are connected to them, we should not evaluate people’s faithfulness based upon their emotional experiences and expressions. For Paul, life does not come from the body but from the Spirit. But, it can readily happen in some circles of piety to judge people’s faithfulness based upon the emotional experiences people express and show, but this amounts to a form of spiritual elitism. Much as the social elite experiences better outcomes of life and thus on a whole experience more joy and less suffering than those who are not elite, to regard people’s spiritual experiences based upon the emotional content of their lives without regard for context is to act in the form of spiritual elitism; it is to be guilty of giving too much into the pleasure-and-pain principle but putting a spiritual garb on it.
For Paul, joy and other related experiences as marked out as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23 is a process of cultivation by the organizing work of the Spirit. Whereas the gifts of the Spirit are considered to some degree under the control and possession of the one to whom it has been given, albeit in a conditional manner, the fruit of the Spirit is not something one simply possesses or accesses. Rather the agricultural metaphor highlights it is something that emerges from the Spirit. Whereas the “deeds of the flesh” are entrenched and well-established in human life and hence it is referred to in a more straightforward, literal, the life led by the Spirit must emerge and thus is referred to with an agricultural metaphor.
Thus, the life the Spirit gives in Romans 8.10 is not referring to a simple provision of the experiences that we associate with life, but it is that which emerges from the formation of the Spirit. The body has been colonized by the powers of sin and death (Romans 7.14-25) and so the experience of life from the Spirit is what emerges in the bodily life, but not what is necessarily already present. In both Galatians and Romans Paul shows an understanding that there is an already established entrenchment of the patterns and habits of the flesh that is being overturned in Christ and through the Spirit, but it may not immediately become phenomenologically realized through the experiences of emotional joy, peace, etc. until the overlap of formation and context is reached.4
In summary, we are inclined to treat the pleasure-and-pain principle as a source of our moral and ethical thinking, but the more we treat it as the exclusive source we are in risk of actually moving towards calling good evil and evil good. Furthermore, this pleasure-and-pain principle is often times giving a ‘spiritual’ garb to it by Christians. However, Paul’s understanding of the experience of the life in Christ and lead by the Spirit challenges the limits of the pleasure-and-pain principle in order to realize the most obvious forms of goodness that the pleasure-and-pain principle can help us to see.
- To be clear, I am not advocating for submission to abuse and oppression here, but arguing against the instinctual impulse where one can begin to seek to oppress one’s oppressors by reversing the roles rather than simply changing the roles so that oppression and abuse no longer occur.
- As an aside, this commitment and submission can be commonly referred to as “surrendering,” but I find this to be a deeply problematic language for a number of reasons. Firstly, it can lead to the portrayal of one’s relationship to God as passive, as if God simply does what He does, but Paul construes the work of God to happen through what we might term a much more collaborative work. Secondly, it can subtly and implicitly inculcate a sense of hierarchical dominance within the ecclesial body. The closest we get to such language in the New Testament is Paul’s language of slavehood and servanthood, but in Romans 6.17 Paul envisions this occurring through the pattern of Christ who Paul proclaims that leads to it being a condition of obedient in the heart. Paul thus things of the servanthood of Christians as emerging from the obedience that comes from faith that is in the proclamation of God’s redemption in the person of Jesus, not from some act of “surrender.”
- In other words, we should not commit a spiritual version of the fundamental attribution error, where we think people’s actions are solely determined by traits they carry as people due to what they have been spiritually formed into but also recognize the role of circumstance and context. For instance, we shouldn’t expect a spiritually maturing Christian to experience the full emotions of joy in the midst of deep tragedy. Even if they do not deal with tragedy as most other deals with tragedy, for them to experience such would be pushing towards a form of attentional and emotional escapism. Rather, we should trust that through the work of the Spirit they would spiritually ‘rebound’ from such tragedy when they get some distance from that tragedy.