The Accuser Within Can Never Lead Us to Freedom
What to do with the condemnation that we (and all humans) feel
Condemnation is a real felt experience from a human standpoint. It’s what happens when flawed humans (‘sinners’ aka all of us) bump into ‘the law’.
Now… ‘The law’ in a theological sense doesn’t just mean the 10 commandments or the 613 Levitical laws. It means ‘anything that accuses.’ You don’t have to be religious to ram up against the law. We can hear the rustling of leaves as pure magic while the man walking next to us through the park hears it as sheer condemnation.
In an ethical sense, the law is “written on our hearts” (Romans 2:12–16). This is Biblespeak for ‘we have a conscience’. Humans can’t escape the law. It’s the water we swim in.
Even the staunchest atheist, when his wife dies of a terminal disease, will honestly ask himself, “What did I/she do to deserve this?”
There it is. The law. Condemnation. It’s real.
The Bible portrays that humans have long been possessed by this condemnatory voice. Something shifted in the human experience between Genesis 2:25 and Genesis 3:7–11. Shame enters the human mind. And we start acting in all sorts of crazy ways to defend against it.
Here’s the kicker…
People like St. Paul and Martin Luther realized that the more we try to follow that condemnatory voice in our heads is, the more horrible our behavior is. The greater the law, the greater the trespass. The law amplifies the failure (Romans 5:20). The more I tell my kid to eat her veggies, the more she’ll fight against it. The law cannot result in what it demands. The only thing the law does, in a theological sense, is it brings us to the end of ourselves.
The law doesn’t free anyone to love. It locks us up, for sure. And this is necessary, especially in a civil sense. But it doesn’t change hearts. I can yell at my daughter for not eating her greens. I can send her to her room. But I can’t make her eat them. The law only goes so far in its effectiveness.
Our sinful selves have no hope in and of themselves. This is the function of the law, to bring about the execution of the ego. There is no such thing as ego rehabilitation. It must be killed. But that’s not the end of the story…
The law brings us to the cross where the old egoic self dies and a New Self is resurrected in Christ.
This New Self cannot be earned. It does not come from past or future good behavior in alignment with the law. It comes ex nihilo — out of nothing. God’s wrath imparts death on the egoic (old) self and God raises a New Self through grace.
My Lutheran tradition believes that Jesus truly felt condemned on the cross. In Jesus, God (the one ABOVE the law) entered flesh and was born UNDER the law in order to redeem us from slavery under the law and bring us into adopted childhood under God (Galatians 4:4–7). In Jesus, God was executed. It was the law that fueled and justified the spears, whips, thorns, and chains (the epitome of legalism). God suffered the law as a real experience as is written in Matthew 27:46 where he screams “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”
And then… He was raised anew. The law ends. “It is finished.” (John 19:28–30)
This is the pattern… We are born and then something shifts. The ego kicks in. We yearn for self-sufficiency. We want to go it alone. This is the root meaning of sin, prideful self-sufficiency. We all have this inclination.
This way of sin seems gratifying to the ego but is a heavy load that none of us can bear. We’re confronted by the accuser within — by the wrath of God — and we think that the way to end that voice is to clench our teeth and get our shit together. All we need, we think, is a little help from God. Just a little. We got the rest.
This is merely the devil dressed up as an angel. It’s still about us. It’s moralism as a form of ego gratification. We get paranoid. WE’RE living better than THEM. Why are THEY getting all the benefits? WE’VE worked so hard. Look at how GOOD we are.
Bitterness and envy set in. We soon feel regret, shame, and eventually, terror. We try to live by that accusing voice, but we can never quite match up. We might not cheat on our spouses, but if the world could only see the lustful thoughts flowing through our minds as we walk through a busy park on a hot July Saturday afternoon... We might not kill our neighbor, but if only our homicidal thoughts could be broadcast on a giant screen above our house for everyone to see... We might have a bad day where these transgressions manifest in the real world and we’re actually locked up (or, worse, we get away with it and live in the prison of our own consciences).
At some point, God willing, we’re brought by the amplifying of this wrath to the end of ourselves. The death of the egoic old self happens and we are… Free. We are raised anew, not by the accomplishment of the law or in the living up to our various self-salvation projects, but by the unearned grace of God who loves us back to life.
This is how we become human. We can now turn to our neighbor in service without it being about checking a box on the law’s task list. The accusing voice within ends and we are turned outward towards our neighbor in need.
But until we die, we remain humans with egos. The old self will always hang on. The voice of the law will always kick back in. And we’ll always need the Words of Christ to bring us back to the cross where the old self is executed and a New Self is raised up.
As far as I can see, this is the only way to human freedom.