A little known medical condition recently revealed a lot to me about human nature. In a recent feature article in the New Yorker Magazine, reporter Richard Preston describes a bizarre and rare medical condition called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Lesch-Nyhan sufferers, always men, cannot control their bodies and are “uncontrollably driven to harm themselves” (31). Their hands will fly into their mouths, and unless stopped, they will bite off their own fingers. If they like someone, they’ll curse them. If they hate someone, they’ll praise them. They’re seemingly bent on self mutilation, even if their conscious desires are otherwise.
According to Dr. H.A. Jinnah, a Johns Hopkins neurologist, we all have within us some extent of “self-injurious behavior” (35). At one of the spectrum, we find eating a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s in front of the television (Phish Food is my poison of choice) or biting your fingernails. Some people take it a step further and bite their cuticles. At the far end, you have people with Lesch-Nyhan, uncontrollably biting off their fingers.
The person who bites his or her fingernails often doesn’t want to do it, but well, it’s often a hard habit to break. We all have our disgusting little habits that we want to avoid (smoking, picking our nose, eating what we got out of our nose, etc). At some point, all of us can sympathize with these Lesch-Nyhan patients, who can’t control their own bodies and their own words.
Long ago, the Apostle Paul recognized this dual nature in ourselves: one part that wills to do one thing, and another part that doesn’t want to listen. He says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Paul was doing exactly what he didn’t want to do, but he couldn’t stop himself. Keep in mind that this is Paul, the guy who we credit with spreading the gospel all over the place, and the guy who wrote a huge chunk of the New Testament. From this description, he doesn’t sound any better off than a Lesch-Nyhan patient.
Paul doesn’t end his discourse on the topic in utter frustration. He searches for meaning in his actions. He realizes that there’s a battle being waged inside himself. The battle is between his sinful nature and his will to do God’s good: “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:22-23).
Eventually, Paul realizes the way to win this battle. Someone has already fought on our behalf: Jesus.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 7:1-4).
We, who can’t behave ourselves, who can’t act as we would like, have a champion to fight for us. God sent his Spirit to battle our sinful nature. We can’t win the battle alone. The battle belongs to the Lord.