ACT and the letter to the Romans

Since I started learning about Acceptance Commitment Therapy, I've begun to read Romans 6-8 differently. I think Paul is actually attempting to explain the fundamentals of ACT to his audience in spiritual terms.

For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore the fruit of death.

I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting [...] I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.

(All taken from ch 7)

It appears to me that Paul is trying to articulate the phenomenon that actively attempting to avoid unwanted thoughts and behaviors increases our consciousness of them and strengthens them - basically trapping ourselves in a mental room with the thought we are trying to suppress.

And this explains both Paul's apparent disdain and honor for the Law. To him, the Law represents his values, but the Law is also what binds his mind to those unwanted behaviors by reminding him of them as he attempts to meditate on it. Paul has discovered that attempting to follow the Law - i.e. attempting to self-regulate, censor, suppress, and avoid sinful thoughts and desires - has the opposite of intended effect and "leads to death."

Paul's solution to this now seems far more radical than I ever read into it before, and it again seems to align with what little I know of ACT - to stop regulating, stop suppressing, stop labeling. In his terms, "die to the law." In Paul's theology, dying to the law releases us from its power completely.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

The "Therefore" here has always been a slight mystery to me. In my old theology, it never represented any coherent cause-effect in the text. But now I can see it as saying "Because self-regulation achieved the opposite effect as intended, Christ has removed the condemnation for sin so that we can experience the freedom we need to make choices that align with our values."

Making choices that align with our values - that is, with love - is what Paul refers to variously as being "in the Spirit," or "fulfilling the Law." What Paul is laying out here is that if our values are aligned toward love and doing good, we may agree with the objectives of the law, but we cannot be beholden to it. If we subject ourselves to the law, our minds work against us. But if we are freed from the law, we can fulfill the objective of living in our values. Sounds like ACT.

There's so much more in these chapters that basically directly relates to my experiences with ACT so far.

The part I think that tripped me up before was back in ch 6, where Paul says "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!" In my church tradition, this basically canceled out the rest of the passage - 'see, Paul is not really saying to do away with the Law.' But now I can see Paul attempting to explain that the objective of accepting ourselves is not only to be free to do what we please. Our objective in seeking freedom is in fact to liberate ourselves from the way that our own Law by which we used to judge our thoughts and desires resulted in us doing what we explicitly wanted to avoid and caused us suffering. Yes, we are free to choose to do things that are "wrong," but we don't want to do those things, and if we are truly free we will not ever choose them. This connects with what Thomas Merton says in New Seeds of Contemplation:

Perfect spiritual freedom is the total inability to make any evil choice. When everything you desire is truly good and every choice not only aspires to that good but attains it, then you are free because you do everything that you want, every act of your will ends in perfect fulfillment. [...] God, in Whom there is absolutely no shadow or possibility of evil or of sin, is infinitely free.

Lately, it feels like the true foundation of Christian faith and ethics is falling into place for me. I had always known that legalism was not the correct formulation - but was never really given an alternative. It's comforting to me to be able to re-interpret words I'd previously found condemning into a framework that is, instead, life-giving.