And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Augustine, Confessions, 8.20
Finally in the agony of hesitation I made many physical gestures of the kind men make when they want to achieve something and lack the strength, either because they lack the actual limbs or because their limbs are fettered with chains or weak with sickness or in some way hindered. If I tore my hair, if I struck my forehead, if I intertwined my fingers and clasped my knee, I did that because to do so was my will. But I could have willed this and then not done it if my limbs had not possessed the power to obey. So I did many actions in which the will to act was not equaled by the power. Yet I was not doing what with an incomparably greater longing I yearned to do, and could have done at the moment I so resolved…The body obeyed the slightest inclination of the soul to move the limbs at its pleasure more easily than the soul obeyed itself…
The two Scriptures seem to convey very distinct messages. In Isaiah, God commands quite clearly that the Israelites cleanse themselves. He puts the burden of their moral degeneration and the responsibility for rectifying it solely on the heads of the people. In contrast, in Mark we see the leper approach the Lord and beg to be cleansed. Out of a movement of benevolent pity, Jesus cleanses the leper based on nothing more than his sincere request. These parallel tendencies appear throughout Scripture, both the call to cleanse oneself (2 Tim. 2:21) and the heartfelt plea to be cleansed (Ps. 51:10). Sin is both moral bankruptcy whose fault is ours alone and the pernicious disease which requires the salve of the Great Physician.
Augustine engages this paradox, if indirectly, in his turmoil in the throes of conversion. Alone in the garden, he struggles to understand why it is so easy to compel the body to move and yet so hard to compel the soul to will. He desires to be turned wholly to God, but his will is not so easy to move as his limbs. Paul, in Romans 7, depicts a similar struggle where he knows what he ought to will but his sinful nature wills something else. Both realize that we are both responsible for willing what is good and incapable of truly actualizing that will unaided.
As Lent begins today, this tension is critical to understanding the heart of the fast. On the one hand, we know that we are called to purify our lives: not merely to remove vice but to pursue virtue. The ethical demands which God makes of His people are tremendous, and we are expected to conform ourselves to them. At the same time, we are utterly insufficient. The goodness of God is infinite, and no matter how thoroughly we make attempts to conform to it, our efforts are finite. By their very nature, they could never suffice to make us pure.
So we dedicate this time to purification and to prayer, two sides of the same theological coin: our need for cleansing. Let neither aspect be neglected. This time is an opportunity for reevaluation and rededication but also for renewed fervency in prayer and humility. The more we relinquish to God, the more we realize how dependent we were on Him all along.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.