It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous was not sufficient to prevent our slipping, and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.....My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view, as they stand above.
Of course, if Mr. Franklin had read Romans 7:19, he might have saved himself a lot of trouble: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” Paul discovered that moral perfection was not something that could be achieved. He found that he was constantly fighting against the flesh that his spirit was bound in: “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
Paul discovered that the flesh was and always would be fighting against the Holy Spirit living within him, but there was a good reason for God leaving us in this flawed and dependent state: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (1 Corinthians 4:7). God could have perfected our bodies when He planted His Spirit within us, but He chose in His Infinite Wisdom to leave us in a state of weakness. In this state, we will be constantly striving toward perfection through the lifelong process of sanctification, but never quite arriving at perfection so that we might be ever more dependent upon Him and draw ever closer in our relationship to Him.
But it is not within our own power to grasp perfection. We need His power to change us. And we don’t even know what is important to focus on, what our flaws are, what our purpose is, or how we might best proceed in this work of sanctification or what steps we should take in His work. For all these things, we need Him. It is somewhat comical to read about Mr. Franklin’s program of perfecting himself, as if he were as wise as God, knowing his own character, knowing what was important to God, and being wise enough to foresee all things and never make any errors. When we draw closer to God, we get less and less impressed by our ability to be good, to assess ourselves accurately, or to always know right from wrong in every single situation we might encounter. Over time, as we see God clearer and clearer, we also see more and more of our own flaws. Moreover, as we draw closer to Him over the decades, we become more and more convinced of our inability to get anything right in our lives apart from Him.
More on this tomorrow. I pray that God will bless you, keep you, fill you with His peace that passes all understanding, and fill you with His immeasurable love.