This one comes to us from RJ Coburn.

Psychomachia is the name given to the common trope found in movies, television, and comic strips when a character is dealing with temptation. Two versions of his or her self appear, an angel version and a devil version. Commonly, the devil is on the left shoulder (or standing on the left, if shown as a full-sized person) and the angel on the right. This represents the battle of the soul, or as Homer tells Lisa on an episode of The Simpsons, “Inside every man is a struggle between good and evil that cannot be resolved.” (Cut to “devil” Homer dancing on “good” Homer’s grave chanting, “I am evil Homer.”)

This angel/devil-self trope has a very Freudian vibe to it. Freud theorized that the human psyche was made up of three parts. The “id,” which contains instinctual desires, is pleasure-seeking and wants immediate gratification. The “super-ego,” which works in contradiction to the id, reflects cultural values and rules instilled by parents, society, and religion. The super-ego is said to control our sense of right and wrong, and to act as our conscience, helping us fit into society by getting us to act in socially acceptable ways. The “ego” is caught in the middle, between the id and the super-ego, attempting to mediate and reconcile the two competing parts of the psyche. In the trope of psychomachia, the devil on the left is the id, the angel on the right is the super-ego, and the ego is the person stuck in the middle.

The problem with this construct of human nature and our struggle with temptation is that not only do our selfish desires (in the analogy of the trope: the devilish-self) come from within, but the power to control those desires (the angelish-self), and to do “good,” also comes from within us. Furthermore, this construct insists that we are entirely free to choose whether we follow our “devilish” desires or follow the advice of our “angelic” self. This is an overly optimistic view of human nature. Even Freud saw the self as being bound to the id, and only constrained by social norms and the threat of punishment.

In his book, Grace in Addiction, John Z says, “While the unfree human will finds painfully clear expression in alcoholism, Christianity would claim that the problem is universal… Any kind of behavior that willpower has proven insufficient in controlling or curbing…offers a relevant glimpse into the problem of life which both AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] and Christianity seek to address.” Reformation Christianity and AA are drawn together, both holding a realistic view of human nature and seeing the world through the lens of human powerlessness and the inability to save oneself.

This worldview is abundantly clear in the CBS sitcom Mom, which follows Christy Plunkett, played by Anna Faris, a single mother who is working to put her life back together after battling alcoholism and drug abuse. Her mother Bonnie, played by Allison Janney, is also a recovering addict, who lives with Christy. Together they navigate recovery and life, oftentimes with hilarious comedic twists. In one of the episodes, the show puts a twist on the angel-devil trope in a way that corresponds more closely to a realistic view of humanity.

In Season 2 Episode 20, “Sick Popes and a Red Ferrari,” Bonnie, who in the previous episode, had a back injury requiring pain medication and relapsed, struggles with whether or not she wishes to become sober again. Things come to a head at minute 15 in the episode, as Bonnie is detoxing in her room. Bonnie wakes up to find a personification of her “badness” standing beside the bed asking, “Are you done with this stupidity? Come on, get up. Let’s go down to the park and score an 8-ball.”

Bonnie says, “No, I can’t. I’m trying to quit.”

Bad-Bonnie responds, “Oh, come on, you’re no quitter, and besides it’ll be different this time. From now on we’ll only get high on the weekends.”

Then, on the other side of the bed, a fairy-godmother-looking Bonnie shows up, representing “all that is good” in Bonnie. Good-Bonnie says, “Excuse me, no one will be snorting any fat rails while I’m here.”

The two Bonnies begin to argue. Bad-Bonnie says that without her, Bonnie would have never survived being a foster kid. Good-Bonnie says that she was always looking out for Bonnie, to which Bad-Bonnie replies that it was because of Good-Bonnie that Bonnie kept getting beat up in school. Good-Bonnie says that it was because of Good Bonnie that she reconciled with her daughter, to which Bad-Bonnie replies, “It was because of me that she had a daughter.”

“At age seventeen,” Good-Bonnie says.

The two continue to argue. Bonnie can’t take it anymore. She says, “I feel like my head is going to explode… I can’t think… I don’t know what to do. Should I keep getting loaded? Should I get sober? I give up. Someone help me. Please God, anybody.”

 

At this point, a long haired guy in a bathrobe comes out of the bathroom, representing Jesus (as made clear from previous episodes). He says, “Ladies, I got this,” and makes both Bad-Bonnie and Good-Bonnie leave the room. Good-Bonnie protests, “I don’t know why I can’t stay.” But Jesus makes them both leave anyway.

Jesus then sits on the bed, takes Bonnie’s hand and says, “It’s okay, we can do this.”

This scene demonstrates the reality of human powerlessness to save itself. Bonnie lacks the power to save herself, she even lacks the power to decide to stop using. She has the desire to stop, as she tells Bad-Bonnie, but like the Apostle Paul, she cannot carry it out (Romans 7:18). The way that many people view the Christian life, in this situation, Jesus would have told Bonnie to listen to her good-self, and maybe kicked out the Bad-Bonnie.  But in and of ourselves, we are “id,” curved in ourselves. The power to overcome sin, to do what is right, to be righteous, cannot come from inside us. As Paul said, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” No, our righteousness is alien to us, something from the outside.

Our salvation, our righteousness, comes only from Christ, who is with us and for us. As in the show, there is no room for the good nor the bad Bonnie, when Jesus is present. Because in the end it is not about obeying the good part of ourselves and rejecting the bad part, but surrendering (or as the Bible puts it “dying”).  Bonnie gives up, and there, at the end of her rope, Jesus meets her and does what neither Good-Bonnie nor Bad-Bonnie could do: gives her hope.