Trying not to go haywire…
“I do not understand my own actions because I do not do what I want to. But I do the very thing that I hate. … I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now, if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who does it but the sin that dwells within me. … Wretched person that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death, from this life of sin? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And we love Romans 7 because this chapter is so accurate in its description of our human nature.
— Romans 7:15
I am happily married, for forty years now, and my wife is here today, and so it is uncomfortable for me to say that I look lustfully at certain women. Jimmie Carter, when he was President of the United States and also the most famous Bible teacher in the Baptist church, made the front page of TIME magazine by confessing he still had feelings of lust, even though happily married. He didn’t want to have such feelings. Neither do I. Neither do you. But in reality, we have them.
So I come to the conclusion: what kind of a Christian am I anyhow? I must not be a very good Christian. I must be a weak Christian. I must be a compromising Christian. I must be a sinful, imperfect Christian. What is wrong with me? Why are there so many contradictions living inside of me. What kind of a man is this that lives inside of me?
We all have these kinds of inner struggles within ourselves. You have yours; I have mine.
Now, who is it that wrote these words? “That which I want to do, I do not do. And that which I hate to do is exactly what I do.” Who is it that wrote these words? Was it some seventeen year old kid who was off parked with his girlfriend one night and he discovered his hormones were stronger than the Holy Spirit? Was it some newly “born again” Christian who was a recent Christian convert? Was this written by some TV evangelist who pompously parades around on some platform, preaching and pretending, that all of these temptations have left him?
We all know that the man who wrote these words was the Apostle Paul. Here he was at the very high point of his life. Fifty-five to sixty-five years old; a mature Christian; he had been a Christian for some twenty to twenty-five years. Here was the Apostle Paul who prayed fervently, who worked mighty miracles, who wrote numerous letters to the churches. Here was Paul who spoke courageously before governments, kings, and rulers. Here was Paul who was tossed into prison, beaten and stoned. Here was Paul, the most mature person of the Christ-centered life, at the high point of his Christian, at the top of his game, at the top of his A game (to use an analogy from golf) saying, “I don’t get it. I do not get it. I do the things that I hate. And the very things that I want to do, I don’t do. That which I don’t want to do, I do. What is wrong with me? What a wretched person?”
And then it begins to dawn on us that one of the marks of a mature Christian is the awareness of this struggle with evil in your life. One of the marks of a mature Christian is this honest awareness about who are, honest about this civil war within us. It is to struggle with evil until your dying day. We all struggle. We all say to ourselves, “O wretched person that I am.”
Or perhaps have you outgrown this? Have you become so mature, so holy? Is your life so together, so you have finally arrived at the point where you say, “I am just fine. I am not life the Apostle Paul. You say inside, “Wretched are those other people. I have won the battle with my sin; I have conquered my sinful self and my civil war.”
According to the Apostle Paul, a mark of a mature Christian is that a person continues to struggle with sin until your dying day. This is not a sign of Christian immaturity, not a sign of Christian weakness, not a sign of Christian double mindedness and doubt. This is a mark of a real Christian who lives in a real world and has real feelings inside and real awareness of himself or herself. Yes, we know that we struggle with it.
So here we are. The Apostle Paul, at the very top of his life, at the top of his game, at the very apex of his Christian life, when he was writing the finest letter that he had ever written, he says, “What is wrong with me? How come? The very good that I want to do, I do not do. That which I don’t want to do, is precisely what I do.” The Apostle Paul, who was the most mature Christian in his era, was writing these words.
But … is that all there is? That we struggle with sin? No, not at all. That is Romans, chapter seven. Chapter seven sets the table for chapter eight. Chapter seven is a prelude for chapter eight. At the end of chapter seven, he adds the transitional verse: “Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord.” If you move into Romans, chapter eight, you will discover Paul talking about the power of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit that comes into your life and gives you strength. He talks about the Holy Spirit who helps you get over your alcoholism, your drug addictions. He talks about the Holy Spirit who helps you get control of those destructive behaviors that are hurting your family, your marriage, yourself and hurting you in so many different ways. Paul talks about the Holy Spirit coming into you and strengthening you and helping you to do what is right. He talks about the Holy Spirit, forgiving you through the death of Christ on the cross.
Romans 8 is one of the fines chapters in the Bible. In this summer sermon series, I have preached one sermon on chapter three, one on chapter four, one on chapter five, one on chapter six, one on chapter seven; but when we get to chapter eight next week, there will be five sermons on one chapter. Romans 8 is one of the grandest chapters of the Bible.
But meanwhile, back at the ranch, based on chapter seven, we remain sinners. At the same time, we remain with our self-contradictions. Even after you have memorized all the verses of chapter eight; even after you have assimilated chapter eight; even after you have put chapter eight into practice in your life, chapter seven still stands. You still live with the truth from chapter seven. You never can escape the civil war inside of you.
Martin Luther understood this well, when he used this Latin phrase that sounds like this: “simil Justus epecator.” It was a very famous phrase during the Reformation. Simil Justus Epecator.” Simultaneously, saint and sinner. Simultaneously, when you are a saint, you are also a sinner. This phrase is true. You, as a Christian, are going to struggle with the sin inside of you until your dying day. That is just the way it is.
I have it figured out. The foolish religious-type said: “Tomorrow, I am going to start again. There will be a new leaf tomorrow. Turning over a new chapter in my life I am going to get up and roll out of bed and before my feet hit the floor, I’m going to pull out the Bible and read and pray for an hour. And then tomorrow morning, I am going to have a vegetarian breakfast, then a vegetarian lunch and then a vegetarian dinner. Tomorrow night, late, about midnight, when everybody is asleep, when the wife is asleep and the children are not watching and the dog is asleep by the fireplace, I am going to sneak into the refrigerator and just … pig out on a bowl … full of vegetables. Amen.
Why do we pray, meditate and do all the things that Christians are taught to do?
Because we are trying to get God’s help in our lives. Because we are trying, striving, and never quite able to live up to His expectations for us.
Because we are human but we know we have a spiritual core.
We want the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We want that little tiny spark within is, that small pilot light of God, to become a reliable compass that draws us closer to Him and further from our humanness. Our sinfulness.
John Francis Carey
Peace and Freedom
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
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