The things I want – the things I do

Proper 14                    July 9, 2017

Romans 7:14-25 

What a contrast today’s Scripture readings give us!  We go from one extreme to the other.   On the one hand, we have a wonderful innocent and lyric love poem, from the Song of Songs, which we said in place of the psalm.  And on the other hand, right after it, another of Paul’s rather dark and abstruse meditations on law and sin and the fundamental brokenness of the human condition.  What a jarring leap that is!

If nothing else, it is a reminder of the breadth of what is in the Bible.  Many people seem to think of the Bible as a religious book with fairly narrow interests: God and sin and holiness.  But the reality is that it is a vast library with all kinds of different texts from over a thousand years of Jewish civilization, including this tender and passionate piece of erotic poetry. We really should read more of the Song of Songs.  It would do us good to be reminded that this too is in the Bible, that passionate young love is also celebrated as a good gift of God.

I didn’t want to let this wonderful passage slip by without acknowledging it, but I’m afraid I am being a bit of a tease – it is actually the Romans passage that I feel I have to talk about this morning.  As much as it feels so predictably religious, with all its talk of sin and law, there is something in these lines that rings true to our lives.

We have been reading our way through Romans for the past several weeks, and frankly it has been a bit of a slog.  Paul’s letters can often be difficult and obscure, and maybe nowhere more so than in this argument in Romans.  The commentary I looked at refers to today’s passage as one of the most difficult in Romans.  But here’s the thing: when we looked at this passage in the reading and discussion group this week, it made sense to us in a way Romans has not been making sense.  It felt like Paul was finally getting concrete and real, and speaking to our experience:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

Now I don’t know how this grabs you, but for us on Tuesday morning there was instant recognition.  As bleak and obsessive as it may sound, Paul is finally telling it like it is.  We have all experienced this – we experience it rather often, actually – and there is something healthy and real about hearing it said out loud.

These words are part of a long discussion that Paul is having about the Law and sin. Part of the difficulty we may have been having over the past few weeks in understanding these passages is that these words, Law and sin, may not mean precisely the same thing to us as they did to Paul – or they may simply not mean as much to us as they did to him.

Paul was a Jew – a former Pharisee, in fact – and so the Law is very important to him: and by Law he means the commandments of God handed down in the Jewish tradition.  As a Pharisee, he made these commandments his highest ideal: it was in following the commandments that his life had meaning, that he would find salvation. Now, since coming to believe in Jesus, the Law has become more complicated for him.  He still believes that it is holy and good, because it comes from God. But he has come to realize that it cannot bring him salvation.  It is not as simple as just following the Law and obtaining salvation, because he has come to recognize that there is something broken inside of him: he can want to follow the Law with his mind and his will, but he finds himself doing just the opposite.  In his case, in fact, trying to follow God’s good Law turned him into a murderous fanatic.

To further complicate matters, Paul the Jew is writing this letter to a church containing both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. And we are reading it today as Gentiles, as non-Jews. Now we certainly have a sense of something called God’s Law – we would probably name the Ten Commandments, for example – but our sense is much vaguer than that of the Pharisee Paul, for whom the idea of God’s law is at the centre of his religious heritage.  And that makes this whole discussion a bit more abstract and hard to follow for us.

Which is why today’s passage is helpful.  For just a couple of sentences he drops all the technical mumbo-jumbo about law, and speaks of a universal human experience: “For I do not do the good I want,  but the evil I do not want is what I do.”This is what he really means, at its core.  When he talks about the Law, he is talking about the good we want to do.  Our ideals, if you like.  And when he is talking about sin and the flesh – also words that are very loaded and can be very misleading for us – what he is really talking about the baffling experience that we don’t live up to these ideals.

There’s the human dilemma in a nutshell: we have ideals, we have ideas of what is good, of the kind of person we would like to be.  We have a theory of what our life should look like.  And then there’s the practice, and so often it looks different.  You know what they say: in theory there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.  And there’s the rub.  Again and again our theory and our practice don’t line up, our ideal of who we would like to think we are, and the reality of how we act and speak and think.  We are not at one with ourselves.  All this talk of Law and sin is not just something Paul or the church has made up to make people’s lives difficult: it is our basic dilemma as human beings.

We are not at one with ourselves. How do we deal with this, how do we cope with the fact that we again and again fail to live up to our ideals?  There are only so many strategies we can try.

• We can try to play the innocent, to will ourselves back into a state of lost innocence.   There is a romantic notion that all this business of sin and guilt has just been invented by the church, and if we can just get over that, we will be innocent again. Small children and animals, after all, don’t have a law to govern their behaviour – they do what comes naturally to them, they are at one with themselves. But here’s the thing: speaking as someone with a puppy in the house, the cuteness gets old really fast when they don’t follow certain rules, like not peeing on the floor or stealing food from the counter. We can’t just do what comes naturally, because we have to get along with each other; and so there are laws. And where there are laws, we will break them.
I don’t think this means as Christians that we have to go around feeling guilty all the time.  God gives us lots of opportunity for innocent happiness; but it must be upheld by adult responsibility.  It’s wonderful to hear about the young lover bounding like a gazelle over the hills; but you’ve got to hope that he is going to man up when the girl gets pregnant!

• Alternatively, there is the path of the cynic. We can just give up our ideals, convince ourselves that they are just so much hot air, that human life is really brutish, nasty, and short.  Except that we still have ideals, we still have expectations of ourselves, no matter how cynical we pretend to be. No one can simply live following every impulse that comes to them, without some kind of sense of our own dignity to censor ourselves. Well, some people can, but they end up in jail.

• There is the way of the scapegoater. We can try to find someone or something else to blame for our failure to live up to our own ideals: our parents or society or religion or the devil.  But the worst of it is, if we are honest and realistic, we recognise that the problem lies in us, in something fundamentally broken in the human design.  When Paul talks about “it’s not me, it’s sin working in me,” he is not trying to shift the blame: the point is that the sin, the brokenness, is in me – I am of flesh.

• There is the way of the Pharisee. We can double down on the law and just try harder.  That’s what the Pharisees were about: making the righteous fulfillment of the law the all consuming centre of their lives, trying by sheer discipline and will power and bending all the force of religion behind  them to live up to their ideals.  One can succeed at this, to some extent.  But the problem with this approach is that one can only succeed by making one’s ideals smaller and smaller.  We carve out a certain kind of morality that we can live up to, and consider ourselves righteous because we never break any of our rules: we keep the Sabbath and never drink and curse and tell off-colour jokes – and at the same time, we are hard-hearted and merciless and judgmental towards our fellow human beings.

• There is the path of the guilt-ridden. I suspect this is where most of us end up.  We simply continue to suffer from the gap between our ideals and our reality, and so we allow our ideals to make us feel like failures. The problem with this approach is that it gradually saps our confidence and our creativity.  We get by, but at the cost of a sense of drowning in our own mediocracy.  Eventually we may end up hating the very ideals that make us feel so inferior all the time.

This is the dilemma, and there are only so many ways of dealing with it.  But there is one more possibility, one that Paul discovered in his encounter with Jesus.  In Jesus he met the fundamental fact of God’s unconditional acceptance and love.  On the basis of that acceptance, we can begin to accept who we are, accepting that we are broken and yet still loved by God. In faith we try to learn to accept this love that God has for us, and so we begin to love ourselves.
This is not the same as giving up on our ideals; it doesn’t mean we think we’re all okay.  Our ideals are just as important as ever, and we still strive for them, and we still recognize that we fall short.  But it’s not the end of the world when we fall short; we pick ourselves up and try again.  We are beloved by God as we are: that is the core gospel message. By accepting that, we suddenly take a lot of pressure off of ourselves, and off our ideals. They cannot save us, and they don’t need to save us.

When that happens, Paul discovered, something remarkable and freeing can happen. We learn to fall in love with our ideals again.  The law ceases to be something that exists to remind us of our own failure and shortcoming, and becomes again what it was really meant to be: a vision of our better selves. It moves out of our head, as that little voice that constantly tells us what we should and shouldn’t be doing falls silent.  We stop “should-ing” all over ourselves.  The law moves into our heart.  And there we discover that it has become a part of us, that we actually do begin living up to our ideals, naturally and spontaneously, without any effort at all.  We find we are whole again, at one with ourselves.

Now that of course is not a place we are going to arrive at in this lifetime.  But as we continue to enter more fully into the love of God, as we accept that we are valued in God’s sight, we do find that we can start to grow up to be more fully the people we are meant to be. 

“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”