Lectio: Romans 7:15-25
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. 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 if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
If you found the link above, you were brought to an SNL sketch from this past season, probably my favorite all year. It is as different in tone from Paul’s frustrated laments as can be, and yet I couldn’t help but be reminded of this sketch. It is hysterical watching a mountainous man completely incapable of exerting any strength, but it is shatteringly defeating when our own strengths and efforts are discovered to be just as worthless and ineffective in the face of temptation and sin and shortcoming.
This reading is perhaps one of the more familiar passages of Paul’s letters, because we see in it that even our spiritual heroes do not have it all together, and we are comforted. (This is also one of the most difficult passages to read, or hear read, because of the convoluted sentences: “do, do not, do not do, what I want, do not want, want to do, do not want to do.” A tongue-twister, and an ear-wrangler.) At the same time, it offers us only a brief glimpse of any really good news, and only at the end.
I am drawn this morning to hear Paul saying, “I cannot do it.” This is like watching the strongest man in town straining to lift a pebble: hilarious, and saddening. If not even Paul the Apostle can keep in step with the Spirit and do the good God calls us to, what hope is there for us? Are any of us able?
What if that’s the good news? Can we even see utter inability as good news? I am profoundly comforted and reassured to know that God’s “omnipotence” really does mean he is all-powerful, all-able, all-doing. What is more, if God has all the power, then I do not, can not, should not. This is complicated good news, because being freed from having to engineer my own salvation and transformation does not free me from the responsibility of right response when it is freely offered to me. This is the crux of Paul’s quandary: if we are not able to transform ourselves, but are still responsible when transformation is offered to us, where do we stand when “this body of death,” sin’s constant, hidden influence, endures?
We stand in God’s grace. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Lord, Jesus Christ,
I surrender all of me to you, the parts that are already yours by your indwelling presence, and the parts of me that still resist and hold out for their own satisfaction and gratification. Open my eyes to the places within me where the light of your Spirit has not yet been shone, and shadows are still sown to keep the secrets hidden. Soften my heart towards myself, that I may see my hidden, unseen faults without self-abuse or self-loathing. Let me love the false parts of myself as you do, and let self-giving love chase out self-preserving fear and apathy.
Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.
Since I am determined to join myself to God, I find that I am also bound to be the enemy of his enemies. And since I find nothing that is more his enemy than the self that is in me, I am constrained to hate this part of me more than any other. Indeed, because of the war that exists between it and the Spirit, I am determined to separate it from myself and treat it as nothing.
I then saw others who were fighting against their evil inclinations and forcing themselves to resist them. But I saw that the more they struggled against them, the more they committed them. So I said to them, “You are right in lamenting your sins and imperfections, and I would be lamenting with you if it were not for the fact that God is holding me. You cannot defend yourself and I cannot defend myself. The thing we must do is renounce the care of ourselves unto God who can defend our true self. Only then can God do for us what we cannot do ourselves.”
(in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, ed. Richard Foster & James Brian Smith)