Preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON). Admittedly, it’s a bit long, but I felt the Romans text warranted an deeper look (and the conclusion rambles, but I wanted to close on a high note).
I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures or cartoons of the little devil and little angel sitting on someone’s shoulders, urging the person to make a decision, either for good or for evil, each stating their case with a compelling argument.
Appealing to the sense of pleasure that will surely follow, the devil usually wins the argument more often than not. Showing its displeasure, the angel vanishes until the next time the person is faced with a decision.
Although the angel and devil on the shoulders are typically used for comedic effect, I think it is an image that perfectly captures what Paul is getting at in Romans 7.
Paul is exploring the depths of the human heart.
What he finds is the human heart at odds with itself.
What he finds there is nothing short of chaos.
Paul does not mince words in making his point: all humans find themselves in the same situation: we are under the influence of sin.
Sin is result of the human propensity to mess things up, a propensity shared by all people.
The effects of the human propensity to mess up are best illustrated in the recent television series Breaking Bad.
This show follows high school chemistry teacher Walter White who, as his name indicates, is an all-round decent guy. He is married with a teenage son and new born daughter.
Walt is soon diagnosed with incurable cancer. With no health insurance, Walt decides to take drastic measures into his own hands. Working with one of his former students, Walt becomes a manufacturer of Crystal Meth.
The show follows Walt’s transformation from mild-mannered teacher and family man to violent drug king-pin. Walt’s transformation is not linear; but as he becomes more involved in the drug trade, his true character becomes manifest.
As the show progresses we come to realize that the ‘nice guy’ Walt appears to be is merely a façade for who he really is: a ruthless man driven by his desire for power and control.
Of course, Walt justifies his actions: “Everything I do, I do it for the family. To provide for [them] when I’m gone”. It’s a justification that sounds noble, particularly since Walt’s cancer will leave his wife a widow and his children fatherless. Moreover, his death will leave his family penniless, in debt to health care providers.
I won’t offer any spoilers as to how the show ends for those who’ve have yet to watch it other than this: despite the noble justification for his actions and his nice-guy façade, the effect of Walt’s actions spread like a cancer through his community and beyond, doing incalculable damage to numerous lives. Walt is a retched man; he is nothing less than a monster.
It is easy to point the finger of condemnation and disgust at people like Walter White. However, Paul’s point in Romans 7 is that people like Walter White are no different than you and I. There is not a clear division between ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’. No, the division goes straight through the heart of every individual.
Yes, we can point the finger at Walter White, but in so doing we are pointing the finger directly at ourselves.
Each and every one of us is Walter White; each and every one of us is the “I” Paul refers to. The “I” refers to those who are descendants of Adam (cf. Rom. 5). In other words, the “I” refers to every person who has ever lived.
When we read this text, we read it in our own voice as our own words: “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”.
This is an ugly and uncomfortable truth: that deep-down inside, we all have the capacity to become monsters.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote: “it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your soul than it does for a solider to fight on a battlefield”.
I would rather believe that I am a decent person that to admit and accept that I am a fundamentally broken person. After all, I go to church, I love my wife and kids the best way that I can. I try to do nice things for others. I’m not involved in the illegal drug trade. I am an overall good person, aren’t I?
It is difficult to take a good hard look at myself; I am full of secrets, lies, and addictions that I don’t want to see the light of day. I know that I am not innocent; I have caused damage to myself and to others. I am selfish; I think not so-good thoughts about others. I use words to bring others down.
Let’s go a bit deeper. How good would I really be if there were no laws and consequences? How good would I really be if I could do certain things knowing that I could get away with them?
It is difficult to take a good hard look at myself because it inevitably leads to the conclusion that I cannot save myself from myself because, despite any outward appearances to the contrary, deep-down inside I am a mess.
My refusal to take a good hard look at myself is ultimately the result of my stubborn refusal to accept God’s love, grace, and forgiveness; my refusal to look at myself is rooted in my insistence that I can fix things on my own if I try a bit harder, if I’m a super-nice guy, if I do all the right things and follow all the rules.
However, in Romans 7 Paul is also cutting through the type of thinking that suggests that human wickedness will be overcome if people simply ‘do the right thing’ and ‘just love each other’.
This is impossible, says Paul, because the human propensity for cruelty and violence remains; we know this is true from what we see on the news and from our own life experiences.
The root of the problem, as Paul suggests, is that we are “of the flesh” (Rom. 7:14).
But what does this mean? Is Paul arguing that the problem is simply a result of the fact that we are flesh-and-blood creatures? Is Paul suggesting that the root of all our problems is our physical bodies?
Absolutely not. When Paul speaks of “the flesh” here and elsewhere, he is talking about disordered desire. To be of the flesh is to be, in the words of St. Augustine, “curved in on oneself”.
I am of the flesh when I selfishly put my desires first with no regard for others.
I am of the flesh when I abuse the humanity of others for my own gain, when I “inappropriately use power” to set myself above others (Keck, 186).
In other words, to be in the flesh is to be caught in the web of sin, a web that all people are caught in where people are turned against God and each other.
None of my efforts, no matter how good or well-intentioned, can undo or free me the web of sin or reverse its effects.
Paul sounds like a pessimist; no one likes to be brought down and told how awful they are. Being confronted with my sin is never a comfortable or painless experience. Nevertheless, despite his refusal to mince words, Paul is not a pessimist precisely because he “views the human condition from the standpoint of what God has already done to overcome it” (Keck, p. 185).
Paul takes sin seriously because God takes sin seriously; God takes sin seriously because of his boundless love for all people, those created in his image.
God’s definitive response to sin and death is “No!” a response he gives through the death and resurrection of his Son. God’s judgment against sin is the good news that we are liberated from the power of sin through Jesus Christ.
It is like a doctor giving a diagnosis; initially the news may not sound good and the remedy difficult and painful. However, it is only in naming the cause of the problem that the appropriate treatment can be offered. If we refuse to hear the cause, we cannot accept the cure.
The human heart is the place where God and sin collide, a place where sin often wins the battle.
However, the good news is that the war is already won in and through Jesus Christ.
In Christ, we are restored to proper fellowship with God and given a new identity as God’s children.
Christ takes upon himself my guilt and fear in order to liberate me from sin, freeing me to try again and fail again…and again (cf. Spufford, 166).
Christ overwhelms sin with the only things that can defeat it: God’s love, grace, and forgiveness.
Every person in the world knows sin and its effects; we are all “knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery of the world” (Beuchner). Sin and death remain real forces in the world and we continue to struggle against them. However, as Christians, we know sin defeated; we know Christ stands with us in the muck and misery and therefore we have hope and assurance that sin and death will not get the final word.
Our response to sin is confession.
When we confess, we are admitting that we are caught in the web of sin; that we are “of the flesh”.
When we confess, we are opening ourselves to receive God’s embrace.
When we confess, we are taking Christ’s yoke upon ourselves.
We take on Christ’s yoke because he took on our yoke – the yoke of slavery to sin – and destroyed it.
We take on Christ’s yoke because his yoke is nothing less than our freedom, the freedom of knowing and experiencing God’s boundless love and forgiveness.
Christ’s yoke is easy because it means that we no longer have to rely on own attempts to untangle ourselves from the web of sin. Christ’s yoke is easy because he is the one who bears the burden of our sin; he alone is able to do the work of restoring our true selves in fellowship with God.
We can give up trying to be good because we rest in the one who is the embodiment of goodness. Morality does not save me; listening to the angel on my shoulder does not lessen the chaos of my inner-self.
Taking on Christ’s yoke means that I give up control. No longer am I the one calling the shots. Rather, I let Christ assume control and walk beside him.
Giving up control is a difficult thing to do, especially in our culture where the will of the individual reigns supreme.
However, as Paul reminds us, insisting that I am in control is nothing but an illusion that leads to all kinds of problems.
Taking on Christ’s yoke is the difficult process of dying to my selfish desires and fixing my eyes on Christ, the author and finisher of my salvation.
The fundamental struggle of every person is between sin and grace, between the insistence that “I am in control” and the acceptance of God’s forgiveness.
Taking on Christ’s yoke means that I am bound to him, the one who binds himself to me. My identity – who I am – becomes entangled with Christ. In him, I am made and remade into his likeness.
No longer am I oriented to myself and my past mistakes; I am oriented to Christ and to the future, of being perfected in and by Christ.
Being yoked to Christ means that we see the world through gospel eyes.
We see that the world retains the blessing of original goodness, but that it is also marred by sin.
We see that God has not left the world to its own devices, but that he has liberated it in Jesus Christ.
This means that we who are yoked to Christ do not think and act according to a list of abstract moral principles or guidelines; we think and act according to the gospel – the good news that God says “No” to sin and “Yes” to those who are caught in the web of sin.
This means that we think and act according to the way that God treats us: with love, grace, and forgiveness.
This means that we think and act according to God’s will: to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
In the end, we should not be surprised at human propensity to mess things up because it is shared by all people. Yes, the depths of human cruelty and violence seem to know no bounds, but despite our best efforts, our own morality and goodness cannot untangle us from the web of sin.
What should never cease to surprise and amaze us is the unfathomable love of God expressed in his Son, Jesus Christ, who lived with and for us that we might live with and for him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
May you accept the good news of God’s “No!” to sin and “Yes!” to sinners.
May you know and experience the liberation Christ offers by taking on his yoke and walking alongside him.
May you know and experience the working of the Holy Spirit in your life as you are formed into Christ-likeness.