Romans 7:7-20 – Facing Our Bundle of Contradictions

“Humanity is an embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions.”-Charles Caleb Colton, 1780-1832

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s vulnerable expression of his dilemma resonates deeply with many people. There are times when we say things to ourselves such as, “I told myself I wasn’t going to be like my mother, and here I am responding just like she would;” “I know better than to drive by the liquor store on my way home and pick up a pint of vodka, yet, I still did it;” or, “I don’t want to die, but my thoughts keep racing about a plan for suicide.” And, there are many more situations in which we are both frustrated and befuddled by our doing the things we do not want to do, and not doing the things we want to do.

Yes, indeed, Paul’s existential angst is a timeless description of our common human condition. We all can relate to the seeming inability to do what is right in so many situations. It can really drive us nuts, even to a constant and never-ending low-level discouragement that underlies almost everything we do.

Paul’s prescription for dealing with this does not rely on law. He understood that putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere because we will eventually fail. Neither our brains nor our spirits work that way. Our willpower was never designed to be the driver of what we do and do not do. If anything, willpower, and the lack thereof demonstrate just how much we are climbing the ladder on the wrong wall. People are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth with great frustration.

God’s law was not crafted to transform us from the inside-out. The law has three solid purposes, none of which are meant to bring deep personal transformation: attention to the law works to restrain sin in the world; use of the law provides us with a helpful guide for grateful living in response to divine grace; and, it’s use here by Paul is to show us how bad off we really are in this world and in need of forgiveness.

We need a change of habits, and this is different than adopting a list of laws. Habits are developed from our desires, our affections. In other words, we do what we love – more specifically, our ultimate love(s) drive us to do what we want. To put it in a straightforward way: We sin because we like it. And the path to overcoming any besetting sin is to have an ultimate love trump the lesser sin which we like.

St Augustine quote 2

For example, I have developed daily habits or rituals of faith which enable me to commune with God. I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and this ultimate love enables me to push out all competing gods who want my devotion. I also love my wife with all my heart. We work on developing habits of a marital relationship which reinforce our love for each other. Love is what drives me to do right and good by her.

So, what do we do when we mess up? For the Christian, no matter what the question is, the answer is always grace. God’s grace in the finished work of Jesus Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit is the operative power that changes lives. The law has no power to do that kind of work. Freedom from the tyranny of our misplaced desires and disordered loves comes from Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. Like a lover enamored with his beloved, our desires become oriented toward Jesus for his indescribable gift to us. That is the strength of grace.

Saving God, I thank you for delivering me from sin, death, and hell through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May your Holy Spirit apply the work of grace to my life every day so that I can realize spiritual healing and practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul.  Amen.

Poverty, Plenty, and Paradox

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.  But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position because he will pass away like a wild flower (James 1:9-10).
            Webster defines a paradox as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is true.”  The Bible contains a lot of paradoxes, telling us that the ones who give receive, the weak are strong, the empty are full, the slave is free, the cursed are blessed, and that death brings life – all statements which first strike the ear as contradictory, but when we think about them we realize they are true.  The pithy Englishman G.K. Chesterton once gave this insightful definition of a paradox:  “A paradox is truth standing on its head shouting for attention.”  Paradox can be a powerful vehicle for truth, because it makes us think.
The poor person is rich.
            The Christian in humble circumstances, the lowly poor person actually has a high position because:  poverty enables him to be open to God; and, the pressures of poverty lead him to rely on God’s enablement and provision.  Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; when you work hard but struggle to keep food on the table; and, find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God.  And it is in this state of humility that the believer in Jesus cries out to God, recognizing his dependence.  Trust is no option, but absolutely necessary for survival.
            What God deems important is a broken, humble, and contrite heart.  God cares about our poverty of spirit.  A person can be economically disadvantaged, but, at the same time, be spiritually advantaged.  We are loved by God not because of either wealth or poverty, but because we realize we desperately need to trust in him.
            The Scripture’s use of paradox calls us to make a choice:  Will we pour our lives into things, or into people?  Will we look for ingenuity and technical solutions in order to make our personal and church budgets budge, or will we come to God?  Will we define success in family and church as worldly wealth, or will we define success as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?
The rich person is poor.
            It is difficult for wealthy people to trust in God and not in their riches.  Anyone who trusts in things is the truly underprivileged person.  A sirocco wind is a weather name given to hot and humid southeast to southwest winds originating as hot, dry desert-air over North Africa, blowing northward into the southern Mediterranean basin.  The early believers all knew about these winds that could unpredictably come through their area and wither perfectly good and apparently strong plants.  But those plants could not stand a sirocco wind.  Trusting in our resources rather than God will not stand in the judgment.


            The real issue is one of trust – locating and placing faith in the person and work of Jesus, and not in wealth with the influence and security it brings to life.  We live in a time when many church leaders are nearly obsessed with the ability to measure everything from numbers to quantifying spiritual growth and development.  Incredible amounts of money go into budgets, buildings, and programs.  The book of James in the New Testament gives a pushback on our compulsion with money and measurement.  Perhaps declining churches are in a humble state to recognize God; maybe growing churches are in need of better listening skills in order to hear God.  Before making new plans or just maintaining the old status quo in the church, several slow and careful readings of James just might give us some guidance and wisdom of where our real efforts in ministry need to be directed.

Inherently Paradoxical

            Huh?  What in the world is that?  Why do I have such a weird title for a blog post?  What do I hope to accomplish with such an egg-headed phrase?  Over a hundred and fifty years ago the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, described true Christianity as “inherently paradoxical.”  In the midst of a thoroughly scientific age in which having answers for everything through identification and classification ruled the day, Kierkegaard pushed back, recognizing and upholding the great mystery of the Christian faith.  Kierkegaard pointed out that we do not have the answers to everything revealed to us, but, instead, we must hold to the tension of what seem like competing realities.  A paradox is a statement that seems self-contradictory or illogical, but in reality expresses a truth.
            For example, the God whom Christians serve is One God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.  This seems absurd; it is unexplainable.  But we must hold the tension of the truth that God is both One and Three at the same time all the time.  In addition, Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God at the same time all the time.  It appears foolish.  When Kierkegaard said Christianity is “inherently paradoxical” he meant that that it defies and transcends the scientific method; Christianity may seem to be full of ridiculous religious mumbo-jumbo, but is none-the-less truth.  Christianity is like standing in the middle of a train track with two rails on each side.  Each is there.  Each is real.  They never touch.  We look ahead and see that they much touch somehow since it appears they come together.  But the more we walk the more we never find the touching point.  So it is with Christianity.  The more we bend to rationalistic scientism the more frustrated we will become because we never get to explain the unexplainable; it never seems to touch or to make a lot of rational sense.  Instead, we hold the tension of paradox.
            So, what does this have to do with church ministry and the Christian life?  Oftentimes we want to embrace one truth while denying the other in order for things to make sense to us.  To embrace Christ’s humanity, but downplay his deity is the ancient heresy of Arianism; to emphasize Christ’s deity and toss the humanity aside as only appearing a man is equally heretical position of Docetism.  Both were soundly condemned by Church Councils as misguided attempts to reconcile the inherently paradoxical nature of Christian belief about Jesus.  We serve a risen Savior who was just like us but did not sin; a Champion who was God incarnate.  To downplay either truth is to run the train off the tracks and crash our faith.
            God planned for our deliverance from sin, death, and hell through predestination and gracious call to salvation.  However, we still have a human responsibility to turn from sin and believe the good news of forgiveness in Christ.  God elects us and chooses us; we choose God.  Which is true?  Both are equally true at the same time all the time.
            If we only emphasize God’s sovereignty and providence and ignore human responsibility, we might not pray, serve, or evangelize believing that our efforts do not really matter since God will do whatever God will do.  On the other hand, we might put all our eggs in the human responsibility basket to the point of also never really praying but relying on our own ingenuity, putting pressure on ourselves to serve and work and manipulate others to live the Christian life out of a misguided belief of eschewing the inherently paradoxical nature of our faith.  The truth is:  the way up is down; to save our lives we must give them up; to be great is to be a servant.


            We are to rely fully and completely on our triune God for everything:  salvation; living the Christian life; and, serving in the church.  We are also not to be passive but active in taking charge of our Christian lives and loving God and others responsibly with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  If we do not hold all this truth together in tension we will be frustrated and have endless angst and worry within ourselves.  We do not have to understand everything about the Bible and Christianity in order to be a Christian and serve in Christ’s Church.  In fact, there is so much mystery to the faith that we must take the time to simply stand and gape in wonder at the God who is so big that we are unable to comprehend him and his ways.  So, we need to learn to enjoy this awesome God and embrace the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility so that we may worship, fellowship, and serve the church and the world.  In doing so we are witnesses to a faith that transcends understanding and allows us to freely operate within our churches, our families, and our lives.  May it be so to the glory of God.