Friday, September 26, 2008

romans 7

Romans 7 contains one of the most human pictures in this epistle so far. In the middle of some intriguing but admittedly abstract explication upon the relationships among Law, sin and God, Paul shoves theology aside for a moment and explains something that anyone, of any religion, can relate to.

In a couple sentences, he sums up the frustration of every child who wants to please her parents; of every husband who wants to do right by his wife; of every person who wants to do what she knows she should, but finds it easier and more natural to do something else instead. Here's how Paul puts it:

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. I know that nothing good lives 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 what I do is not the good I want to do; no, 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.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Paul answers his question in verse 25, when he says “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And of course there are plenty of examples of dramatic changes touted by deliverance ministries. You know the sort of thing: the drug addict who suddenly finds that heroin no longer holds an attraction; the alcoholic who stops drinking cold turkey; the abuser who suddenly realizes what a cad he's been to his family, and changes.

You can find them, but a large part of my spirit positively recoils at the thought of them, as they remind me of the slick salesmanship of Pentecostal preachers who use them as an example of how following Jesus ends all your problems and makes your life hunky-dory.

A better example might be of the Apostles, who bickered and fought for three years over which of them was greater in the Kingdom of God, which of them had given up more, and which of them was more faithful. It took a while, but they eventually grew out of it and discovered the heart of Jesus' message as he saw it, to the point that Matthew the collaborator and Simon the zealot were united in martyrs' deaths.

Of course, since Romans is Paul's letter, if we want a character-driven example of change, we might want to look at Paul himself. Romans undeniably is a book of theology, but it's more than that: It's a book of Pauline theology, chronicling Paul's own ruminations and insights into the nature of God, growing out of his own frustration with the Law and his inability to be faithful as he knew he ought to be.

I see Paul as someone who, as a Pharisee, earnestly desired to know God. He studied the Torah, memorized whole portions of the Tanakh, and undoubtedly was recognized as an up-and-coming rabbinical authority. His ambition was to serve God zealously by jealously observing the Torah and allowing no sin to enter his life.

And yet he found that the Law that was meant to bring him life instead brought him only condemnation; and that sin seized upon the opportunity provided it by the Law and blossomed into death within him.

From what I've read in his letters and in the book of Acts, I think Paul was so vehemently opposed to the Way, not because it held that Jesus was the Son of God, but because its teachings about grace and forgiveness (rather than strict observance of Torah) ran counter to everything that he believed. And on the road to Damascus, he came face to face with the failure of his reliance on observance of Torah, and the house of cards collapsed.

The change that took place in him led to a reordering not just of his epistemology, but also to his relationships. His wife either separated from him or asked for a divorce, and many of the men he had been close to now became his opponents.

Jesus talks about change as well, obviously, a shift from outward adherence to a code, to inward attention to the heart and the attitudes that manifest themselves in behaviors. Don't just keep from killing people; you also have to avoid hating them. Don't just settle for only the just penalty the law allows (an eye for an eye was actually a rather liberal, soft-on-crime position for that point in history, where you could kill someone for personal injury); instead, forgive those who hurt you.

I've always understood this passage of Romans to refer to the struggle with sin, that even though our spirits are redeemed, our flesh remains corrupt and struggles with the sin nature -- but Christ, who has redeemed the spirit, also will redeem the body. Thus I see it as redemption as an ongoing journey, which is why Paul gives thanks to Jesus for delivering us from this body of death: beginning in this life, continuing through the rest of our lives, and then into the final redemption of the flesh.

It's easy to rely on the flesh, on our own earthly efforts or will, and to see it as evidence that God is working in us, to change us. I have a friend who gives great credit to Jesus for his formidable self-control. He has a tremendous problem with anger -- he can't stand when someone criticizes him or disagrees too sharply -- so over the years he has learned to tamp down the volcano of white-hot rage, which he sees as sanctification. He is, after all, not exploding at people – not usually, anyway – but you can see the anger simmering just beneath the surface.

In many ways he unwittingly has made a spiritual fetish out of his self-control, and he boasts as though it was a great accomplishment of the Holy Spirit in his life that he never wants to have sex with his wife, contents himself with bland food, and has managed to drive out many pleasures from his life because they're addictive or too worldly.

I was taught early on in my Christian years that Judaism was a dry and lifeless religion, obsessed with rules and laws that we aren't obligated to follow. Aside from mischaracterizing Judaism, the people pushing this particular view also often pushed strict rules and requirements in terms of Christian behavior. That's pretty minor stuff, though; I don't know that we have many people at our church who deal with legalism that shallow. To the extent that legalism is a problem, I expect it's more doctrinal and internal than behavioral.

I'm reminded of a book by Larry Crab called "The Pressure's Off." In it, Crab talks about people who ironically live lives of quiet subjugation to the Law, even as they claim to be free of it. Ask Natasha and myself about our children and why they're well-behaved, and you'll probably hear me say something about the amount of time we spend with them, reading books, playing games, involving them in running the household, and being involved with their lives. It's all by the grace of Christ that they're turning out so well, because we've been doing what we're supposed to as parents. (And I love to hear what a great dad I am, and that my kids are turning out great.)

Of course the truth is that you can do everything right and have it all go wrong, because no one really does it all correctly. I lose my temper at the girls, say stupid things to them, get annoyed when they act like children and overreact, and at times get too strict or too lax with them.

That my girls do as well as they do is an act of grace. I've known other parents who do everything right, and still have a horrifically hard time with their kids. The rule of influence remains in place, but the Law does not shape how things work; if it did, no adult would be functionally sane, because our parents all failed in crucial ways according to the Law.

And of course that can be crushingly painful. I have a dear friend in Georgia who is gay, and her mother seems to take it as a personal indictment of herself as a parent. "If I had done a better job, my daughter wouldn't be a lesbian."

And of course the appeal to Law -- I did everything right, so she should be straight -- has had a great effect on their relationship, since it turns the issue into one of my friend's supposed disobedience to God and rejection of the moral lessons her parents taught her, rather than walking through their relationship with grace and love.


If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we must stop condemning ourselves and one another for real or imagined failings where the Law is concerned, and instead work together. Evangeline and I have been reading Romans together at bedtime, and shortly after this is a passage about the gospel's ministry of reconciliation -- something Law does not allow, since Law only recognizes hitting the bullseye or the shame of missing the mark.

A side issue that comes up during these discussions is the fallacious trifurcation of Torah into three segments: the sacrificial law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law. While these are great descriptions of the different functions of Torah, the truth is that the Hebrews made no distinction as I've heard many evangelicals do.

You know the sort of thing I'm talking about: Christ fulfilled the sacrificial law, and the ceremonial law was only for a different dispensation, but the moral law remains in effect and binding upon us today, which is where we go to give one another all the tsursis we do over behaviors we find objectionable. The Israelites made no such distinction, and neither does Paul. His argument is that all the Torah was fulfilled in Christ, and so we are free from all its demands so that we may live in the Spirit instead.

Living in the Spirit therefore means living the sort of life modeled by Christ, what you also could refer to as living under his lordship. In a sense, it means approaching situations less from a right-wrong moralistic stand than from a good-bad perspective, where the good under consideration is how actions affect people.

I have a transgendered friend, for instance, whose mother was advised by her pastor that God would want her to disown him (!) -- a moralistic stand that takes no consideration of the relationship or how such personal rejection is going to play out on a person.

The adult who is addicted to pornography isn't in sin because she turns to pornography for sexual gratification, and the solution isn't just to remove her erotica from the house -- though that's not necessarily a bad idea -- but it's more in the lines of understanding what she is seeking from pornography, and where she can find it in a healthier, better context. Emotional intimacy with her husband, for instance.

Or to use the example of my TG friend. The moralistic stand is to say this right or wrong; a better, more christocentric response is to walk with my friend, stay close, and not let the moral issues of right or wrong enter the relationship. By seeing my friend as a person -- by seeing him as Christ, honestly, which he is either in acts of sin (which Christ has identified with), or in righteousness (for all our righteousness gains meaning in Christ) or really just in being human (for Christ became human and identified with us in all our shame) -- I can escape, hopefully, the pitfall of self-righteous judgmentalism, and be the voice of Christ in his life, because I don't cast him aside over something that I disagree with him on. The beauty of the gospel is that we all have beauty and value, no matter how we vote, what we eat, how we look, or what we do.

I always remind myself that prostitutes, thieves and extortionists, and even lepers with hideous open sores all felt comfortable talking to Jesus and asking him for help. The only people who didn't feel comfortable with him were religious people like me, who felt they were something special for being so religious or righteous.

I say this not as one who has perfected it, but it's an idea I've understood a long time, and it's one that has made me more socially liberal as time has gone on.

The struggle I find I have more is keeping the attitude of Jesus even toward people who encourage behavior or attitudes contrary to what he teaches. Political example, just because it's been on my mind a lot lately. We're engaged in a war right now, in Iraq, that is unjust by any standard I'm aware of for just wars. Iraq never attacked us, nor from what we can tell did it even pose any threat to us when we massed our troops at its borders and then spilled them in.

The war was encouraged and approved of by the cultural elite of our nation -- a people who are just as disproportionately not represented in the military as they are disproportionately represented in the halls of power where the decision to begin the war was made. Congress is overwhelmingly made of wealthy white leaders, while those fighting and being killed in Iraq are more largely (though not entirely) Hispanic and African American ... and remember, for a long time after the war started, they didn't have adequate protection.

That gets me angry, and it makes me even angrier when I recall that many ministers, including Franklin Graham, hailed the war as something that God approved of. And of course GWB did a great job of playing the faith card during two presidential elections to win the support of the Christian Right.

An economic example, since that is also on my mind a lot. Our nation has a problem with runaway consumerism and has for years. We consume vast amounts of the world's resources for no reason other than that we can, and to do it, we've pushed wages down abysmally low overseas. Workers drip sweat in the fields and children lose fingers in sweatshops so we can have low-cost clothing and DVD players that we'll throw out when we feel we've used them up.

Our own destructive spending habits have been further fueled by predatory lending practices in America that have allowed the middle class to feel prosperous even as wages stagnated, savings shriveled up, and debt ballooned.

And yet I still hear people spewing nonsense about it being our right to squander our resources, get exorbitant salaries and golden parachutes for failure. And despite the lip service we all give to protecting the environment, I don't see many people making even half the effort that my family and I have made to reduce the amount of trash we throw out. (Check the garbage can after church some day -- wasted food and drink, wasted paper that could have been recycled, and a barrel load of trash after a two-hour worship meeting. That just isn't right. Those are resources we're squandering.)

It's as though no one has made the connection between caring for creation and their lifestyles. We expect that by agreeing it's a shame that things are so bad, we somehow are part of the solution, even though we're not even taking baby steps toward solving the problems.

In many ways, all that makes me pretty angry too.

And yet, you know something I've noticed? Jesus can be pretty kind to the Pharisees too. He ate with them, accepted their invitations to go to their houses, and didn't mind having late-night discussions with them. He only got impatient with them over their judgmentalism. Aside from some admittedly spectacular repudiations, he treated them as kindly as he did the lepers, prostitutes and Samaritans who came to see him. He never even called Caiaphas or Annas names for arresting him.

John 14:15-16 gives another example of how the Spirit is the key to obeying God and to true transformation. In that example, the context is about Jesus being the Way to the Father, and the talk about vines and branches. "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."

I don't know if I've said anything new. I wrote something related to this a few years ago, about how the Cross transforms every moment of our lives so that it becomes an experience of intimacy with God, and even the crummy moments testify to his love.

I think that one thing the Law does, is it keeps us focused on ourselves and our misguided sense of our own importance and righteousness. "I did what you wanted, why aren't you doing what I want?" And of course there's a whole cottage industry of this snake-oil in American Christianity. We have preachers telling us how to raise our children so they're guaranteed to turn out right, peddlers of a false gospel telling us how to make God make us rich, and other shysters and con men telling us how to be healed or delivered from our problems, and always if we fail, the answer is: It's your fault. You didn't have enough faith or follow what the Bible says.

Walking in the Spirit means being less concerned with how righteous someone is than being concerned with how they are -- which was always the intent of the Law, but not what sin has done with it. The Torah said not to commit adultery, so that we would not sow pain and heartache in our marriages; living in the Spirit means your goal is not to satisfy the requirements of the Torah, but your goal instead is not to hurt your wife and children, or (for that matter) the woman whom you would have involved in an illicit relationship based on falsehood and deception, which at its inception would have been steeped in corruption.

I think we drift to the Law because its measurable benchmarks are easier to relate to. It's easy to tell if you've committed adultery, and to pride yourself on not having done so. It's not so easy to say "I've never been drawn intensely to someone other than my spouse."

The Law also lets us wriggle out of our motives; i.e., "Yes, I'm insanely angry at this person, but it's his fault and here's why." The Spirit puts our hearts on the line and forces us to admit "Yes, I'm insanely angry at this person, and I need to repent of that anger."

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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