Monday, June 30, 2014

The Great Conflict - Romans 7:15-8:1

Romans 7:15-8:1
 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?  Thanks be to God-- through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.  Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

            A few years ago I was in Washington DC and had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum

One of the most interesting things about being at this museum was the opportunity to sit down and talk one on one with a survivor of the Holocaust.  Not as part of a room full of scores of people, but just one on one. 

I had the opportunity to speak with a woman named Regina Gutman.  She was born in Poland in 1926 to a very devout Jewish family.  She was 13 when the Germans invaded.  Her family lost everything and were forced to wear Star of David armbands.  She could no longer go to school.  When she was 15 years old, her family was forced into a ghetto, where the entire family was forced to live in a small, single room. Food was hard to come by.  Regina was able to escape from the ghetto and went to live with her sister in a nearby town.  There she was forced into slave labor, cleaning windows in a munitions factory.  Eventually she was sent from one camp to another, always working at forced labor.  Her last trip was to the infamous concentration camp at Dachau, but there was an explosion and the train was wrecked, turning over the railcars.  Regina was able to escape into the woods, where she was found by Soviet soldiers and liberated.  By that time she was just shy of being 19 years old.

I asked her about how much help she received from people of faith who believed in God and sought to be faithful. 

She said that many people helped them in small ways, sneaking food to them, but there was so much fear.  Then she went onto say that so many of the people she met seemed to want to do something good, but they just didn’t have the courage.  She said she felt their guilt was greater than the guilt of the Nazis.  The Nazis were just plain evil, she said, but these other people – they knew what was happening, they knew it was wrong, and yet they did nothing to stop it."

            Many centuries ago, Senaca wrote of "our helplessness to do the necessary things of life."

            This is a part of the problem that Paul dealt with in our Scripture reading this morning when he said, "I don't understand   myself.  What I want to do, I do not do."

            Certainly, this is a problem that we face throughout our lives.

            And this problem is not always in significant things – but often in the smaller things of life.

            A customer in a store sees someone else shoplift a small piece of jewelry.  The customer wants to do what is right, she wants to say something to the manager, but for some reason, the strength, or the courage, or what ever it is that it takes to speak up just isn't there, and she finds herself silently watching the thief walk away.  And she remains "uninvolved".

            Or take a conversation that we have all had.  Someone makes a racist remark that we disagree with.  Even though we want to speak out against it, we find ourselves silent, unable to do what is right.

            Why is it that people are so helpless to do what is necessary?

            Why is Paul's statement so universal---"I don't understand myself.  What I want to do, I do not do."

            There is a great conflict within ourselves.  We know what we should do and yet we don't do it.

            And on the other hand, we often do those things that we should not do.

            We know its wrong to gossip but most of us enjoy talking about the shortcomings of other people.

            We know we are called by God to be a people of LOVE, but we still despise some people and look down on them.  We know that we are doing wrong by not loving them, and yet it is difficult to correct ourselves and to begin to love them.

            Paul also spoke of this situation.   In today's passage, he said, "What I hate, I do."

            The great conflict in Paul is also in us.  We all experience within ourselves the spiritual warfare of knowing something is wrong, but doing it never the less.

            We are like the ancient poet who said, "I see the better things, and I approve of them, but I choose to do the worse."

            Who among us is not aware of this inner struggle---this great conflict?  Who among us cannot agree with Paul as he said "I don't understand myself."

            Well, having posed the problem---the existence of the conflict within us all, Paul considered the cause of the problem.

            It is NOT because of a lack of respect for the laws and instructions God has given.

            For within this. passage Paul speaks very highly of the law, saying that the law is good and that he delights in it. is And yet he still had this day to day conflict of good and evil.

            The cause of our conflict and wrong doing is much deeper than our attitude to the law.

            The cause of our conflict is, according to Paul, sin---sin dwelling within us.

            Why do we fail to do those good things we would like to do?  Why do we do the bad things we don't want to do?  We see the better and approve of it, and yet we do the worse.


            It is sin, says Paul.   Sin within us.

            A simple answer to a difficult question.

            Perhaps too simple.

            One might even think that Paul is not dealing with the question honestly.  Is Paul trying to escape the responsibility for his own actions by saying, "It's not me who does these things, or who fails to do what I should---

it is sin within me.  It's not my fault."
NO---Paul is not putting the blame for his actions on a mysterious creature called "sin".  Rather, he is identifying the cause of many of his actions on a PART OF HIMSELF that he labeled "sin".

            You know, we, like Paul, also divide ourselves and our personalities into various parts.

            A businessman might very well say that the objective part of him tells him to fire his worker for a major mistake she made.

            But the understanding or compassionate side says that she should have a second chance.

            That businessman regards himself as one united individual.  But he is also aware of the many complex impulses within him.

            And sometimes he may give labels or names to these parts of his personality.

            The Jewish Rabbis in Paul's day also understood that there are many impulses in a person.  They taught that there were basically two impulses---one good and one evil; and each of these are in conflict with the other.

            Paul is agreeing in part with this teaching that he was probably brought up with.

            There ARE two impulses with in a person.  But the Rabbis said that the solution to the conflict was to become a devoted student of the law and to apply the law properly.  With this point, Paul disagreed.  He knew from his own experience that a proper observance of the law did not provide a complete solution to the conflict.

            What then is the solution?   Who will rescue us from this conflict?  Or as Paul expressed it--- "wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from the body of this death?"

            Paul's answer?  "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord Christ."  But what kind of an answer is this?

            It does not inform us as to HOW we can resolve the conflict.  This answer does not tell us how we can do the good we want to, and how we can avoid doing the evil we don't want to do.  The answer is in no way one of instruction.  But then, it wasn't meant to be. The answer is one of comfort.

            We can realize the existence of the problem---the inner conflict within us.

            And we can analyze and understand the cause of the problem---the nature of sin within us all.

            But as long as we live in this world, we will NEVER be cured in such a way that the struggle will forever cease.  The conflict remains with us until our death.

            Even when we receive Christ into our lives and become Christians, we will still have the day to day struggle within us.

            Paul wrote this morning's Scripture reading as a man who had been a Christian for a number of years.  And still he wrote:  "I don't understand myself.   I do not do what I want to do, but what I hate, I do.

            Where is the comfort of Paul's answer to this conflict? What is the meaning of  "thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord?

            The answer is in the last statement in this morning's Scripture passage.  "There is now no condemnation to the ones in Christ Jesus."

            What this means is that our conflict continues.   The good we would like to do --very often we fail to do.

            The evil we would like to avoid doing---we often do.

            And the conflict continues---but for those of us in Christ---who are Christians---there is no condemnation.  God forgives US.

            Often when a politician wins a primary, but then goes on to lose the final election, it is often said that "He won the battle, but lost the war."

            For the Christian, the opposite cane be said,  "We can LOSE the battle, but CHRIST has already won the war for us."

            The conflict within us continues.   In one situation, we may be able to over come sin and do what is right.  In another, we may be overcome and like Paul, do what we hate.  "But thanks be to God --- for there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus."

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2014
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