Friday, July 7, 2017

Evil Lies Close at Hand

Some thoughts on this Sunday's Epistle, Romans7:15-25a.

At the end of the 1700's, France was in a bad way. Most people lived in abject poverty while the aristocratic few lived lives of luxury. The wealthy had all the power and used it to oppress the masses. Injustice was rife. To make matters worse, the church seemed to be in league with the aristocracy and supported their "divine right" to rule. A movement arose to oppose this situation.

That movement led to the French Revolution. One of its leaders was an idealistic young man named Maximilien Robspierre. He desired to turn things upside-down, to right the wrongs, to bring justice to the people. The French Revolution did turn things upside-down. The old unjust regime was overthrown and a new one set up in its place. The new regime was to be founded on justice, liberty, equality, and humanity.

But, after only a couple of years, things began to go terribly wrong. The Reign of Terror began as one faction battled another and each sought to eliminate any opposition, real or imagined, against the new government. Robspierre was one of the instigators of the Reign of Terror. He eventually became one of its victims, executed on the guillotine. He had intended good. He had intended justice. But evil was close at hand. So has it been with the good intentions of every revolution since. And so it has been with every opposition to revolution since.

This story gets at what I think Paul is on about in the seventh chapter of his letter to the church in Rome:
“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.”

Paul is not just pointing out a moral truism about our weak wills. This is not, “I didn’t intend to eat that last slice of cheesecake, but then I did” or “I meant to get up early and go to the gym, but turned off the alarm and decided to sleep in instead.” Our problem, as Paul sees it, is more serious than that. Is it the more serious idea that God demands perfect obedience to the rules of the law, but we are incapable of that perfection and thus under judgment? I do not think it is that either. Paul sees our problem as more radical and serious than even that.

So what is Paul saying here? To get at that, we need to know what question he is trying to answer. If we look at the section of Romans leading up to Chapter 7 we get an idea. In verse 7, just before our reading today, Paul asks, "What then should we say? That the law is sin?" That's the question Paul is trying to answer here. Paul had proclaimed freedom from the law. Therefore, some might think he believes the law to be bad. He was in fact accused of saying this. Is the law sin? "By no means," Paul writes. He believed the same God who sent Jesus also gave the law – not some abstract moral rule, but the Torah of Israel. The Torah was the good gift of the gracious God of the Jews – Paul's God. What troubled Paul was that even the law turned out to be subject to sin. The law, given as a corrective to human sinfulness, had turned out to be subject to sin just like everything else. Sin proved more powerful than the law, such that the law was incapable of saving us from our bondage to sin.

Our problem, according to Paul, is not the truism that, because of our weakness, we cannot keep the Torah. Elsewhere he boldly claims to have been blameless in obeying the Torah (See Philippians 3:6). Paul was not burdened by a guilty conscience due to his weak will or his inability sufficiently obey the law. The problem was that his very devotion to the Torah, had led him to oppose God’s will, even when he was most zealous in pursuing what he was sure was God’s will. He was zealous for the Torah. In his zeal, he had signed up to oppose those who he thought were corrupting the people and leading them away from the Torah and from God. He set out to stop the new Jesus movement which he was convinced was opposed to the way of God. But, on his way to Damascus to deal with followers of that movement, something happened. The risen Jesus appeared to him and asked, "Why do you persecute me?" That knocked Paul of his horse and began the rearranging of his thinking. He was now convinced that Jesus was the key to God's plan. That meant that the very thing he had been opposing on behalf of God's law turned out to be the very fulfillment of God's law. The problem as Paul sees it is that sin is so radical and pervasive that even the Torah itself – the very gift of God – can be turned against God. He found "sin working death in me through what is good."

The problem is not that we can’t satisfy the accounting office in heaven. That is obvious enough. And faithful Jews like Paul had means of addressing that within the Torah itself. The problem is that sin is so pervasive that we are unable to extricate ourselves from its effects. "We are sold into slavery under sin." Our problem is not that we are not obedient enough. Our problem is that we are in bondage to sin and sin permeates everything, including our obedience. Not only will our obedience to the law not save us, even our best efforts are permeated by sin. “I find it a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” That is the key phrase in Romans 7 (and a key phrase in the whole New Testament) which clues us in to the point Paul is making. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that is not for the reason we usually think. It is not that I don't get around to following through with my intentions. It is that, even in my best intentions – when I am quite sure I am right and pursuing God’s will – evil lies close at hand. That is because God’s will, ultimately, is that we love with the indiscriminate and perfect love with which God loves us. But, our love is always infected with sin.

The Church rightly intended the good of defending the truth of the Gospel. But, doing so it resorted to unmerciful actions (e.g., the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade) that actually contradicted Jesus who ordered us to love our enemies and to be as perfect in mercy as is the one he called Father. And as the story about Robspierre shows, this is not just a religious problem. In the pursuit of justice, the French Revolution and others (Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Cambodian, etc.) have become the very injustice they set out to redress. In the name of freedom and security, America and other democracies have too often thwarted the freedom of others and brought insecurity to others. Closer to home, how often have we found our intention to love those near and dear to us have been experienced as problematic by those we wanted to love? Or how often has our zeal for obeying God, pursuing the truth, or justice led us to treat others with something short of mercy, patience, or generosity? 

It appears to be a law of humanity bound by sin that when we want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. We are slaves to that law which is the law of sin. That law is more powerful that the law of the Torah. We cannot save ourselves or deliver ourselves from this law. No amount of positive thinking, higher consciousness, or beefed up will-power can save us. We are "sold into slavery under sin." We are unable to free ourselves from our bondage. We cannot rescue ourselves. We need saving from outside ourselves. That might well lead to despair. "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?"

Paul's reply is, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Christ comes rescue us from our slavery under sin. In his life, death, and resurrection Christ breaks through our bondage. Christ comes to rescue us from the power of sin. Christ comes to rescue us from our own good intentions  and those of others. Christ comes to clean house. Christ invites us to a different kind of freedom, the freedom to follow him ever deeper into the heart of God who is Love. He calls us to be transformed into his likeness and to be about the mission of the kingdom of God. He only asks that we allow him to have his way with us by the power of his Spirit. He calls us to live with humility, holding even our firmest convictions about what is right and true and just – even our firmest convictions about God’s will – a little more lightly lest we fall into the merciless evil that is always close at hand in our every good intention. We must still act. We must still pursue the right the good and the true. We must still seek to love God and neighbor. But we must do so always humbly remembering our tendency to corrupt our every good intention.

Still more, we are called to remember, as Paul encourages us to remember in the following chapter of Romans, that once God has ahold of us, it is no longer about our good intentions, or our ability to be faithful to the law or anything else. It is about the faithfulness of Jesus. And his hold on us is always greater than our hold on him.

"Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"