Friday, September 26, 2008

“Fooling Ourselves”

Rom. 7:15-25[1]

We human beings have an enormous capacity to deceive ourselves. That is just as apparent in our religion as in any other endeavor. Blaise Pascal got it right in the 17th[2] Century: “People never do evil so gladly and so totally as when they do it from false religious conviction.” What he knew then still applies today: everything we do in church and for the kingdom of God is susceptible to all the same temptations to get our way, to dominate others, to gain attention for ourselves, to please ourselves. And when we do it all in the name of Jesus, we can sit back and rationalize it with great satisfaction![3]

I think one of the great demonstrations of this principle in dramatic art is found in Arthur Miller’s “Crucible,” his classic play on the Salem witch trials. It depicts the tragedy that took place in Salem when Puritan ministers ruthlessly executed 19 people charged with the “crime” of witchcraft. When several young girls began behaving strangely, at first the accusations of witchcraft were directed only at various people living on the margins of the community. Very soon, however, they spread to the local church, even including a former minister! In the 1996 film adaptation, the arrogance of the “religious” leaders of Salem reaches its height when they execute John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Martha Corey as the accused recite the Lord’s Prayer! What a travesty!

St. Paul’s “lecture” about sin and the law and the flesh in his letter to the Romans gets pretty confusing to most of us. But I think the main point is that any means we can come up with by which we try to attain a “righteousness” of our own making is simply an elaborate means of deceiving ourselves! Even Jesus objected to being called “good teacher” on the basis that “only God is good” (Mk. 7:18)! I’m not sure what that means for our understanding of the trinity, but I think the lesson about humility is loud and clear!

Paul’s complex logic points to the truth that all of our efforts to worship God, to reflect God’s character, to declare God’s message, to serve God, are tainted. All of it comes under the heading of “religion”, and religion can only remind us of how far we fall short.[4] In this chapter Paul says that the very thing he thought was a means of pleasing God turned out to be a means of self-deception. What Paul says about the Law applies to all our religious endeavors: “sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation” (Rom 7:8, MSG). That’s true about every effort we can make on our own to please God—whether by prayer, or study, or ministry! Because we can so easily slip into selfish grasping, that which ought to be good and righteous and holy becomes a means of spreading death instead of life.

It’s no wonder Paul is torn—not just about the fact that his own conscience is guilty, but because he recognizes that everything he can possibly do to gain eternal life is ultimately futile. That’s why Paul ultimately says, “I do not understand what I do; for I don't do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate” (Rom. 7:15, TEV). Yet once again, while Paul reminds us of some of the facets of human life that we’d rather forget, he also uses it as an occasion to emphasize the truth of the Gospel. The good news of the Gospel is that through Jesus the Christ God has embraced us, God has found us, God has restored us. The Christian faith is not primarily about what we do; it’s not primarily about us at all! It’s primarily about what God has done and is doing in this world through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

That’s where Paul winds up:

“I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn't that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different” (Rom. 7:24-25, MSG).

Of course, when we grasp the wonderful good news that we’ve been accepted and embraced and restored by God, we cannot help but seek to worship and serve God, to reflect God’s character and declare God’s message. But the crucial difference is that we do it then not as a means of attaining some spiritual reward or gaining God’s pleasure, but because we know that God is pleased with us and cannot be other than pleased with us! The hard truth of human existence is that we will always struggle “this life of contradictions.”[5] But the good news is that all the powers of darkness have been defeated and we have been completely embraced by the God who loves us.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/6/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, no. 892; the above is a free translation of the original French (“Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement, que quand on le fait par un faux principe de conscience”) based in part on the traditional English translation (“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”).

[3] Paul Tillich, “Escape From God,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 49, calls this the “sin of religion”: assuming God hates those whom we hate.

[4] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 246; cf. also 75, 125, 136-37, 173, 184-86, 236, 242, 252, 257, 260-61, 266.

[5] See Charles Talbert, “Tracing Paul’s Train of Thought in Romans 6-8,” Review and Expositor 100 (Winter, 2003): 53-63; Bill O’Brien, “The Blame Game,” The Christian Century (June 28, 2005): 20.

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