Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Oh Paul, stop being so dramatic!
As we continue our exploration of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we come to a particularly fascinating passage. In Romans 7:13-25, Paul provides us with a unique window into his inner life, opening himself up in an amazing display of vulnerability. His very human pathos takes on a theatrical, almost comedic flavor. Really, you could build a scene for a sitcom right out of his rhetoric:
Carly, carly! I gotta talk to you.
Hey Thomas, what’s going on?
Argh, I totally f’d it up with Jeanine…she’s never going to want to go out with me again!
Thomas, slow down, I’m sure everything will be OK. What happened?
I don’t know what happened–it’s like something came over me, and I just said all the wrong stuff, and the stuff I wanted to say never happened, and I wanted to do the right thing, but then I did the wrong thing, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and so she got mad, and then I got angry, and now it’s all ruined!
Oh Thomas, stop being so dramatic!
You don’t understand, it’s over, over I tell you! And it’s all my fault.
Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?
We have plenty of modern sayings to describe unwelcome behavior:
I was out of my mind. Something came over me. I completely lost it. I let loose my inner demons. They got to see my dark side.
There are countless stories in our culture of people transforming from the “good” part of themselves to the “evil” part. It’s become the stuff of science fiction. Sometimes the evil part is given strength and permission to spring forth due to an experimental drug. Or maybe it’s some kind of mystical spell. Or the evil part is being manipulated by malevolent outside forces. (How many times have you watched a show where someone is infected with an alien parasite and suddenly turns into a raging monster?)
We shout at our heroes to resist, to fight off those powers within that seek to suppress all good and turn them into psychotic maniacs…and then they finally succumb and all hope seems lost (until the final act). It makes for great drama and action.
That’s what I find so fascinating about this passage of Romans. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul painted a picture of the struggle between good and evil that is not only very human but very modern as well.
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For my commentary, I’m going to quote a few choice bits in the ESV translation because I like the phrasing and word choices it employs. Starting with Romans 7:15:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Here Paul speaks to the gut-wrenching dilemma everyone finds themselves in eventually. The very thing we see in others and condemn, the very behavior we find utterly abhorrent–somehow it rears its ugly head in the midst of our own activity just when we least expect it. Somehow we can’t manage to emerge unscathed.
It’s like the son who’s abused by his father, and swears never to treat his children that way…only to become an abusive father himself.
It’s like the married couple who promised they would remain faithful and always seek to love each other…only to find themselves on the brink of divorce.
It’s like the politician who ran on a platform of change and vowed to reform Washington and root out all corruption…only to succumb to the corruption herself.
We enter into this dance of life with the best of intentions, and we try our utmost to get all the steps right and create something beautiful. And at times, it actually looks like we’re succeeding! Yet, eventually, in one way or another, all hell breaks loose…
I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
Here we plunge right into the depths of the human condition. What it it that causes us to commit evil? What turns ordinary people into agents of chaos? How is it we find ourselves committing acts of atrocities?
Do we fully understand what it is we do? Do we act in full possession of our faculties? Or is there something twisting us from the inside, compelling us to go further and further down the primrose path?
Paul isn’t giving us any easy answers here. On the one hand, it’s possible to look at sin as some kind of malevolent outside entity, the “dark side of the force” if you will–imposing its desire upon us against our own. We wish to do what’s right, but somehow sin overtakes us and we’re rendered powerless in the face of it.
But on the other hand, if we distance ourselves too far from the evil at hand, we abdicate responsibility for our actions. And that certainly isn’t how our legal system is structured, or how we expect justice to function in the world. A criminal can’t use the excuse “I swear, it wasn’t me! It was the sin within me!” in a court of law. (Insanity pleas not withstanding.)
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Now we begin to see hints of a useful analogy, a type of mind/body disconnect that Paul is driving at. It’s not that Paul is making the case that his “spiritual self” is good and his “physical self” is evil. Rather, Paul is talking about the good that is in his “inner being”–his heart, his conscience, his mind, his vision of a better future–and how unfortunately that good is under captivity. To borrow language used throughout Romans, Paul has become a “slave to sin.” While sin hasn’t completely destroyed the light, it appears to have overshadowed it. His actions are spiraling out of control, and he feels like a passive witness without the agency to do anything about it–like watching a slow-motion train-wreck from afar.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In this dramatic moment, in this cry of human anguish–the times we shake our fists at the heavens and scream, the times of desperation, anger, confusion, sorrow–we are united with Paul in seeking a ray of light in the midst of the darkness. We are looking for something to hope for, something to believe in. Or Someone, as the case may be.
Paul presents the superhero will come to save the day, and his name is Jesus. He shows up when we’re at our most desperate. When we feel like evil has overcome us and everything is lost, Jesus shines the light. When we feel utterly weak, pathetic–Jesus gives us strength. When tragedy makes us dead inside and we simply don’t know how to go on, how to move forward–we encounter the life of Christ.
How does Jesus accomplish this? Through Spirit. Spirit comes and brings a resurrection. We are not simply forgiven of sin as though it were a distant transaction, a mere matter of reconciling spiritual bank accounts. It goes much deeper than that.
We are reborn. We are transformed. We are made whole again.
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Paul uses big language, cosmic language in Romans 7 and then continuing into Romans 8. It’s an epic struggle between good and evil, dark and light, sin and Spirit, death and life. And that struggle lies at the very heart of what it means to be human. From one vantage point, we are created in God’s image, and we have the capacity for tremendous good. But from another vantage point, something has gone terribly awry in the story. We have the desire for life, but death inevitably follows.
That’s what makes the Gospel a beautiful, powerful, and incredibly compelling tale, one that endures and inspires throughout the centuries. On the cross, Jesus Christ does something for us we could never do for ourselves. He gives us a glimpse of a better humanity. He identifies with us at our lowest moments. He creates a way for us to move forward. He helps us learn how to love again. He shows that God is with us no matter what. Even if all that seems powerful and invincible in this world has you pinned down, you will rise again.
In the end, the alien parasite is destroyed, and you are who you were always meant to be. And now you too get to be the superhero, the “Jesus” in someone else’s story. That’s what’s most exciting about the Gospel: we don’t just get to follow Jesus, we get to “be” Jesus in our own world.
He healed, so we heal.
He comforted, so we comfort.
He gave people dignity and meaning, so we give people dignity and meaning.
He saw the whole world coming together in peace, fully reconciled with God and with each other. We can see the world in that light too, and strive to make each day better than the last.
As Paul shows us, there are times when sin and death seem all-powerful.
But in the final reckoning, love and life are always, always more powerful still.
Join us next week as we further investigate Paul’s teachings on Spirit, and our own journey from death to life as we identify with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Stay tuned!
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