Romans 7: 14-25; also The Shack 7-9-17 ACCUCC Rev. Tony Clark
Romans 7:14-25 Good News Translation (GNT)
We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am a mortal, sold as a slave to sin. 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. Since what I do is what I don't want to do, this shows that I agree that the Law is right. So I am not really the one who does this thing; rather it is the sin that lives in me. I know that good does not live in me—that is, in my human nature. For even though the desire to do good is in me, I am not able to do it. I don't do the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do. If I do what I don't want to do, this means that I am no longer the one who does it; instead, it is the sin that lives in me.
So I find that this law is at work: when I want to do what is good, what is evil is the only choice I have. My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body—a law that fights against the law which my mind approves of. It makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!
This, then, is my condition: on my own I can serve God's law only with my mind, while my human nature serves the law of sin.
[Read The Shack pages 134-5.]
Theologically, we call this theodicy—if God is all good, and God is all powerful, why is there sin, why is there suffering, why is there evil in the world? That’s what Paul was wrestling with in the passage we heard today, and that’s what The Shack is trying to wrestle with too.
One way to define Sin is to be out of sync with God, who desires good things for all people. The will of God is justice, kindness, humility. The will of God is radical welcome and inclusion. The will of God is wholeness and healing. The will of God is peace. When we are out of sync with God’s will for being loving, open, and kind to others, we are prone to committing sin. When our first or primal instinct is not toward the good of all people, we are out of sync with our communal nature, and sin accumulates not just in the individual but also throughout all of society. Since we are formed within this out-of-sync society, sin is prevalent, and suffering becomes part of the world.
We’re going to show The Shack today after church, so I hope you can join us as we wrestle with this big issue, which calls into question God’s will for creation, our human nature, and our capacity to harm each other. As we step into the maelstrom of this topic, let us pray.
So here’s the problem: We are human. We are biological beings bound by the instinct for self-preservation. And because of that instinct, we have urges to eat, have sex, and keep ourselves safe. We are a communal species and cannot survive without each other, yet we also are very aware of ourselves as individuals. We are not the biggest animal, nor the fastest, nor do we have claws or massive teeth. We cannot hear as well as our canine friends, and we cannot see as well at night as our feline friends. We cannot smell very well, either.
Our advantage is our brains. We can remember facts and data, we can solve complex problems, we communicate difficult ideas across time and space, and we work together to keep our species going. And furthermore, we can reflect on all of it. We name some things good and others bad, and when you think about it, Good and Bad are simply those things that work toward our self-preservation (good) and those things that work against it (bad).
And here’s where it becomes a problem. The instinct for self-preservation creates fear of anyone or anything that might be a threat to us and our loved ones. Our fear, which helped us survive in the wild, makes us leery of strangers. There are things that we can do or buy or make that keep us and our loved ones safe, and we protect these things --our food, our homes, our cars, maybe our guns, and definitely our lives. When instinct take over, we forget that our ultimate safeguard is God, who is admittedly rather elusive. Our fear or pain leads us to feel malice, jealousy, greed, toward another, which might lead us to reactions of violence, murder, or destruction of someone else’s tower of power.
Imagine this scenario: You wake up, and you take a few minutes to set your intention for the day: Today I’m going to be kind to all those I meet. As you get dressed, you can’t find one of your shoes you were going to wear, because the dog took it and hid it under the couch. You find the shoe, and rush out of the house. When you turn on the car, you realize that you forgot to get gas on your way home last night, so the first thing you have to do is get gas. When you get to the gas station, the pump you usually go to is out of order, so you have to jockey the car around to get the gas tank and the other pump on the same side of the car, and there is a line for that gas pump. Once you fill up your car, you are on your way to work, and right as you go to take a sip of coffee from your travel mug, the car in front of you slams on the brakes, and you dump coffee down the front of you. Once at work, you go make yourself a cup of coffee only to realize that no one ordered coffee last week. You drag your un-caffeinated-self back to your desk and start working on that important document that is due this afternoon. A few minutes before an important meeting, you go to save the document, and your computer crashes. By the time you get into the meeting, you are flustered, rushed, uncomfortable, and have not had any coffee to drink. You’re more than a bit grumpy, you snap at people, and the meeting turns into an unproductive gripe session.
You have forgotten your intention for the day. Does anyone remember the intention? To be kind to all those I meet.
Kindness is the farthest thing from anyone’s mind at that point.
This is what I hear Paul telling us in this passage. I want to be kind to people. I even set my intentions to be kind to people, and I asked God to help me do it. But then life got in the way. The fear, anxiety, adrenaline, pain, lack of caffeine all take over, and then I do the things I do not want to do; I break the intention I set with God, I lash out at others, I sin. I am a slave to sin says Paul, who believed that sin came into human existence when Adam and Eve ate that apple, because that was the accepted history of the day.
Today, the sciences of evolution and archaeology tell us that humanity doesn’t have fixed ancestors called Adam and Eve, which means there is no fixed starting point for sin; we evolved into what are we are over millions of years, a human brain connected to an animal body with instincts for survival. Where Paul says that I am a slave to sin, biological sciences say that I am actually a slave to the instinct of survival. In my example of an extreme bad-hair day, my life may not have been literally in danger—except the almost car accident—but my emotions and body chemistry make me believe that something drastic would happen if I’m late, or don’t get the document in on time, which were added onto the pain from the burn of the coffee.
And where Paul said I’m a slave to sin, the social sciences of psychology and sociology might look at my fear of being late as something I learned from the family I grew up in. My mother was chronically late, and I learned that I didn’t like the feeling of being late, feeling like I missed something, feeling like I had to catch up, feeling like all eyes were on me when we routinely came in late. Psychology might treat the symptom of anxiety with Valium or Xanax and lots of talk therapy so I could come to terms with my mother and my fear of being late. And then my therapist might challenge me to deal with my slavishness to a societal system that makes being on time a high value.
The questions still remains, “Did I have control over my actions that morning?”
Paul would say, “No, I was enveloped by sin.” Evolution would say, “No, I was bound by instinct.” Psychology would say, “No, I was bound by emotional responses I learned as a child.”
Yet, I still believe in free will, in the choice to live within the heart of God, and to align my will with God’s will. I have that choice. To set an intention and actually live into it. I believe, or at least I hope, that we can rise above sin, instinct, and whatever my family-of-origin instilled in me.
But how do we reckon with those times when we—or someone else—can’t rise above sin, instinct, or society’s imprint, and they act violently toward us?
The novel and movie The Shack ask us to wrestle with this, as the main character, Mack, confronts the abuse that he suffered as a child at the hands of his father and the murder of his young daughter by another tormented man. These are two of the worst sins we might imagine. Why must these things happen? Why are there evil people in the world? Why does God allow this to happen?
Mack’s abusive father was abused by his father. The murderer was tortured as a child, and suffered from severe mental illness. Does the idea they might not have had control over their actions excuse the sin?
Paul says sin and suffering happen because we do not do what we want to do, and while our primary nature is to be good, we are bound by sin to do evil, both at a personal level and at the societal level, enslaved by sin. This sounds like Paul is almost naming an entity in our world that we could call Evil, or the Devil, or Satan, who might enslave us. I do not believe there is such an entity; that might provide an easy answer, yet it makes a second god out of an evil entity. I believe there is only one God, whose intent in goodness, love, and kindness, and there is not a second god whose intent is evil, bad, or hatred.
Yet, sin and suffering still occur. We seek our own self-preservation and we forget to be kind, or we act out of our animal instinct of fear, or we do something heinous that seems outside of our human and Divine nature. Or someone else does this to us.
And yet there is hope. Salvation comes in the form of recognizing all of our brokenness and seeking wholeness. Redemption comes as freedom from enslavement to whatever keep us from being in sync with God. Moving into forgiveness for ourselves and others, we are freed from the desire to do violence inwardly to ourselves or outwardly to others.
All of that is where we head in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.
For now, let’s pray.
Loving God, you seek our well-being, yet our human nature of fear and anxiety can so often get in the way of seeing you. Break through this separation and allow us to become in sync with you, as individuals and as a society. May we do your justice, may we seek your kindness, may we walk humbly with you, and keep us safe, even as we face the scary world around us. Amen.