Romans 7: 15-25a
Romans is a difficult book to read. While it is the deepest of Paul’s letters, and while to also covers the most territory, it is definitely a letter, and a letter that was taken in dictation. How else to explain how the letter sounds so much of the time!
Imagine the scene: Paul, in prison in Rome, paces around his jail cell, while Timothy or Barnabas or someone we don’t know sits outside on a little stool, scribbling furiously, dipping his quill pen into the pot of ink as fast as he can so that he can get the words Paul is speaking down as quickly as possible. That’s how I think Romans was written, and why it sounds so much like it needs an editor.
Paul, in Romans is trying to give his complete argument for the merits of living a Christian life. It isn’t an overview and survey of Christianity, other than it’s insistence in the divinity of Christ. The church is too young at that point to have much more than that. What Paul is doing is trying to explain what he has found to be useful, what he had thought about why a Christian life is to be commended.
In that light, today’s passage is a discussion on the problem of knowing what is right, and doing something else. Paul stays away from concrete examples, because what he is describing is to important to be misunderstood as merely a daily living lesson.
It’s easy enough to say that Paul means we want to take the carrots and celery at the party, but we grab the cookies instead. It’s easy enough to say that we want to pick up our Bibles and read a chapter or two, but end up getting sucked in to a movie on TV, instead. Yes, he means that, but he also means things much deeper.
What he’s saying is that it is much harder to choose the things that are of God, that are who we really are, deep down, created in the image of God. It is much easier to choose the things that we construct ourselves as, that stuff that buries who we really are under a pile of earthly expectations, unhealthy attractions, advertising that has gotten under our skin and made us feel inadequate, the scars of resentment of people’s sins against us. It’s all the stuff that has piled up over the image of God we were originally created as, and is still down there under it all. It’s just easier to choose the stuff over top, because it is easier to get to, and choosing it helps us get along in the world.
But Paul encourages us to not choose the easy path. Paul knows what other Spiritual giants know. There is no quick fix to a life with God. There is work, and time spent, and time taken away from the shiny and the spiffy and the new to concentrate on the digging through the muck to get to that glowing, rich center of who we are.
Paul would say that the law he was raised in, the law of the early Pharisees was given to us by God to be able to find that original God-dwelling inside. That was the purpose of the law. But that law, shown to have been corrupted by imperfect, post Eden beings, has now grown harder to use. A new tool, a new shovel, is now necessary, and that is the image of someone who has taken law and used it properly—not as a weapon, but as a series of signposts to point down through the mire to the God-dwelling place. He writes: “For I delight in the law in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
Then Paul names the saving law, the law of his mind. Who will rescue him from the body of death that surrounds life? God through Jesus Christ. The Jesus Christ who also had a body, but lived a Godly life within that body, proving to us that the earthly body is not sinful as a matter of course, but that it is our will, exercised apart from the will of God, that makes our bodies imperfect. Our bodies are not evil. How our imperfect wills use them is.
Paul seems to have at least figured out that much. But I ask then, How do we return to the perfect will of God, having spent so many years exercising our will imperfectly? How do we stop piling the wrong kind of material over the image of God at our center?
Well, I think that part of it is by trying to live a simpler life. I think part of the problem is that we allow our lives to be over complicated. Some stuff can’t be avoided, like having to take two kids two different places at the same time. But that’s all that is. To add to it by feeling inadequate because we should have been organized enough to see the time crunch coming adds to the problem. To add to it by blaming ourselves and someone else for an issue that no one could control adds to the problem.
Sometimes, things just happen at the same time.
In science, there is a term: Ockham's Razor. This definition comes from the American Heritage Science dictionary: A rule in science and philosophy stating that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. This rule is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known. Occam's razor is named after the deviser of the rule, English philosopher and theologian William of Ockham (1285?-1349?).
Entities should not be multiplied needlessly. If you’re late, then you are late. There is no character flaw. Paul’s law of the mind, the law of God, isn’t in judging someone else’s’ timeliness, or in punctuality, it is in the grace of knowing that that person tried to be on time, so there must have been a reason. If you grab the donuts instead of the granola, God’s mind isn’t endlessly creating entities of judgment, guilt and death, God’s mind is on simply making the better choice next time.
Never mind the big stuff, like God’s mind being on Darfur, on the struggle between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Oh, never fear, God’s mind is on them too, but God’s mind, the image we were created in, is concentrating much more on the individuals involved. Encouraging minds to know more than what they “know”, which is a mass of distrust, fostered by stories they’ve been told, icky stuff that has been piled over their core selves, that which was created in God’s image. Deep down, they know what God knows—that mind of God that Paul describes--that lived simply, people are just people, doing their best.
Here’s another way to think about it; Two monks are walking down a road. They are the regular type of monks, that have pledged the usual vows of obedience, poverty—and chastity. They come to a river, and there is a woman trying to get across. The older monk puts the woman on his back and helps her across the river. At the other bank, she goes her way, and they go theirs.
Ten miles later, the younger monk says “I can’t believe you touched a woman!” the older one replies: “I put her down ten miles ago. Why didn’t you?”
Yes, it is true that we do what we do not want. But we have within is the ability to do what we do want, in the image of Jesus. And we also have the forgiveness of God when we fail. No need to multiply the entities needlessly.