I Do The Very Thing I Hate (Audio)
July 6, 2014
Calvary - St. George's Church, NYC
My dad used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day every day. It used to seem like he was always smoking; it used to seem like he always had a cigarette in his hand. He smoked outdoors, and, yes, these were the days before most everyone avoided smoking indoors. I remember praying every night before bed with my mom and brother for dad to stop smoking. I even went so far as to raise my hand one Sunday morning during prayer request time to ask the pastor to pray for my dad’s addiction. It didn’t seem to have any effect. My dad kept right on smoking.
One day, while my dad was driving me home, I asked him why--if he hated smoking so much--he didn’t just quit. In the past my dad had made it very clear to me that smoking was bad for you and that I was never to light up, but until then I had never asked him why he continued to smoke. I had never been that direct before. In response, my dad told me that the reason he didn’t stop smoking was because he loved it. Loved it. I remember immediately correcting him, “No, you’re addicted to it, but you don’t love it.” But my dad didn’t back down. He told me that while he knew it was bad for him, and for that reason he hated it, he also loved it. I was baffled. How could he say he loved something that killed him? More than that, how could he say that he loved something he hated? How could someone hate and love something at the same time? Despite my protests, my dad affirmed his conflicting viewpoints, and my little mind was introduced to the complex irrationality that is the divided will.
This memory came to mind while I was reading this morning’s epistle lesson. In it Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How many of you can resonate with this kind of inner conflict? Maybe for you it isn’t smoking. Maybe you’ve tried to diet, but you just couldn’t keep at it. Maybe you’ve tried to deal with your bad temper, but it just won’t go away. Maybe you’ve tried to stay under your credit card limit, but another month goes by and you’re still in the red. Maybe you’ve tried to stop resenting the success of others, but when they’re successful in keeping their diet and you aren’t, you can’t help but resent them. You know the kind of people I’m talking about, don’t you hate them!... “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Now Paul isn’t talking about smoking, per se. He’s talking about following the Law--the Ten Commandments, the covenant God made through Moses. Paul, a very zealous Pharisee, “willed to do right,” he willed to do the law, but as the text says, he “could not do it.” In fact, he goes further. He writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul knew that the law is good, and he wanted more than anything to keep it, but he found that the Law combined with a good will did not have the power to bring about what the Law called for.
What Paul is saying here is very unpopular to our American ‘can-do’ spirits, which are particularly high around July 4th. He is saying that he could not pull himself up by his own bootstraps, and he’s saying that you and I can’t either. Sure, you might have the disposition to go to the gym each and every day while the rest of us just sit around and talk about it, but what about controlling your temper, what about your propensity to gossip? What about whatever it is that you don’t like about yourself and that you can’t beat? What about your addictions? What about the things you and I do that inflict genuine harm on other people? What Paul is saying in our epistle reading is that when it comes to complete obedience to the Law the will is impotent.
Paul goes on to say that there is this anti-law, a power—capital “S” sin—that wages war against his willingness to follow the Law. This power wages war against his desire to do the good. Who in this room cannot resonate with Paul when he writes, “I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Think back on what my dad told my younger self, “I hate smoking, and you can’t do it, Ben, but I love it, and so, at the end of day, I do it (or, as was his case, all throughout the day.)
About a month ago, I had lunch with a friend of mine who’s enrolled in a top-tier PHD program. He’s in these seminars with some of the brightest minds in Old Testament scholarship. The people who have made learning their profession, who write the best articles, commentaries, and tomes in the field, he rubs shoulders with every day. So--like a fanboy--I asked him, “what’s it like.” He spoke a lot, and told me some very interesting stories, but he emphasized that his experience there has, first and foremost, led him to pray, every day, for the grace to remain intellectually flexible. Flexible, I thought? You spend your days with the most brilliant minds in a field that you love pursing higher learning—emphasis on the higher--and the #1 thing you’ve learned is to keep flexible?! And his answer, yes.
He went on to say that all of his professors, despite their desire to continue learning, are so entrenched in their positions, so inflexible in their viewpoints, that, on some level, he doesn’t think that they’re actually open to any more learning. Irony of ironies, the people who have made learning their profession, who want it more than everyone else, aren’t actually open to it. Some of the best minds in the field, who share the same building every day, are embroiled in fights over their particular school of thought and seem unable to learn from each other. My friend told me that he’s sure that they started out with the same openness and intellectual curiosity that he now has, and that deep down it’s still there, but somewhere along the way they’d lost it. Somewhere along the way they got defensive and were unable to entertain ideas that might cut holes in their systems (they became unable to entertain ideas that might threaten their identities). As St. Paul put it, somewhere along the way their will to do the good had become impotent, and not only that, but it had become its opposite. Somewhere along the way their desire for learning yielded to closed-mindedness. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Is there any hope for these professors? Most of them are Christian and not secular professors I might add. Is there any hope for you and I who find ourselves crawling back to sin, even after we’ve sworn it off for the 100th time? Is there any hope for those of us who find ourselves capitulating yet again to our addictions and to the negative traits that we hate? Is there any hope for us who find ourselves hurting people over and over again? St. Paul asks the same question. He writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
His answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” His implied answer is the solution. Jesus has rescued his own, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, continues to rescue you and me, his saints, Christians who are still so prone to sin. This is why Jesus can say, as he does in our gospel lesson, and continues to say to you and to me today, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest… Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
It is quite evident at the end of our epistle reading that St. Paul has found this rest for his soul. He still wills the good—that is, he wants to follow Jesus—but when he fails he no longer fears condemnation. For as he writes one verse later, a verse we did not read this morning, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation! The just requirement of the law has been fulfilled. Its voice of accusation has been stilled. And so we rejoice, for God is interested in rescuing Christian sinners too.
This epistle that we’ve just read is a guard against the tendency to romanticize Christianity. It is a defense against the tendency to sentimentalize the faith that is very much alive and well in some Christian circles today. It is a shield against the impulse to reduce the Christian life to a Hollywood love story where, after we fall in love with Jesus, we live happily ever after with no sin and no problems. This text makes it clear that what we’ve already felt—our propensity to sin, to rebel against God, to not do the good that we want to do—remains in those who follow Jesus. But more importantly, It also makes clear to us that we have a deliverer, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the one whose “property is always to have mercy.”
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”