I don’t do the good thing I want to do, but I do the evil thing that I don’t want to do.
Who’s been there?…
Let me offer a little context before we dive in.
This is the voice of the Apostle Paul.
Paul was one of the most important leaders in the first generation of Christianity – a teacher, preacher, theologian and founder of churches. Many of his letters are preserved in the Bible – as well as a handful of letters that other people wrote and put his name on, hoping to borrow his authority.
Romans is one of the longest of Paul’s surviving letters. Unlike the other letters, Paul is writing to a Christian community that doesn’t already know him – the Christian community in Rome, which was basically the capital of the world at the time. The Roman Empire spread across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
It’s going to be a couple of centuries before Christianity is accepted and starts to be a powerful force in Rome, but still, Paul wants to impress the Christian community in Rome. So he’s laying out a lot of his big ideas.
It’s hard to preach on Romans because the little chunks of ten or fifteen verses that we get in the lectionary are pieces of arguments that are, like, three chapters long, and often somewhat nuanced and complex. A preacher has to contextualize before they can do anything else.
But I think this passage catches our attention even without context. I want to do the right thing, but somehow I don’t.
I don’t want to do the bad thing, but somehow I do.
That’s so simple and so real.
But what is Paul saying about this fairly relatable experience?
And why does he keep talking about law, in this passage? …
In this part of Romans, Paul is exploring the meaning of Jewish law, and how this new Christian faith relates to that older way of understanding what it means to be good and righteous.
Being a practicing Jew involves observance of the way of life laid out by the commandments and practices of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Modern Jews have a wide range of understandings of what observance looks like. Wrestling with how the commandments apply in new circumstances is a core faith practice, in Judaism! But observance of the Law, one way or another, is just part of what it means to be a Jew.
Like most of the first generation of Christians, Paul was a Jew before he became a Christian. He was a very serious and faithful Jew – more on that in a moment.
He is clear that Christianity is a new path of faith that leads away from following the rules of Torah. But he doesn’t want to throw the Law out the window. He believes that the Law is good, and holy – and that for him and others, it was ultimately inadequate, because of this other law – the law of sin – at work within him.
(It is important to say here that we share the faith of Abraham’s God with a whole lot of Jews who do not find the Law inadequate! I trust that God honors all God’s covenants, and that the call of God through Jesus Christ was for those who needed a new path of faith. Anything else is above my pay grade.)
Biblical scholars have wondered a lot about what to make of the “I” in this passage – Paul’s use of the first person singular, here. He hasn’t been writing in this voice, much, before chapter 7.
Why does he suddenly seem to be speaking from experience, talking about the deep inner struggles of his heart?
Well: As a fellow preacher, I definitely think that part of what’s going on here is just a clever rhetorical choice.
Sometimes people like Paul, and me, use a kind of strategic “I”, where it’s not entirely clear whether we’re actually talking about ourselves or using this “I” to kind of stand for everybody.
To say, “People struggle with sin,” is abstract and boring.
To say, “You struggle with sin,” is scary and blame-y.
To say, “I struggle with sin,” as a preacher or teacher, creates a sense of transparency and vulnerability. And the listener or reader has the freedom to say, “Hey, yeah, I know what that feels like too.”
But there’s a bigger question at stake here than Paul’s writing style. That’s the question of whether Paul is describing his own ONGOING experience – or what it was like before he became a Christian.
And that’s a big question because Paul himself says, in various places, that once you’ve become a Christian, committed yourself to Christ, then sin no longer has power over you.
We see it at the end of this passage: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And he’ll say more in that vein in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
He talked about it back in chapter 6, too: “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:6-7, 11-12)
Paul wants to say boldly that through our baptism, Christians are now dead to sin, and freed to live with goodness and grace.
But: Paul also finds that he has to keep reminding people in his many churches to STOP SINNING.
Those verses from chapter 6 continue, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”
And in chapter 8, Paul is also clearly urging Christians to turn away from sinful behavior – a choice they still have to make.
Let me say a word about how Paul talks about sin here: as a separate force at work inside us. This language feels risky to me – it makes room for someone committing atrocious acts to say, “It’s not ME; it’s the sin!”
But at the same time, I do understand. There are times when the thing pulling me away from my best intentions does almost feel like a power or being inside me.
Sin – or as author Francis Spufford renames it, the Human Propensity to Eff Things Up – can take so many forms inside us.
Our many addictions; our urges and our personal weaknesses; established patterns that we know hurt us rather than helping us but that still, like well-worn ruts in a road, draw us into their path…
Sometimes we can name these things, hold them at arm’s length, give them a good hard look.
But that doesn’t instantaneously break their power over us – in us.
So I do recognize the experience Paul is describing here.
I don’t do the good thing I want to do, but I do the evil thing that I don’t want to do….
I realized this week that Paul has a lot in common with today’s exvangelicals – people who have left evangelical Christianity.
Paul was formed by a religious culture in which there’s a right way to do every little thing. And now he has converted to a religious culture, a path of faith, that is much more a matter of personal discernment and struggle.
I’ve had many conversations with people exploring the Episcopal Church after leaving evangelicalism.
One person told me plainly, I know why I left; but there was some real comfort in feeling like I knew exactly how to be in my marriage, how to raise my kids, what books to buy, what music to listen to, and so on.
This business of having some core values and hopes, and figuring the rest out from there, can feel chaotic and scary.
I think that’s right where Paul is. Paul wasn’t just any Jew before he became a Christian. He was a member of a particularly rigorous and prescriptive movement within Judaism. Part of how he feels about the Law, and about his own former life, is that it was really nice to know exactly how to act to be a righteous person. But he also knows deep down that for him, that didn’t make him a good person. It wasn’t salvific – it did not rescue him from himself, the way that Jesus did.
So: He’s a Christian now, and passionately, wholeheartedly so. But he doesn’t find it easy – for himself, or for those he’s teaching and leading.
The upshot of this passage – of this section of Romans – is that that Paul wants very much to say that we are freed from bondage to sin by our baptism, by our belonging to Jesus.
But sin, that Human Propensity to Eff things Up, doesn’t just fall away like a shed skin when we become Christians.
Being freed from bondage to sin doesn’t mean we just walk away. Maybe it just means that now it’s a fair fight.
We have to keep struggling and keep choosing, day by day, sometimes moment by moment.
To keep opting for justice, mercy, kindness, healing, liberation, integrity, generosity, joy.
Maybe the way in which Paul is really speaking from his own heart, his own experience, is in the paradox, the tension, he shows in these chapters – and elsewhere – between his profound sense that his conversion, his becoming a Christian, changed something deep inside him; but that in many ways he is still the same imperfect self, struggling with the same weaknesses.
As a human being and as a preacher, I do relate to that. I do believe that Jesus made and makes a difference, for me, for the world. God coming among us as a human, God sharing our lives, God dying a human death – and a painful and disgraceful human death, at that – God fighting free of the bondage of death and rising to new life – God in Christ claiming us as his own, forever – all of that matters. It made a difference, in some crucial (crucial, which means, cross-shaped) and fundamental way.
And: I know – that my personal transformation is incomplete at best… and that in calling others to transformation of life, in my role as a preacher and pastor, I have to be honest about that reality.
What’s the most important thing to carry away from this text?…
In one on one conversations, I hear fairly often that people feel unsure, unworthy, like their faith isn’t strong enough to really count. And part of that might be that we think being a real Christian means that you just know the right thing to do, and you do it.
This passage normalizes the fact that that’s not true, and never has been.
Even as Paul really wants to say look, we are free from bondage to sin! – he has to acknowledge over and over again that the life of faith involves continuing course corrections, inner struggle, discernment, apology, repentance, making amends, trying to do better next time.
So if anyone has been feeling small or unworthy because they find goodness not to be a straightforward project, I hope this passage – and perhaps this sermon – helps reduce that feeling.
Struggling sometimes, perhaps often, to know the best path – to make the best choice – to do the best thing, even when you have a clear discernment of what the best thing is – in big things or small – having to do that work is not a failure of faithful life.
It is faithful life, and always has been.