Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
There are probably some passages in Romans that modern followers of Jesus have a little trouble relating to. I mean, really, controversies between Christians raised as Jews and others raised as gentiles aren’t really something that keeps us up at night. But this reading is definitely as relevant to us as it was to the original recipients of Paul’s letter. I say that because it deals with the subject of how we followers of Jesus are to think about our own sinfulness. And, in case you haven’t noticed, sin hasn’t gone away over the last 2,000 years.
Lots of people associate Paul with a kind of judgmental and self-righteous strain of the Christian faith. Actually, I’m one of those people, I guess. I suppose that’s because lots of Christians who seem judgmental and self-righteous go around quoting Paul at the drop of a hat. But this passage sort of complicates that common stereotype of Paul as self-righteous. I say that because in this part of his letter, Paul freely admits that his walk of faith – just like ours – is a struggle to live according to the standards God has established for us in his law, and in the life of Jesus.
I suppose we might wonder what kind of sins Paul was agonizing over – we kind of imagine that Paul just walked through the world talking about Jesus and thinking religious thoughts all the time.
But it’s probably important to remind ourselves that in Paul’s mind, really following Jesus meant making his love known wherever we go. And also that Paul listed the “fruits of the Spirit” that he understood would be ripening in the lives of all those who follow Jesus: love, joy, peace, goodness, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. So it makes sense that in Paul’s mind, failing to manifest any of those ‘fruits’ in his life and work would represent sin on his part.
When we think about the subject of sin, I’m not really sure our traditional way of thinking really reflects the priorities Jesus himself established in his ministry. Or, for that matter, the sins Paul was worried about. It’s pretty clear that lots of Christians immediately think of sexual immorality when the subject of sin comes up. Apparently lots of others think first about drinking or violence or stealing.
But do we really think the apostle Paul was running around the ancient Near East chasing women or getting drunk or getting in fights or stealing? Probably not. So what sins were causing Paul so much distress?
Well, it’s not hard to imagine that Paul might has seen himself as lacking in love for others, or as impatient. He might even have recognized a streak of self-righteousness in himself. In the Acts of the Apostles, we’re told that Paul refused to let John Mark come on his missionary trips because John Mark had once got homesick and gone home. So apparently Paul could be unforgiving sometimes.
Paul knew how to argue his opinions vigorously, and there’s a pretty fine line between making a vigorous argument and being a bully about it. So when we really broaden our thinking about sin beyond that ones that fascinate us so much, it’s not hard to imagine how a thoughtful person like Paul might struggle with a sense of his own sinfulness.
It seems to me one thing we should keep always keep in mind is that to Jesus – and maybe to Paul as well – the sins of the ‘religious’ are at least as serious as the sins of the drunks and thieves and tax collectors and prostitutes – the ones who were regarded as notorious ‘public sinners.’ In the gospels, it seems that Jesus reserved his most direct and biting criticism for the self-righteous hypocrites like the Pharisees who had a lot to say about the sins of others, but not much about their own.
That, it seems to me, is the proper attitude toward sin for those of us who follow Jesus. We should be more focused on our own sins – more bothered by our own sins – than we are with the sins of others. Because really, criticizing the sins of others is almost always pointless – they’ll either ignore us or respond defensively. But being committed to repenting of our own sins and turning aside from them – that’s probably the most effective thing we can do to influence others examine their own lives.
The other thing that seems significant in this passage is that Paul uses the word “sin” as a kind of synonym for ‘evil.’ He writes about it as an evil force in the world, infecting us and getting us to do things that are displeasing to God.
But it also seems important to notice that even though Paul writes about sin this way – as an evil power at work in the world, he doesn’t think that absolves him of responsibility for his sins. Paul holds himself fully responsible for his own sins, even though he writes that “it is sin living in me that does it.”
This section of Romans reminds us that for people who are trying to follow Jesus, living in imitation of him is a lifelong struggle. Even though we don’t have to earn our own salvation by “being good,” we know God calls on his Son’s disciples to try to walk a path of holiness as an expression of our thanks. And living a holy life is a very hard thing.
But of course, we have help. We believe that one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to “sanctify” us – to work within us to little by little break the grip that sin has over us and make us more and more like Jesus. So that means an important step in the life of holiness is opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit, and inviting it to transform us day by day.
And in the meantime, recognizing that all of us – like Paul – sin and fall short of God’s standards, it certainly makes sense for us to be very patient with the sins of others.
Let’s pray. Lord, you know that each and every one of us is guilty of sinning against you and other people. Forgive us our sins, and let your Holy Spirit move in our hearts to turn us away from sin and help us to live more and more Christ-like lives. And recognizing that we are sinners, guard us against judging and condemning the sins of others. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 65:1-4 and 89:5-13; Numbers 22:41 to 23:12; and Matthew 21:33-46.)