Why Did I Do That?
Romans 7:15-25 NIV
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 I know that nothing good lives 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 what I do is not the good I want to do; no, 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 my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of 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 the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Everything To Lose
On March 12, 2008, 14 months after taking the oath of office as the governor New York, Eliot Spitzer resigned the governorship citing “personal failings.” Those failings, it turned out, were reported in the New York Times two days earlier — Spitzer, the governor of New York, and former Attorney General of New York, was under federal investigation for his involvement with a prostitution ring operating out of Washington, DC.
Spitzer had been called by Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, “the future of the Democratic Party.” He had handily won election as governor, had an extraordinary reputation as a prosecutor, and had been responsible for the investigation that brought down the Gambino crime family’s influence in New York. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard, married to a beautiful woman, Silda, who founded a children’s charity, father of 3 children, son of a well-known and respected New York real estate family, Spitzer had the world by the tail. Until he did what he knew was wrong, illegal at that, and got caught at it.
Now, before we get too hard on Eliot Spitzer, or Bill Clinton, or the endless line of public figures who do stupid, and sometimes criminal things, let’s take a look at this passage in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.
The Frustration of Life
Paul expresses a frustration that many of us — okay, all of us — have experienced at one time or other. Have you ever had to apologize to someone for some thoughtless act or word? And you probably asked yourself, “Why did I do that?” Well, Paul understands your frustration, and expresses it this way himself –
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.
Paul was actually saying something as old as Greek and Roman culture itself, for there was an old debating question that was trotted out in the public forums of Rome, that went something like this –
Even though I know what the right thing to do is, why can’t I bring myself to do it?
This thing of knowing to do right, but not doing it is universal and timeless. Parents who tell their children, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” are living out this paradox, this frustration, right in front of their kids. Let’s break this down and see if we can understand it a little better ourselves.
Sin and The Law
Sin and The Law — sounds like a TV show, doesn’t it. But these are two words we really need to understand. And, they have special meanings when Paul uses them here. By “law” Paul means God’s law, the law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, the Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Law of God, including the Ten Commandments. The whole deal given by God to Moses for the people of God. And The Law is important because it distinguishes the people of God from everyone else. Israel was to live by God’s law so the nation could fulfill the promise God made to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations.
Sin. This is a word we do not use in casual conversation today. And, Paul doesn’t mean “sins” — lots of bad things people do. No, Paul uses the word Sin here with a capital “S” — the Sin Force, the Sin Principle, also know as Evil. But, the word “sin” has a pretty tame meaning in Greek — it means missing the mark. It’s the image of an archer who shoots his arrow, but it misses the bulls-eye. It doesn’t matter how much it misses the bulls-eye, a miss is a miss. Sin misses the mark God sets for his people. Sin shoots wide of the target. But, more than that, Sin doesn’t just miss the mark — Sin gets us to aim for another target all together.
When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I got a BB gun for Christmas. I wanted a BB gun, I had asked for a BB gun, and I suppose my parents thought I was old enough, and responsible enough to have a BB gun. Mine was a Daisy, lever-action BB gun. You loaded the copper BBs — they looked like copper to me — into a hole in the barrel, turned a disk on the end of the barrel to keep the BBs from falling out of your gun, pumped the lever to put a BB into the chamber, and you fired away!
But, as I opened my BB gun on Christmas morning, it was to a chorus of my mom and dad saying things like –
Never point this at anybody.
Don’t shoot anything but the target.
Don’t shoot birds.
Don’t shoot your eye out.
And so on.
Coincidentally, my friend, Charles Norris, who lived in the house directly behind ours, also got a BB gun that year. So, we were set — two 10 year olds, armed to the teeth. Of course, the first thing I did was shoot a bird. I really didn’t mean to shoot it — actually I didn’t mean to kill it — but I did, and I had to bury it in the backyard to conceal my murderous deed from my parents. I felt a little like Cain killing Abel and trying to cover it up.
You would think I would have learned a lesson from that experience, but of course, I did not. So, Charles and I proceeded to see what other things we could shoot, and what would happen when we did. The neighbors who lived next door to us were not very friendly people, as I recall. And, they drove a Cadillac. Not that there was anything wrong with driving a Cadillac, I just didn’t know anybody except our nextdoor neighbors who did. Charles and I hung out behind our garage, which had a little workshop space that we converted into our club. We crawled in and out of this secret clubhouse through a window in the back. One day on a total whim, we both aimed our BB guns toward the next door neighbor’s house, and let a couple of BBs fly. Nothing happened, so we went about our business doing 10-year old boy stuff.
That evening, our neighbor knocked on our door. I saw her, and kind of ducked down so she couldn’t see me as my dad answered the door. I could tell from the muffled adult conversation that I was in trouble. To make a long, and ultimately painful story short, Charles and I had shot the glass out of their backdoor! Several things happened to me that night, the least painful of which was I got my BB gun confiscated.
The point of that story is that not only did I miss the target with my BB gun, I was shooting at all the wrong things purposely. That’s Sin. That urge, force, temptation — whatever you want to call it — that not only causes us to miss God’s target, but actually has us shooting at the wrong thing!
The Law comes to bear on that situation, by reminding us that we did not hit the mark — we missed the target God had for us, and oh by-the-way, you’re not even shooting in the right direction.
Why Do We Do It?
So, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Why do we do that sort of thing?” Why do we shoot at the wrong target, missing God’s mark, and actually doing the opposite of what we are supposed to do?
And, isn’t Paul writing to Christians here, and aren’t we supposed to be able to obey God?
Okay, let’s take those one at a time. Why do we do it? Paul says, evil is right there alongside of us. Evil — not just bad choices, Evil itself. Evil is that which is opposed to God. Evil is that which leads to death. God leads to life. Evil is opposed to God. Evil effects everyone, even Christians. Here’s how –
Friday and Saturday, Debbie and I worked in the garden. Our raised beds aren’t really working out too well, so we’re doing what any self-respecting gardeners would do — we’re expanding the garden! We doubled the size of our garden plot, dug up about 400-square feet of grass, fenced it in, and will plant three varieties of seed potatoes there, plus some other stuff.
Gardening is hard work. Before I became a gardener, I didn’t think gardening took much effort. I no longer think that. Both days we have worked hard, sweated, and dug and still we’re not finished. Saturday we finally got the fence up, and in the midst of that it started raining, but I had to finish, gather the tools, and then head inside. I was beyond dirty. I had changed shirts three times, used one shirt to wipe the mud and dirt off my arms and legs, and was really, really dirty. When I got in the shower, my feet were so dirty that the water running over them did not wash the caked on dirt off. I had to sit on the floor of the shower and use a brush to scrub the dirt off my feet and legs. That is dirty.
Now, how did I get that dirty? By being in the garden, by being in the dirt. The more I worked, the dirtier I got. We live in that kind of world. A world where the force of Sin, the force of Evil has so dirtied God’s creation that some of it rubs off on us. We’re affected by it, tainted by the stain of sin. We can’t help it, we can’t avoid it, we can’t outwit it. It is the nature of the environment in which we live.
Evil and God
N. T. Wright in his book, Evil and The Justice of God, says that our culture has three approaches to evil –
- We don’t believe it is so bad.
- We’re shocked when confronted with evil.
- We believe things will get better.
Evil, Sin, opposition to God — are all pieces of the same puzzle. All of them lead to death, a dead-end, no way out, an unfulfilled life. We believe the “lie” instead of the promise of God. Scott Peck, wrote People of the Lie, to counter the idea in his profession as a psycho-therapist that there is no such thing as evil.
Not all evil has the same consequence or effect, however. A person who cheats on a test and Adolf Hitler may both have sinned, but the horror of concentration camps outweighs a stolen test answer my orders of magnitude. But, both are expressions of evil.
We are influenced by evil, surrounded by the environment in which evil holds forth, and contaminated by its effects.
Some Biblical scholars believe that Paul is actually speaking of the nation of Israel here, when he says “I.” Much like our “royal WE” the first century used a literary device where are writer would speak in the first person — use the word “I” — to represent a larger group, without having to be so explicit.
Substitute the word “Israel” for every “I” Paul uses, and you see the same thing. Israel doesn’t do what it wants to do. Israel doesn’t obey God. Israel loves the law of God, but doesn’t keep it. Israel has failed to hit God’s mark, and indeed is also shooting at the wrong target in the first century.
So, what are we to do? Paul asks that very question — Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!
It is Jesus death that gives us life. God lets the Sin Force get so great, that it must be dealt with. He lets Sin do its worst. Then, God wraps all that up, hands it to Jesus, condemns Sin, and had Jesus bear it to the cross. Sins great penalty is death. Not only does God kill the Sin, but He breaks the hold Sin has on us through death in the resurrection of Jesus.
Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! Jesus takes Sin to the cross, bears it in his body, dies with sin clutched tightly to himself, and kills the power of sin in the process. Then, the one-two punch culminates in Death also being defeated as God raises Jesus, brings him back to life, back through the door of death, back to a new resurrected, glorified life everlasting. Life in the age to come, but here and now. Thanks be to God, indeed!
Right now, we live in that in-between time — between the defeat of Sin and Death and God’s final victory. We now live in a shadow of the age to come, the kingdom of God. One day Sin and Evil will be fully vanquished from God’s good creation. As the new people of God, we help in hastening that day. Until then, until that day fully comes, we live in-between, on the battlefield in the war between God and Sin. God wins, we know that already. But we still live in the present reality, struggling at times, failing at other times, but always aware that our victory has been bought in Jesus death and resurrection. Who can deliver us from this struggle with Death? Thanks be to God, it is through Jesus Christ our Lord!