3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9) (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Saturday, July 2, and Sunday, July 3, 2011
Romans 7 is a rather confusing little passage. Perhaps you got a little lost when you were listening to those words, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 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.”
Paul goes round and round with what he does and what he doesn’t want to do. It can make your head spin. Paul says, “I do not understand what I do,” but maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t understand Paul.” So in case you’re like me and find that you don’t understand what Paul is saying, I took a look at a bunch of different translations and put together those versions to maybe make verses 15-19 a bit easier to understand. See if the version that is on the insert helps.
“I don’t understand myself at all, for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, but I agree that God’s standards are good. So I am no longer the one who is doing the things I hate, but sin that lives in me is doing them. I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. I don’t do the good I want to do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”
Paul is describing the inner conflict that Christians have. On the one hand, because we know Christ, we have a desire to serve Christ, to follow His ways. That’s what Paul says he’d like to do. On the other hand, though, we still have a sinful nature that wants to go against God, that is selfish, wants to do its own thing. That’s where Paul admits that he’s rotten through and through. The struggle between the Christ-like nature and the sinful nature, that’s the struggle we all face as believers in Christ.
I think one of the best ways of describing this struggle comes from an artist named Jenny Holzer. Holzer wrote a bunch of statements, what she calls “truisms,” which are rather pointed thoughts directed towards our true motives and values. In 1986, she was able to place these truisms on the electronic sign at Times Square in New York and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. You’ve got a picture there of her truism on the board at Caesar’s Palace. That’s not an altered picture; Holzer’s phrase, “Protect me from what I want,” really flashed at night on the Las Vegas strip. As people went to casinos to gamble and indulgence in other vices, there was Holzer’s phrase to get people to stop and think—Are these things I want really the best for me? Will my desire to get rich or get high or whatever, will those things end up being bad for me?
Holzer’s truisms aren’t necessarily Christian, but I think that statement, “Protect me from what I want,” comes awfully close to putting this passage from Romans 7 into one sentence. It’s the prayer of a Christian struggling with sin. Lord, protect me from what I want. Protect me from the sin I want to do. Protect me from my sinful desires—my lusts, my addictions, my need for revenge. Protect me from the things that my sinful nature wants to do.
I actually first ran across this phrase as the title of a song by the band Placebo. They sing “protect me what I want” as the chorus of a song about the end of a relationship, where the speaker knows that it is better that the relationship is over but there’s still this desire to get back together. Protect me from what I want, indeed. The speaker knows that the relationship is leading no place good, but still he thinks about continuing to be with this person. In that same way, we know that our relationship with sin and the devil is leading no place good, but still we think about continuing to follow sin, to follow the devil’s ways.
So really I can imagine Paul being on the Las Vegas strip, looking up at the Caesar’s Palace signboard, seeing Holzer’s truism, and thinking, “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
I don’t know what sins Paul struggled with, but he’s extremely honest here in saying that there’s a constant battle going on in him between good and evil, between God’s will and sin, between the new nature and the sinful nature. Paul is admitting that he needs protection from those sinful desires, and that protection is only going to come from Christ.
Remember, even as Paul admits his struggle with sin, this passage leads to Paul declaring that Christ has saved him and all of us from this struggle, this wretched body of death. Christ has not promised to one day give us victory over sin, to give us life forever where there will not be the sinful nature anymore. So even as Paul talks about these sins that fight for his attention, his action, his life, he also knows that Christ forgives and conquers all sin.
Now, go on the back side of your insert. As Paul describes this inner conflict between God and sin, really he’s also saying that his actions sometimes contradict his beliefs or his words. Paul says that he believes in Jesus, but he doesn’t always live like it. Paul preaches about following Christ, but he doesn’t always follow Christ with his actions, his words, or his thoughts. Paul contradicts himself; he acts contrary to what he believes and says.
Paul isn’t bringing this up to condemn other people. Paul’s not saying, “Oh, I can’t believe these people who talk about Jesus on Sunday but then go out sinning during the week.” Sometimes people have implied to me that others don’t have a right to be in church if they’re going to be such sinners during the week. Yet, that’s not what Paul is saying at all. In fact, Paul says, “I am doing the very things I hate. I am rotten. I don’t do the good I want to do.” Paul is talking about himself. Paul is saying that he is no different, he shares in this common struggle that Christians face.
So really this passage in Romans 7 isn’t meant to be used by us to condemn others. This passage is about each of us admitting ourselves that we are like this, that we don’t do what our new nature tells us to do, that we do the evil that we hate, that we struggle against sin even though we believe in Jesus. This passage is about all of us looking at that Caesar’s Palace signboard and realizing that Jenny Holzer’s phrase applies to us, “Protect me from what I want.”
So this passage isn’t so that we can look at each other. It’s a look in the mirror. Paul talks about this inner conflict, because he wanted his readers to understand that their struggle isn’t unique. Maybe that’s why we’re quick to see the contradictions in our fellow Christians, but not always so quick to see it in ourselves, maybe we don’t like to see that contradiction in ourselves, because we’re afraid that we’re the only ones, we’re the only Christian in the room who still has some big struggles with sin.
So this passage is a look in the mirror. It’s a way for each of us to see that “I am doing the very things I hate. I am rotten. I don’t do the good I want to do.” Yet, Paul talks about his own struggle with this, so that we can know that we’re not alone. If we’re afraid of being the only one, this passage in Romans helps us to know that the greatest Christian missionary, the writer of 13 books of the New Testament, Paul himself had this same struggle. We might still be afraid to admit it, but there’s not a Christian around who doesn’t have to say, “Lord, protect me from what I want.”
And this isn’t a crisis of faith. Perhaps it would seem like if we admit that we struggle back and forth between God and sin, if we admit that sinful desires still are raging in our mind and body, perhaps it would seem like if we admit this that we’re somehow admitting that we’ve lost faith in Christ.
Again, though, that’s not what this passage is about. This isn’t a crisis of faith. In fact, it’s actually a crisis for sin. Sure, we’re admitting that we still have sinful desires, but we’re also saying that because of Christ, there’s victory over sin. It’s a crisis for sin, because sin will be defeated. We’re admitting that we don’t always do what God wants us to do, but we’re also saying that because of Christ, we know His will, we have a desire to serve Him, we have a new life. It’s a crisis for sin, because we have a new nature that recognizes sin, we have a new nature that wants to do away with the old, do away with the sinful nature. It’s a crisis for sin, because sin’s days are numbered. Christ will give us victory over sin.
Since Christ has conquered sin, since Christ forgives us instead of condemning us, since we are not alone in this struggle, since this isn’t a crisis of faith, then when we hear Paul talk about this inner conflict between God and sin, when we see Jenny Holzer’s truism, “Protect me from what I want,” it’s not a panic situation. It’s not a time when we have to panic and try to rid ourselves of all of this sin in order to still be a Christian. Paul brought this up so that we could know that we are able to bring these things before God, bring our sins and struggles before Him, and ask for His strength, guidance, and support as we learn to choose good over evil.
So, then, without panicking, we can list before God the things our sinful nature wants, the things that we have trouble ignoring or getting rid of. Holzer says, “Protect me from what I want.” What do you need God to protect you from? What needs to be fenced off? What sinful desires do you need God’s protection from?
Maybe not right now, maybe you don’t feel comfortable writing them down right now, but I’ve left you space on that bulletin insert to write down the sinful desires that you need God to fence off. Each of us have different addictions, vices, habits, sins we’re lazy about, sins that are easier to keep around. Those are the things that we need protection from. We need God to put up a fence in our minds and bodies against those things. We need God to put up a huge, barbed-wire topped fence, separate those things from our lives. We need God to stop us when we cut through the fence, when we climb over the fence. We need God’s Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, in our lives, to keep us from those sins.
Sometimes, by the grace and power of God, we’ll be able to leave those sins on the other side of the fence. Sometimes we won’t. Either way, remember this is a crisis for sin not a crisis of faith. It is a crisis for sin, because Christ has given us the eyes to see sin. We are starting to recognize sin for what it is. Sin is a dead end road, a road that leads to death. We want some sins so bad, but they won’t do us any good. We now know that those sins belong on the other side of the fence.
Remember this is a crisis for sin not a crisis of faith. You haven’t lost faith when you struggle against your sinful desires, and your salvation wasn’t defeated when you climbed over that fence. The victory of Christ conquers all of our sins—our actions, words, thoughts, and even the times when we sin by not doing something. Forgiveness for our sins applies to all of our sins.
When you pray, “Lord, protect me from what I want,” please know that Christ has given you the ultimate protection. What we wanted in our sinful natures was to follow our own road, to wind up on that dead end, but Christ came to put up the fence. Christ came to save us from that dead end. Christ has come to give us eternal protection from sin, death, and the devil. There is no shame in admitting to your fellow Christians that you have struggles with sin, that you have things that still need to be fenced off. There’s no shame in this, because in admitting it, you are admitting that you need the salvation of Christ, the forgiveness of Christ, and the eternal protection of Christ. Who will save us from our bodies of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! God be praised that He sent Jesus to protect us from the sin we want.