Saturday, July 30, 2011

Romans 7

To me, Romans 7 is one of the best passages that gives a sobering and realistic portrait of the Christian life. It has comforted me in many times of internal struggle.  Paul describes himself as loving God's Law, serving God's law in his mind, but also battling his flesh, which wants to do evil. He does not do the good he wants to do but does the bad he doesn't want to do. He is a man in conflict.

Some think that Romans 7 is talking about Paul's experience before becoming a believer in Jesus. I read some ridiculous article online, even, that tried to say that if this passage is about Paul as a believer then it would be saying Paul is a "carnal Christian." No.. a "carnal Christian" does not love God's law and battle sin, as Paul describes -he ignores God's law and enjoys his sin. Anyway, I thought it might be helpful for someone if I listed a few of the reasons why I am convinced Paul's words are talking about the believer's experience, using himself as an example.

1. The person Paul describes in these verses is one who wants to do good and hates evil (vv. 15, 16, 19, 20, see below) and who as far as the "inner man" is concerned loves and delights in God's Law (v.22) and serves it in his mind (v. 25b). But this is not how Paul describes unregenerate people (unbelievers) elsewhere. Paul says, for example in Romans 8:7, that the mind of set on the flesh (like an unbeliever) is hostile toward God -it "does not submit to God's law; indeed it cannot."

"15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Romans 7:15-20)
So, if in this section of Romans 7 Paul is saying that when he was an unbeliever he served God's Law with his mind, why would he only a handful of verses later say that the flesh-dominated (unbeliever) mind is hostile to God and unable to submit to or serve God? It would be a contradiction. It makes no sense unless this "conflicted man" section in Romans 7 is talking about him as a believer -believers *are* described as wanting to please God, serving God in their mind, delighting in God's Law, even though they still struggle in sin. Unbelievers are never described this way. Recall how Paul describes unregenerate man in Romans 3 ("no one understands... no one seeks after God... there is no fear of God before their eyes...").

Bible commentator C.E.B. Cranfield notes, "In fact, a struggle as serious as that which is here described can only take place where the Spirit of God is present and active (cf. Gal 5:17)." I have to agree, and if we look at Galatians 5:17 we see a familiar concept. We see the desires of the flesh battling against the desires of the Spirit, to "keep you from doing the things you want to do." Paul urges us to walk by the Spirit. It is clear in this passage in Galatians that he is talking to believers. This battle is only a battle for believers. Unbelievers do not battle their flesh -they walk and live in it only.

2. If we read verses 21 through 25, we see something interesting.

"21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin."
Paul continues to lament his battle within. Finally, he comes to verse 24 and cries out "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me...?" This is a point of climax, one would think. If Paul was really talking about his experience before he believed in Jesus, now is when he would tell us how Jesus saved him and how now he has changed because of the Holy Spirit or something like that. But that isn't what happens. He does say, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord..." He does point to Jesus as the solution and gives thanks for Him, but there is no change that follows. He says, "So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Hmm... It's the same condition just restated (look at verses 21 and 22). That would be a big letdown if the post-Jesus condition is the same as the pre-Jesus condition, wouldn't it? It doesn't make sense. It only makes sense if we understand this section as Paul talking about his experience as a believer.

3. Getting into some details, Paul says that "in my mind I serve (Greek word douleow) the Law of God" in verse 25. This Greek word is the same word or same basic root word that Paul uses in other places in Romans, namely in his talk of serving and being a "slave" in Romans 6. Paul tells us that before our conversion we were "slaves" or servants (Greek douloi, same root) of sin. But after conversion we are "slaves" (edoulothayte, same root word) of righteousness. It would make no sense to the readers of this letter if Paul later, in chapter seven, was saying that unbelievers were servants of God's Law in their mind. It is clear to me that what Paul is talking about is a man who loves God, loves His law, and wants to serve God's Law (because he is converted) but still battles his flesh.

This, to me, not only makes sense of what Paul is saying in this chapter and in the context of Romans as a whole, but in the experience of the Christian life -both my own experience and how the New Testament depicts believers, even the apostles themselves, in other places. For example, Paul calls himself the "chief of sinners." He does not say, "I was the chief of sinners." It is written in present tense and it is clear in context that he is not speaking hypothetically. He says, "I am (still)..." Also consider chapter two of Paul's letter to the Galatians. This was years after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit was sent, and Paul talked about how he rebuked Peter for walking out of step with the Gospel. How could a Spirit-indwelt, Jesus-picked apostle walk out of step with the Gospel?! It is because Romans 7 describes even Peter accurately.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

True Closeness

"Fix Me!"

This is the cry of the heart of many of us.  We beg for God to "fix us."  We want therapists to "fix us."  We want to fix ourselves.  So, we relentlessly pursue our goal.  Our focus is predominantly performance-based.  And when God doesn't fix us, we become angry with Him or decide He does not care.  When therapists don't fix us, we find another or slump in despair, believing we cannot be fixed.  And worse, when we cannot fix ourselves, we attack, condemn, beat on, punish, and isolate ourselves -sabotaging the thing we truly need: true closeness with God and others.

When the cry of our heart is "fix me!", we dictate the terms of the relationship with God (and with others).  Have you noticed that?  And why doesn't God comply?  Why doesn't He answer our desperate demand to have our person flaws and foibles and shortcomings fixed?  It seems like He doesn't, at least not to our satisfaction.  Why could it be?  Could it be that God doesn't want to settle for that?  Could it be that God doesn't want a relationship that is not really a relationship?  Could it be that what God desires is closeness -the very thing you are avoiding with your demanding attitude?

Yes, being free from your problems, from your flaws, from those things you struggle with which make life so difficult, might solve some things.  But it is a pretty low goal.  It is a goal that God really doesn't care much for.  After all, He could have "fixed" us in a myriad of ways.  But He didn't.  Instead, He chose to come down to us.  To stoop to our level, if you will.  He entered our world as one of us, Immanuel, God with us.  Could it be that He chose this way to redeem us because it is the only way to break down our constant need to climb our ladders and avoid the very thing we need most -closeness with our Maker?

This is what is so insidious about religious moralism.  It is easy to see that outright sin, like committing adultery or murdering someone or stealing, would separate us from God and get in the way of a relationship with Him.  But religious moralism, trying to relentlessly "fix" ourselves morally and spiritually, creates the same problem in a less obvious way.  See, it looks like we are being close with God.  It looks good.  It looks all spiritual.  But you aren't close with someone you are trying to buy off with your good deeds.  You aren't close with someone you are trying to placate in order to keep yourself from being punished.  You aren't close with someone when you hope to manipulate their blessing by your behavior.

True Closeness

But God did come down.  God did stoop to our level.  Jesus is "God with us."  He did walk in our shoes.  He did enter our suffering.  He did bear our sins by dying for them.  He did rise from the grave for us as the first of a new creation.  And He sent His Holy Spirit to be with us.  And by His Spirit, He created His Body here on earth -the Church, the body of all believers all over the world.

By grace alone through faith alone we belong to Jesus and become part of this new creation.  We are accepted by God purely as a gift, by what Jesus did on our behalf.  Our flaws and sins are covered by His blood.  All obstacles are removed.  Obstacles to what?  To merely being forgiven and accepted?  No.  Being justified, accepted, forgiven, and reconciled to God are but means to an end.  What is the goal of all of these things?  We get God.  We get closeness, true closeness, with God.

And in this new creation, we are told there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free.  What is the purpose of that?  Is it just a nice thing to say?  No, it is so that all the world's performance standards and ways we classify ourselves as better or worse than others come to naught and we are enabled to just be -to be close, to be in community without the strife and without the competitive, self-serving, comparative individualism. 

Can you remember back to when you were really little?  Maybe you didn't have true closeness like that.  Maybe you remember wanting it but not getting it.  All of us missed it in some degree because we all have imperfect parents and siblings and friends and teachers who need Jesus just as much as anyone else.  But some of us missed that more than others.  And over the years, we have become jaded and dull to the idea of true closeness.  What is it even?  We certainly don't know.  We gave up and settled for "fix me."  We became fixed on performance to deal with the pain and anger and difficulty in life.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Three Qualities of Manhood

Some thoughts, today, about manhood -reflections from my own life, mainly my failures. :)  There sort of stack on top of each other and all go together. 

1. Mission from God

Jesus had a clear cut mission from God.  He knew who He was and what He had to do.  That formed as the foundation of everything else, and He referred to it over and over.  He was sent.  He came to die.  He came to bring a sword.  He came to be light.  These things primarily defined Him, not anyone or anything else.

Our mission, as men, is not that totally different.  We are to be witnesses of God, of grace, of truth, of righteousness, and we are to be active servants in the world.  The implication is a sense of self-knowledge and conviction about who you are, and also a fair measure of faith to carry you through living it out -because it won't be easy.  It wasn't for Jesus, and it won't be for us.

2. Self-Denial but not Self-Abandonment

Jesus is the epitome of humility and self-denial for the good of others, but Jesus never abandoned Himself for anyone.  Here is the difference:  if Jesus was to abandon Himself, all it would have taken was Peter's rebuke for Jesus to question His call to die.  "Maybe you're right, Peter.  I don't want people to get the wrong idea about me.  Besides, I really like you guys and don't want to go through the pain of your future betrayal."  That would be self-abandonment.  Jesus would be abandoning the self and the mission defined in the first point.  He would be betraying Himself, and in so doing, betraying everyone else.

3. An Active Stance toward Life

Falling under both of these headings is the need for a man to take an active stance toward life, including the people and problems in it.  If we divorce this from the two previous headings, we wind up with a common but misguided attitude.  There are lots of people who take a more active stance toward life.  They are so active, so up-to-the-frontlines, that they believe it is their right to tell people exactly what they think with no apology for themselves whatsoever.  They are immature and arrogant.

Jesus was not like that.  His active stance toward life, informed by his serving, missional identity and his refusal to betray it, brought Him to get involved in the lives of others in a variety of ways, but all of them good.  He wept with the sorrowful.  He had compassion on the weak.  He dealt head-on with bullies.  And He did all of these in a righteous manner.  He did not take a passive, woe-is-me stance toward the dysfunction of life.  He faced it in its inevitability.  He got involved as a compassionate beacon for grace and truth, even when it hurt.  But He did so in a very humble way, not grandstanding his wisdom or authority and elevating Himself above others like we have a tendency to do.

For some people, like me, this can be the most difficult. Some of us have this engrained tendency to retreat from the world and hide. Pain can be too much. Betrayal from others has been too much. The rage toward loved ones can be buried within, leading to a kind of self-destructive imploding force within. So, we sorta just quit. But it is no solution. In many ways this kind of passive retreat only invites more destruction and pain, rather than shielding us from it. That is the cruel irony.

Notice how this works like a stack of dominoes.  You need the first two to have a healthy active stance toward life/others, but if you forfeit your active stance toward life you are either betraying yourself and your mission or you already have.

Love Me Hate Me

When investigating the question of self-love, one doesn't have to travel too far to encounter the fact that there is a glaring difference in the message given from modern pscyhology and from the conservative Christian community.  The former would say that to a large degree the human problem is that we do not love ourselves enough -we hate ourselves and do not accept ourselves as we are.  The latter would say that the human problem, as described in the Bible, is actually self-love or self-obsession -a woeful preoccupation with our own desires, rights, aspirations, control, and glory.

The more I think about this question, and the more I gain experience with both the Biblical side and the "psychoanalysis side", the more I wonder if much of the time these two sides are saying the same thing but from different frameworks.  As a counselee, I've noticed this many times in my own life while discussing various things with my counselor.  I'll try to explain what I mean.

Take a man who is depressed and has "low self-esteem."  He is always one-downing himself and worries incessantly about what others think of him.  Psychology might say that this man has a "punitive superego."  A Biblical counselor, on the other hand, might say that this man is in love with himself -fixated on his own desires, turned inward in self-absorption, thus making life unbearable.  They sound very different.  But could it be that, in some sense, they are both onto the same basic phenomenon?  While coming from different places, isn't it true that this man, with his punitive side, is also preoccupied with his own feelings, almost stuck in them?  And from the other side, isn't it true that this man's inwardly turned preoccupation with himself is self-destructive, wreaking havoc on himself internally and ruining his relationships?

Part of the issue may be in the prescribed solutions.  Some Christians would seem to say that the Gospel is the total solution to every "soul" malady, including emotional problems that may include things like depression or insecurity.  I've bought into that, though I'm not sure about it.  I would not say that the Gospel does not apply but merely add that there are human tools, found in pscyhology, that can aid us in uncovering things about ourselves, such as self-deception, for example.  I don't think it is against the Gospel to find human tools useful in life any more than it is against the Gospel to see a doctor or a lawyer or read a book to help us do our jobs better.  We need not overspiritualize everything.  We can come down to earth.

That is one of the things I have found most helpful from Gerhard Forde's book, Where God Meets Man.  It riveted me with the profound truth of humanity's constant quest for a "ladder" scheme or approach to life.  We are always trying to climb our way to some kind of heaven or some kind of state beyond our mere humanity.  I don't mean by becoming more technologically advanced as a civilization -I mean individually, as persons.  This ladder-approach to life is found also in religion, including in much of Christianity.  Why?  Because it is part of our fallen nature, and we should expect to find it infecting just about everything in some way.  When the ladder schema comes into contact with the Biblical concept of grace (getting the good we do not deserve), but the ladder schema is not thrown away, the only consistent option left is to demote humanity as far down the ladder as possible... to the point of almost denying the good and functional things of our basic human faculties.

We need not do that.  We are lost, cursed, and unable to break through it.  That is true.  But we need not engage in creature-hatred.  The Gospel, I believe, actually dispels the ladder.  It is intended to bring us back down to earth, as humans living in God's world.  And to me that means that there can be some usefulness in man's attempts to understand himself and in man's ways of trying to heal himself.

And really, as I more come to understand some psychoanalytic theory, such as the use of defenses and such, I can see some overlap.  After all, isn't the psychologists work to help us identify our harmful defense mechanisms, our attempts to avoid dealing with life and to gain control in unconscious ways, basically a path that shows us how we have sought to transcend up a ladder past our mere humanity?  Kierkegaard described the human problem as self-abandonment, abandonment from the self as God created us, and isn't that sort of what is being unearthed here?

I haven't put this all together.  These are just some thoughts buzzing around in my brain.  But in Luke 14 where Jesus talks about "hating" our own life, I think this is the kind of thing he is talking about in some ways.  He is not promoting self-flagellation or a morbid preoccupation, which is how a psychologist might interpret that because of their framework.  He is speaking in relative terms.  Relative to our love and devotion to Him, we should hate ourselves and others.  And specifically, we should hate the self in us which gets in the way of our love for Him -the self that is preoccupied with self, self-destructive, obsessed with our own way and control and desires, seeking to control things or gain things and otherwise transcend or humanity.

Just some thoughts...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Faith, Presumption, and God's Will

I've been hit more than a few times by the "Christian" idea that if I would just "step out in faith" God would do great things.  I'm sure there are areas of life where I need to do that, where I need to trust Him and let go of things.  In fact, I know there are some areas.  A few come to mind as I write this.

But a problem arises when this attitude goes a little overboard.  After all, does God promise me a good and happy life if I "step out in faith?"  Where specifically for in what specific ways?  In the ways I want?  How long will it take?  And what exactly do I need to "step out" with?  What things?  Which direction?  Most of the time this amounts to presumption: the idea that if I do something and "trust" God enough, He will give me something I want.

And of course, when we do step out a few times and things go well, we think we've got it down and God is in our corner.  But when we "step out" and the doting hand of God is silent and stone-cold, suddenly it's like God has abandoned us.  Where are you, God?  Why don't you care?

Similar to this is the idea that God will give us some kind of feeling or sign for making decisions.  I'm sure God does and I know He certainly can, but should we expect it?  I know I've prayed and prayed and begged and pleaded for an "answer" or for "direction," and yet I got no secret whisper in my ear, no churn in my stomach, no fuzzy warmth or voice in my head.  Did God abandon me, or is it more likely that God does not want me to use Him as a crutch to avoid taking responsibility for my life and making decisions?  The older I get, the more I believe it is the latter.

Some think that living by faith and trying to follow God's will means that we look for special signs from God and wait for a "word" from Him.  But isn't being merely human and living by faith precisely summarized by the fact that it is God who orders our lives, and He has given us some instruction in His Word and many promises, but that ultimately we must walk in the dark, in some sense, and make our own decisions the best we can, trusting in Him for all the results?  I think so.  Needing to know all the results up front isn't faith -it is more like needing to be god.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

For My Daughter

This is a post to show my little girl, who is 11 years old, what my blog is and how I put up a new blog post.  Check out the cool pictures, too.

To the left is a picture of this stuff I see at the hardware store all the time.  It is called Anti Monkey Butt Powder.  I'm not entirely sure what it is for, and I'm not sure at all why it seems to be a staple product at hardware stores and nowhere else.

Oh, apparently my daughter knows somewhere else in town where they sell this, and it isn't a hardware store.  Go figure.  Monkey Butt sounds painful, though.