Dwell with God (Saturday)
Today's devotional comes from "Falling Into Goodness," a book of Lenten reflections by Chuck DeGroat. You can purchase the entire book on Amazon in paperback or for Kindle.
Saturday Week 1
But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. Romans 7:17-20
“You’re nothing – no good, good for nothing!”
It’s amazing to me how many people I’ve pastored and counseled feel this. Executives and ex-convicts, pizza deliverers and pastors – this message does not discriminate. Success does not mitigate it. Self-helps books don’t cure it. Only an encounter with the One whose yoke is easy and burden is light eases the sting of it.
There are some who will argue that this message is true, however. They’re convinced that they are bad to the core, depraved sinners in the hands of an angry God. Christians who’ve lived in the faith for years will stake their theological integrity on it. Somehow, preserving this principle is more important than living in the truth that we are “a new creation – the old has gone, the new is here” (2 Cor. 5:17).
I grew up hearing a part of Romans 7 echoing in my ear – “nothing good dwells in you.” But I’ve had to re-tune my hearing over time. St. Paul seems to be saying that something within me has the power to hijack my “I” – my true self. He says that it is no longer I, myself, who sins, but sin in me. Sin is a passenger who has taken control of the car, steering erratically.
But I see it. I know it. Paul seems to be saying that I (we!) want to do good, but we’re stuck. On our own, it’s nothing but wrong turns and dead ends.
So, to be clear – I really do want something different, according to Paul. I’m just stuck. It’s not that I’m as wretched as I can be. It’s not that I’m toxic to the core. No, the reality is that I – my true self – is enslaved. I’m sick with sin. But my sickness and slavery don’t define me.
This is such an important corrective. As I hear Paul, what I’m struck by is that my “flesh” is my false self. It’s the sin-diseased part of me that plays the contrarian, that whispers in my ear, “Surely, God didn’t say that that special tree is off-limits to you!” In other words, sin is not native to my soul. It is an invader.
That’s the first piece of this passage, and it’s a huge one. Somehow, it’s revealing a paradox. We’re not as bad as we can be. We’re not “bad to the bone.” Sin is not our identity and does not define us. (You can wipe the sweat from your brow and smile…that’s good news.)
On the other hand, we’ve got a problem. A disease looms large. It hijacks every form of wellness within. As the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon said, sin is a “disease of the vital region,” the heart. We’re literally heart-sick. And some of us need to know that we’re sicker than we think while others need to hear that they’re not defined by their sickness. What do you need to hear?
But there’s something else we need to hear before we leave St. Paul’s words behind. I’ve discovered I can’t conquer this disease on my own.
Have you tried? I have. I get into fights with parts of me that struggle for control. We throw jabs back and forth. I’ll beat myself up with negative words when I don’t live up to my own expectations. I’ll try to overcome seemingly weaker parts of me with strict behavioral guidelines. I’ll work as hard as I can until I’m pressed down under a heap of guilt and shame, unable to see my way out.
And maybe it takes this. Maybe it takes getting good and tired of trying on our own to beat back the disease of sin. Maybe it takes coming to the end of ourselves to hear what Paul says in the verses that follow:
Who can set me free from my sinful old self? God’s Law has power over my mind, but sin still has power over my sinful old self. I thank God I can be free through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In uniting ourselves to Jesus and in surrendering control, we begin to experience freedom from the vestiges of the old, false self which takes on a hundred different personalities within us, each vying for the driver’s seat. The voice of Jesus within us, present by the Spirit, becomes the powerful voice of truth, of goodness, of joy, of peace, of love. A hundred other voices may be whispering, perhaps even screaming. But, if we can tune our ears, it’s just possible that we’ll hear a different one than the other, toxic and negative voice, one that says, “I love you – each and every one of you – and I won’t stop loving you until each and every one of you finally relaxes your grip and receives my compassion.”
Compassionate Spirit, you are more kind to me than I imagined. It is astounding to imagine that you dwell in me, longing to heal my many inner conflicts. I’ve got work to do, but knowing that you are listening and loving within is such an encouragement. Thank you for your kindness to me. Amen