Confessions of a Sin AddictDr. R. Lee Carter Romans 7:15-25a Year A - Proper 9 (14) - July 5, 2020
We human beings know that we are capable of great things. We have the ability to explore the depths of the seas to discover new forms of life never seen before. We can design powerful telescopes with such incredible ranges of magnification that we can now regularly discover new celestial phenomena in the night sky and understand old mysteries.
Our genius at invention has revolutionized the way we can communicate with one another by transmitting and receiving vast amounts of information data instantaneously. We can congratulate ourselves for our ability to create advances in just about every academic field of study. We are smart. We are capable of great things. We are remarkable achievers.
The opening chapters of the Bible acknowledge this. We can build magnificent cities. We can domesticate animals and progress in new techniques of agriculture. We are capable of such great engineering feats as building a tower that touches the heavens. We can achieve great works of art and music. Our advances in the fields of technology and metallurgy are amazing.
This is the message of the parade of human achievement that we find in Genesis 4. Cain is the city-builder (Genesis 4:17). Jabal is the founder of animal husbandry (Genesis 4:20). Jubal is the father of the arts, namely music (Genesis 4:21). Tubal-cain founds the technical art of forging metals (Genesis 4:22).
What follows in this “showcase of human progress” is disheartening. It features a fellow named Lamech, who brings discredit to all that humans have achieved. Concomitant with the new levels of forging metals that could serve us with great good, Lamech designs an instrument of murder. The same villain uses the wonderful instrument of music to sing a little ditty to boast about and glorify his murderous ways.
It seems that with the advancement of great achievements comes this tendency to create weapons of destruction or to use our building prowess to construct fortresses in the plains of Shinar (Genesis 11:1-9) that are almost as tall as our egos, towers that can help us lord it over others and keep them under our subjection.
The book of Genesis opens with this paradox of human pride. We who are capable of creating great things are also quite capable of destroying them all. In fact, a great theme of Genesis 1-11 is the fact of the human contradiction and that sin and pride get worse and worse as time goes on.
Not even a great flood seems able to rein in the human bent toward arrogance, self-centeredness and the insatiable desire to dominate, victimize and control others. So what does God do to rescue our human race from ourselves? God calls Abraham. In the fullness of time, God sends His Son.
Thanks to its greatest theologian, Paul, our Christian faith offers penetrating insight into our contradictory nature as humans. His perceptive understanding of our addiction to sin helps us to understand our inner demons, why fame often leads people to self-sabotage, self-hatred and self-destructive intoxicants, why fortune drives some of us toward reckless extravagance, why our surrender to procrastination leads us to failure, and why we do not do what we know we ought to do.
Paul is no Pollyanna. He rejects the notion that sin is ignorance or that we have an angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other, and that we are in complete control of choosing one or the other. In fact, the decision has been made for us.
As much as we fancy that we are the ones sitting with two hands clenched on the steering wheel, thereby directing our own lives, the problem is that the vehicle we are driving is out of alignment. We have a bent toward sinning. We are prone towards pride. We naturally would veer off the road. The description of this human phenomenon would later become formulated by Christians as the doctrine of original sin.
In the greatest Christian theological treatise ever written, the Epistle to the Romans, Paul challenges some popular notions about human psychology held by the leading thinkers of his time, in both the Greek and Jewish traditions. Socrates, one of the great founders of Western philosophy, for example, taught his pupils that “to know the good is to do the good.” It was a simple and elegant thesis that claimed that moral and motivational problems in human life could be eradicated by education. That is, if you teach someone what is right, they will do it, especially if it is in their own self-interest.
If someone, for example, is addicted to nicotine or alcohol, one needed to explain to them that what they are doing is damaging their health. Armed with such knowledge, the assumption is that they will stop smoking or drinking to excess. Likewise, the cure for obesity is offering more information about diet and exercise. The idea behind this is “salvation by education.” If a person is taught that heroin is bad for them, they will just say no to it. Now, in this age when so many are hopelessly trapped by their addictions, we sense immediately that this view is terribly naive.
Not all the Greek philosophers accepted this notion that “to know the good is to do the good.” Following the lead of Plato, some addressed the problem of overpowering human urges by linking it to the metaphor of a team of wild, uncontrollable horses trying to drag us into different directions. So, how does one control these urges, these passions or these “appetites” as the Greeks called them? One must hold on to two reins: reason and a moral code. They supposed that was all that was necessary. If only our inner demons were as governable as horses!
Jews of the time held a variation on the idea of salvation by education. All that was needed to manage our sinful impulses was to study what the Law of Moses told us to do and what not to do. If a people knew what God expected of them, they would simply do whatever the Law commanded. In other words, if you know the Law, you will do the Law.
Into this debate enters Paul. The Apostle knows that the cosmic powers of sin and death that Christ defeated by his cross and resurrection were powers that we could never have defeated by ourselves. Our addiction to sinning was far too strong. It could not be defeated by a choice we might make or by some additional information that we needed to learn.
We might think of the power that sin has over us by imagining ourselves as a tiny magnet lying within the weakest part of the magnetic field of a large, much more powerful magnet. That stronger magnet may attract us but we, being prideful, imagine ourselves too smart to be taken in by its pull, so we venture closer and closer, trying to convince ourselves that we are strong enough not to be taken in. But alas–SMACK! We are trapped! And there is nothing we can do on our own to extract ourselves from that powerful magnet. Such is the power of sin. Only something even more powerful than the magnetic power of sin can liberate us.
Paul seeks to explain our entrapment this way: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (Romans 7:15). Our addiction to sin prevents us from performing the good that we know we must do. Why? Because we are not the ones in control. Like someone addicted to drugs, we give ourselves over to its power and then hate ourselves for being so weak. Then we engage in beating ourselves up according to the measure of punishment that we think we deserve. Our miserable realization of what an anemic slave we are makes us feel worthless. We feel unworthy of anyone’s respect. We feel that we have lost any vestige of dignity.
Paul relishes the use of paradox to explain his point. He loves the use of the formula “not x but anti-x”. While some of us are dazzled by the rhetorical style that emerges from his brilliant mind, others of us may find it off-putting and confusing. His point is that before he came to know the liberating power of Christ, he felt caught in the conflict between the part of him that knew clearly what was good and that part of him that kept him from doing the good.
Simply knowing the good, as he had learned it from the Jewish Law, did not empower him to perform it. He needed more than to be taught what the good looks like. He needed a power beyond himself to do it– empowerment he found in the Holy Spirit.
Here is the way Paul describes it (Romans 7:16-20):
“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 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. 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. 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.”
As a man addicted to sinning, Paul cries out: “What a wretched man I am!” Who will rescue me from the predicament of my enslavement?
Like Paul, we seem to be caught in that in-between place where we know with our heads that Christ has liberated us from our addiction and, on the other hand, we know by our actions that our struggles with temptation are not over.
As much as we have experienced Christ’s liberation in this life, we also know that much more wrestling with ourselves lies ahead. We are, after all, works in progress. The good news is that God is at work on us, in us, for us and through us.
As the great Apostle wrote to a struggling congregation in Phillippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”(Philippians 1:3-6)
Thanks be to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord!
About the Writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright
I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
What A Friend We Have in Jesus
Be Thou My Vision
Jesus Loves Me
Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing — Mack Wilberg
Be Thou My Vision — Alice Parker
How Good, God Said, and Blessed the Two — Carl Schalk
Come Unto Me — Mark Blankenship
His Yoke Is Easy — G.F. Handel
He Shall Feed His Flock — G.F. Handel
Be Thou My Vision