Why Do I Do These Things? — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5A (Romans 7)

Rembrandt, Apostle Paul
Romans 7:15-25a  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 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 that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!


                Why do I do these things? Why can’t I seem to do what is right? Right now the issue of racism is raging across the globe as we reckon with continuing reports about profiling and police violence against people of color, especially people who are black. Names such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain have become part of our consciousness. While we speak of “Black Lives Matter,” we also are facing the issue of whiteness as an ideology. That is, the ideology that white Euro-American culture is superior to other cultures, and that white people are genetically superior as well. It is in this context that we hear Paul ask why he does that which he hates. He attributes it to the sin that dwells within him.

                We can debate whether sin is genetically or socially determined, but whichever choice we make, it does seem that Paul is correct that sin is a problem. Living under the dominion of sin is, Paul noted in chapter six, deadly. However, to live under Christ’s dominion leads to life (Rom 6:23). The promise of baptism is freedom from sin, but Paul recognizes that even he struggles with the power of sin. He’s no Vulcan who has learned to suppress his passions with logic. These passions that drive behavior live too close to the surface and are difficult to control.

                To affirm the premise that sin exerts power over our lives, even when we resist, doesn’t mean we’re totally depraved or unable to do anything good. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, this is about human nature. Instead, it is a question of where sin resides and exercises control. That is the self. It is like a virus that has taken root in our lives, driving our behavior in ways that are contrary to our nature. In fact, as Lancaster points out, for Paul sin resides closer than the good, which is why it has so much power. [Romans, pp. 127-128].

                In his discussions of law, the problem isn’t with Jewish law. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The problem is with the will not being strong enough to live according to these instructions. Concerning the definition of sin, it’s not really about breaking rules. Instead, it is a distortion of our relationship with God. It is a turning from centering our lives in God to centering our lives in ourselves. Thus, as Harold Masback writes: “The very turn to self-assertion unleashes a ‘fleshliness,’ the self’s insatiable desire to secure its own acceptability through acquisition and possession rather than through trust in God’s love” [Masback, Feasting on the Word, p. 209]. As Paul reflects on his situation in life, he confesses to being conflicted. He would like to do otherwise but seems unable to do so. Now, if we’re not inclined to do what is right, then there is no conflict. The conflict comes into play when we desire to do what is right and find sin overpowering that desire. The only way out is grace. It is grace that overcomes the power of sin so that we might live into God’s desires for us.

                In our day we are beginning to recognize that sin is not only personal it can be systemic. Racism is systemic. We’re not born racist, but the system quickly forms us. Before we know the difference between ourselves and others, the virus has begun to spread. Thus, as Sarah Lancaster points out “recognizing this problem helps us see how deeply conflicted we really are and how thoroughly dependent on grace we must be.” [Romans, p. 130].

                The title of Kerry Connelly’s book speaks to the dilemma we’re facing as believers. The book is titled Good White Racist? How can I be a racist and be a good person? Connelly writes that “We hid from our own shadow side, unable to hold the paradox that as generally good people, we can do incredibly bad things” [Good White Racist? p. 11]. That’s the point Paul is making. Good people can do bad things. This is true even when we want to be different. I look at myself. I am committed to being anti-racist. My denomination provides anti-racism training, which I’ve taken. As chair of our Commission on Ministry, I require it of my colleagues, both new and old. I know better, and yet I see evidence that racism is lurking just under the surface. It’s present in the form of implicit bias. It’s present in the sense of white superiority. It’s present in white privilege.

                Paul’s discussion of sin has long been problematic for liberal Protestant Christians. We want to believe that if we educate ourselves, we will reach that utopian place of justice and peace. It’s enticing. I want to affirm it, but then I hear a voice like that of Reinhold Niebuhr, who pulls the rug out from my illusions. In Moral Man inImmoral Society, Niebuhr writes that “while it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible to grant to others what they claim for themselves” [Niebuhr, Moral Man in Immoral Society, p. 3].  He notes that educators have “given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise.” [Niebuhr, p. 3]. But, there’s no evidence that this true. Instead, he suggests that the only way forward is through some form of coercion. That goes against the grain of my own theology, which suggests that divine love if it is truly love, is non-coercive. It does put me in a bind.

                Paul has put his finger on our dilemma. He raises questions that I’ve yet to fully find answers to. Perhaps the place to start is to recognize that the challenges we face are rooted in spiritual realities. We find it difficult to tackle the problems of our age because we believe that with a bit of education, we can overcome them. The fact is, literacy and education are universal in the United States, but we still can’t figure out how to overcome racism or provide for the common welfare of all residents. So, maybe we need to look at this from a spiritual perspective. In other words, perhaps the issue isn’t the law, it’s our personal and corporate enslavement to the power of sin, which has taken root in our lives. We claim for ourselves freedom, but are we truly free? So, perhaps racism is itself an inherently spiritual issue. Perhaps the very systems in which we live are spiritually compromised. It’s in that context that together with Paul we can cry out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (vs. 24). Perhaps the answer is to be found in that declaration of thanksgiving that Paul provides us: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vs. 25a). This is a recognition on Paul’s part that he can’t save himself. He needs help, and Jesus is there to provide it. Just reach out and take hold of the promise. That may seem like a copout, but perhaps it is the starting point for change. As they say in Twelve-Step programs change begins when we admit we have a problem we can’t solve on our own.

Picture attribution: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Apostle Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55240 [retrieved June 28, 2020]. Original source: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=1198.



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