O Wretched Man That I Am
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Romans 7:18-24)
There was a time in my life when I read this passage from Romans chapter seven over and over again. This is the one verse of the Bible, more than any other, where I can say "yeah, I get that." I went through a time of searching for answers and everywhere I looked I ran into the same problem. Whatever philosophy, moral teaching, or religion I read about they all had the same problem. All of them expected me to follow some scr-ipt of do-this-don't-do-that and you will be good. But there was a big problem. I was at least aware enough to realize "I CAN"T DO IT."
I can't always be good. One little distraction, one little irritating interruption and it's all over. So trying to be good just didn't work. I could have done as most people do, I suppose. Most people just keep reducing the requirements down to something they can do and then they can feel A-OK about themselves. It didn't work for me. And no amount of "meditate and be happy" is ever going to work for me either. No amount of eat the right food, or dress the right way, or speak the right way is going to work. No amount of do good stuff for others is going to work either, because I am just too much aware of my own failings. I can't do it. I always fail. O wretched man that I am! If it depends on me, then I might as well just forget about it and go do what I feel like.
I have often heard people say something like, "Well, I do more good things than bad, so God will take me to heaven instead of hell." They seem to think that comes from the Bible somewhere. (I would like to get a copy of this so-called Bible people are reading.) The truth is that message is nowhere in the Bible. It is found in pagan religions. It's the idea of weighing one's heart against a feather. If your heart is "light" enough then you go to eternal paradise and not to Hades. No, that message comes straight from the pits of hell. It is the idea that we can chalk up enough good works to balance out the bad. God doesn't see it that way. God says, just one sin is enough to warrant condemnation. Even more, Jesus pointed out that even the desire in the heart to do evil is enough to condemn us. God's righteousness is such that He will not allow even the smallest amount of corruption. All evil is to be destroyed, even the tiniest amount. And there's the rub. No one is perfect, and, as a result, we all have a sentence of death hanging over our heads.
Unfortunately, this is how most people seem to view Christianity. The worst corruption of the Gospel and the Church that Satan ever managed was to get people to believe that Christianity is a moral code with some forgiveness and love thrown in on top. It's the perverse idea that we just try real hard to live up to God's expectations and any screw-ups are covered by penance and the blood of Jesus. It's rather perverse, really. It's perverse because it just accepts man's wicked nature and then claims that the only change needed is to try real hard to change our behavior. Rack up enough "good works" to prove you believe in Jesus. Sound familiar?
It's the same as the secular philosophy of do good not evil. Love others, do justice, be generous and kind, not greedy and spiteful. You can find that idea in every moral or ethical teaching the world has ever heard. You can get it from Confucius and Lao Tze, as well as from Plato and Aristotle. You can get it from the Freemasons or even the Humanist Manifesto. If that's all the Gospel is, why do I need it? I'm left with the same old problem: I can't do it.
That's what Paul is talking about in Romans chapter seven. Our problem isn't one of not knowing what is right and knowing what is wrong. Having that knowledge only condemns us. Knowing the good the we ought to do and failing to do it simply shows us that we have sin. Our problem is how are we going to do it? If we are really honest we have to admit we can't. No amount of knowledge of moral behavior or will power can change the situation.
So, what happens is people come up with all sorts of rationalizations and excuses to avoid the horrible realization of the terrible depravity of the human condition that results from our separation from God by our sin. That' why people try to come up with a moral code they can live by. It allows them to hide behind a false impression of goodness. They don't have to look at the ugliness of their failings, but can preserve their self-image and go merrily along the way, absolutely convinced they are "good." It's all a big charade designed to preserve the precious, fearful, prideful little ego.
For some reason, I just couldn't do that. Many times I wished I could. It would certainly make life easier. As the poet said, "Where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise." Much better to be ignorant and happy than aware of my condition and miserable. Hey, just feel GOOD about yourself! You're not so bad! Right? This is why I am unimpressed (in fact quite irritable) when people try to tell me I have be good or do good works. Who are you trying to kid here? Don't lie to me, because I KNOW I can't do it and telling me to try harder isn't going to help one damn bit. Like Paul says, "for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not." O what a wretched man I am.
There is an even worse way that people use to hide their own sin and preserve the self-image. What people like to do is go find someone who is worse than they are and then declare how horrible that other person is. Yeah, that'll work. (NOT) Oh, but it sure preserves the self-image. They can proudly declare that they are not like those corrupt, evil, horrible other people! It feels so gooood too. It's a way of saying, I must be OK because I am not as bad as those people. I can't do that either. I understand that the differences between the worst of us and the best of us is inconsequential when we compare ourselves to God's goodness. There is no little sin or big sin. There is only sin. Comparing ourselves to others may seem to be reassuring, but maybe we should listen to what Jesus had to say about it:
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)
Oh how we love to point out the failings of others and declare how we are not like that. It's the same vain attempt to protect the self image. We just don't want to accept that we are in a desperate condition. Much better to find someone we can complain about so that we don't have to look at ourselves. But, that is exactly what we must do. We must turn the microscope on ourselves with total honesty. How does it help me to know that someone else is corrupt? That doesn't lead to my repentance, and without that sense of shame that leads to repentance we never reach the point of recognizing our need for a redeemer. We only get on the path to salvation if we first see our own corruption. We must reach that point of despair where we finally give up. The gospel of Jesus Christ makes no sense at all if it is in anyway possible for us to make it on our own. So long as we can protect our self-image we don't really feel the need of a savior.
Here is great joy - when we finally realize how desperate our condition is, the message of salvation by grace is all the more remarkable. How much more wonderful it is to realize that even though I am in this wretched condition, God did not abandon me. He sent His Son to die in my place. He raised His Son from the dead and just so He will raise me too. By that spirit that raised Jesus from the dead I too can be born again. The carnal nature and it's separation from God is destroyed when I go to the cross with Jesus. That wretched state is finally dissolved and I am raised up a new creature in Christ.
So, what then of doing good works? It's really, really simple. Anything that I can claim to have done myself brings glory to me. It does not bring glory to God. If I am truly thankful for God's grace, all I want is to praise Him and have all glory to go to Him. I do not say, "I did a good thing." Only God is good, and thus the only honest thing to say is, "God did a good thing using me as the means." When He puts new life in me, that new spirit will motivate me to the right action. All I need to do is get my "self" out of the way and trust Him. And, what others do or don't do is not really my problem. To follow Jesus means to lay down our own self and be a perfect servant, obedient in all things. This is the life of faith and explains why "the just shall live by faith." We trust that God will put His spirit in us and out of that spirit good will be done. Then we can say, "All glory to the Father and the Son!" As Paul says in Romans chapter three, we have nothing to boast about.
That's the true meaning of the Christian message. It is a message of the depravity of man and the glory of God. It isn't about me; it's all about Him. Wretched man that I am, yet, I can rejoice in the goodness and mercy of God.