I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
On March 31, 2017 a New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks was published titled The Strange Persistence of Guilt, a title Brooks borrowed from an essay by Professor Wilfred McClay. “Religion may be in retreat but guilt seems a powerfully present as ever,” stated McClay” “Technology gives us power and power entails responsibility, and responsibility, McClay notes, leads to guilt: You and I see a picture of a starving child in Sudan and we know inwardly that we're not doing enough. "Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough. … Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there's an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap."
“The only reliable way to feel morally justified in that culture is to assume the role of victim. As McClay puts it, “Claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence.”
Brooks went on to say that “Sin is a stain, a weight and a debt. But at least religions offer people a path from self-reflection and confession to atonement and absolution. Mainstream culture has no clear path upward from guilt, either for individuals or groups.”
1. The strange persistence of guilt. Prophets such as Friedrich Nietzsche were confident that once society threw off its religious straight-jacket guilt would disappear or at least recede. The problem of human guilt is proving much more difficult to deal with than predicted. When the Apostle Paul writes,” “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” he touches on the same issue that Brooks and McClay write about: the difference being that Paul frames it in the way a first century person might put the issue.
This text in Romans 7 where Paul talks about this inner conflict or contradiction is often read as Paul describing his personal experience either before his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road or after in his Christian experience. Other scholars read this as best understood as Paul’s “soliloquy” or dramatic dialogue on the plight of people who attempt to live their lives apart from God and by means of their own abilities and resources; this text is to be read as a series of terse reflections on the human situation of people living apart from God and under their own steam, so to speak.
In this way of reading, the “I” in this text is a general “I,” though it would certainly resonate as true with Paul’s experience. A parallel use of “I” in a general-every-person kind of way can be seen in Paul’s first Corinthian letter when he wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” and so on. (1 Corinthians 13:1-4) These terse statements in Romans 7 like “I do not understand my own actions,” would be the kind of thing the street corner philosopher might say is describing what people feel about life as he invited them to become a disciple (or come to his seminar, (for a fee) we might say today) as the solution. Each affirmation is consistent with the gospel as Paul frames them but he is touching on what would resonate with many in the Roman culture as common experience.
I began this sermon with a citation from a pundit of our culture that talked about the strange persistence of guilt. Paul endeavours to preach the gospel in terms that could be heard in his own culture. We need to do the same. The gospel asserts that we feel guilty because we are and human effort or strategy won’t make guilt go away. Our culture also talks about meaning. Does my life really matter? This is the kind of thing Paul is doing in saying “I do not understand my own actions.” Today he might write. “I feel so guilty all the time”, or “I don’t know if my life really matters.”
The thing that strikes me in Paul’s bold assertion is his confidence that in Jesus Christ the real answer is to be found.
2. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We may not say this the way the Apostle Paul put it. It today’s culture we hear echoes of this in the celebrity apologies for some slip of the tongue saying something like—“it wasn’t the real me”, or “I’m not really like that,” or “mistakes were made.” We are all aware of this inner contradiction; on some occasions more painfully aware than others. We don’t want to admit that we could have done such a thing; yet there it is out in the open for all to see. “We are not really like that,” is the response, “at least most of the time.”
Paul went on to say, “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.” Most people would agree, for example, that honesty is a good thing. We find a freedom in being a truth teller because we have nothing to hide. On those days when I showed up for class having read the book or having completed the assignment it felt good when the teacher asked about reading or assignment. I didn’t’ have to avoid eye contact with the instructor. We know the joy of truth in manifold ways and experiences. Yet there are times when we have obfuscated, lied (maybe just a wee white one), misdirected so as to avoid the truth about our action (or inaction). When we do that we are admitting that we did what we did not want to do—and in the same moment agreeing that the law (of God) is good. So if we know the good to do why can’t we do it all the time every time?
The Apostle Paul is probing this inner contradiction that is a common human experience. We may describe it differently but we know the contradiction or conflict. It is evident to us that our life ought to have meaning, for example, yet we are not confident about its significance. Why aren’t we confident about why we exist? We have become successful in many things so why aren’t we satisfied with those successes? We wonder if we are more than our resumes. Take the matter of guilt. Why is it so universally felt—is it just because we are inundated with information about human ills—overloaded with information about poverty, homelessness, racism, and phobias? Somehow I know I should help my fellow human in need but do not. Where does that sense that I should help come from and why do I feel so conflicted by it?
Some say that this contradiction is perfectly comprehensible. The problem of this self-frustration is economic disadvantage. Human ills arise because they are victims of economic inequality. Proposals for a guaranteed living wage or other means of economic redistribution are thought to resolve the problem. But neither communism nor its near cousins of various brands of socialism have removed the inner conflict we feel. And neither has capitalism, for that matter. It is true that in freer market economies many have been lifted out of poverty, yet we still feel guilty. Why? Why do humans remain so conflicted? Why won’t the contradictions disappear?
Paul continues in his probing. “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.
“For I know that nothing good dwells within me.” In saying this Paul means “I know that nothing godly dwells within me.” “What morbid pessimism!” someone objects. But hold on a minute. Before we label anyone pessimistic we should find out if he’s realistic. Isn’t it realistic to admit that there’s a deep-seated self-contradiction in all of us, a deep-seated perverseness in all of us of which we can’t root out of ourselves?
Our foreparents of the Reformation describe humankind as “totally depraved.” When they did they didn’t mean that we are all wantonly immoral. They weren’t stupid; they knew that virtually everyone is vastly more moral than immoral. They did mean, however, that however good we might be morally, we aren’t godly; they meant that the human heart is in se curvatus, bent in on itself. All the depraved human heart can will is its self-perpetuating depravity. No one can will himself out of his sinnership. No one can “right” his capsized relationship with God. No one can undo the warp in the human heart that wrecks even our best efforts at curing ourselves.
The best I can do, apart for God left to my own resources, is to say I’m conflicted—sometimes more than others. Or as Paul put it, “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” The best we can do left to ourselves and our moral efforts is that I know the good to do but I just can’t seem to do it all the time, every time. I am hoping that being mostly moral will do.
When Paul writes “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death,” he expresses the conclusion of the frustration of this probing of the human situation. The realization the self cannot rescue itself. In the article by David Brooks I began with Brooks makes a similar point. “We have no clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.”
Brooks went on to propose a restorative justice programme as a possible way forward. He wrote, “I notice some schools and prisons have restorative justice programs to welcome offenders back into the community. They tend to be more substantive than the cheap grace of instant forgiveness. I wonder if the wider society needs procedures like that …” The Apostle Paul wrote, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
3. I am struck by Paul’s utter confidence—and all the gospel writers for that matter—in the rescue for sinners that is Jesus Christ our Lord. The chapter that follows this probing of the frustration and captivity to sin that is the human situation explores the glories of the rescue in Jesus Christ. It begins with “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Guilt has been dealt with. It describes God’s sustaining presence by his Spirit who helps us in our weakness. It tells us that no event can thwart the ultimate good that God has in mind for us. It concludes with wondrous assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. All this and more Paul has in mind when he writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
One final reflection. The gospel asserts that the rescue is found in a relationship. The rescue is not a puzzle to be solved but a person to be loved. Not a programme to be followed but a person to walk together with in life. When a child wants to be comforted they seem to know that the place to be is cuddled on the lap of a parent or grandparent. It is at once simple yet ever so profound.
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Or as Jesus put it, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”