I remember sitting in my older Sister’s youth class once as a kid. I don’t remember why, but I remember that I was there. Larry, the youth minister, was clutching a piece of tin foil in his hand and talking about how we so often hide behind masks, and then he pushed it into his face and made a cast of his face from it, to illustrate his point.
Being a kid who obviously didn’t belong in a class full of 15-18 year olds, I didn’t really have a good grasp of what was going on, so I started laughing at the awkwardness of the situation and everyone stared at me. Years later, my sense of humor hasn’t changed much, but I did one day learn to understand exactly what it was he was talking about.
It took me a while to truly understand “the sin that so easily entangles.” To really “get” why we would have any desire to hide.
But, like all children, I grew up, and now, more aware of all my frailties, I stand as a man in desperate need of the grace I so vehemently preach.
And, thank God, I am not alone:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)
Paul grasped the struggle of sin better than countless theologians since could ever hope to know. He lived it. He didn’t describe it in the polished, pretty way we so often describe our battle with sin. He didn’t try to make himself look good, and he was one of the foremost leaders in the church at the time!
What’s more, he didn’t simply speak of his sin in the past tense. We know Paul had a long rap sheet before he came to Christ, but Paul’s struggle is one that he refused to gloss over and pretend didn’t exist.
The raw honesty in Romans 7 shows us in and out of leadership what is required. A realistic look at who we are, and and intimate understanding of what can save us from this “body of death.” (Spoiler alert: It isn’t in or of ourselves.)
This puts me in the mind of Peter Parker in the Spiderman comics. More specifically, with Venom.
You are probably familiar with the story. Alien symbiote bonds with Spidey and takes over completely, turning him into this ravaging monster. He grapples with the fear of losing the power the alien gives him and the fear that it will take him prisoner completely.
It is a strong example of what sin does to us. However, the difference is, Venom comes from outside of Peter Parker. In our own struggle with the sin that so easily wraps itself around us, it comes from within. But like Peter, or like Frodo and the ring, we do not want to let it go.
Christian culture can be divided into two camps: Those who know full well that, apart from Christ, they are messed up sinners without hope, and the people who live their entire lives trying to convince themselves and everybody else that they aren’t.
Because if you know you are a sinner and embrace that Jesus is the source of all the good in you, your life will be lived not to please everyone around you. Not to keep worrying over whether or not you’re on God’s “nice list” and fear the proverbial lump of coal in your stocking, but knowing that because of what Jesus has done, your sins have been thrown into the ocean, never to resurface.
Yet we still struggle. Paul’s words are as much a source of comfort as they are of conviction. He identifies with the human condition.
He is a church leader, an apostle, a man who regardless of his sins in the past, saw Christ and was changed forever, who isn’t afraid to say “I am a mess.”
Isn’t that a source of hope for people like you and me? That we aren’t alone in our struggles.
The only one who can rescue us is Jesus, and Paul’s letter to the church at Rome assures us of this, even before chapter 7.
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:9-11)
Reconciliation meaning that which was severed, is now put back together. Meaning the estranged are received as wayward children embraced by the love of a Father who never gave up on them. Reconciliation, meaning that the rift between God and those engaged in battle with their own sinful desires is healed, and that wound will never be reopened. Forgiveness. You aren’t immune to sins pull, but you are exonerated.
I read a story in the beginning of a book by Michael John Cusick called Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle.
In it, he tells of a teacher whose student is struggling with lustful thoughts. It grieves the student (much like it grieved Paul) that he continued to do what he didn’t want to do, what he knew he shouldn’t do. And the teacher spoke a story to him.
There once was a beautiful skylark who flew high above the sky. One day, the lark saw a merchant pushing a cart full of huge, delicious worms down the road. The bird flew down and asked how much the man was selling them for, and replied, two worms for one feather.
“Well, it’s just one feather, it won’t hurt anything.” the bird said.
He immediately plucked a feather and gulped down the worms. They were incredible.
So he returned day after day to the peddler. And day after day, he continued to pluck them until one day, the bird discovered he could no longer fly. He was crushed, he had squandered all of his feathers and lost his purpose, what he was made to do.
The bird had an idea. He went to work plucking worms from the ground and gathered enough to give to the man and get his feathers back. So he went. And the old peddler laughed and said “I deal in feathers for worms, not worms for feathers, and with that he disappeared.”
The teacher stopped the story and the student sat, dumbfounded. “It breaks the heart of the Father when we trade our feathers for worms,” the teacher said, “but moreso, it breaks the heart of the Father when we think we can buy them back.”
We cannot ever buy those back.
Those were bought back for us, long before we even sold them.
“While we were sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”
So today, I pray that you have come face to face with the Cross. The beauty of that symbol is that what was an instrument of death became our redemption. The body of death, or more clearly, the day to day struggle with our sin that never seems to have an end, has been overcome by the death of Jesus, who in his glory and grace, refused to stay dead, showing his power over the death we deserved and offering us a life free from shame forever.
What we could never buy back for ourselves, that which we lost in sin, it was bought for us. And to think it’s our responsibility to do it ourselves is an insult to the grace of God.
The struggle with sin is real, it is strong, overwhelming, persistent. But the love and grace of God is also real, it is strong, overwhelming, persistent. It is with us even when we try to hide behind platitudes and tin foil masks. When we don’t want the world to see us, God sees us. And because of Christ, he loves us just the same.