The Apostle Paul confesses in Romans 7:18, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Saint Paul apparently struggled with New Years resolutions like the rest of us!
Yet, one of the points of deepest confusion, even among Christians long active in the church and generally familiar with the church’s teachings, has to do with this cry of the heart. We know the good, we desire the good, we aim at the good, but we often find ourselves missing the mark and falling short of the good.
Some years ago a student came to me, devastated by something he had done and needing to talk. His action did not match his sense of himself or his belief in his own integrity. In fact, he was so shocked by his action that he actually struggled with the feeling that it was not he who had really committed the act, saying something like, “That was not the real me.”
Paul said something similar in Romans 7: “So then, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”
It can seem abhorrent to many to ponder the prospect that there is something deeply, fundamentally wrong in our human condition. When we look at external circumstances it is easy to see that the world is out of whack, off center. Something chaotic and evil seems to run loose in the cosmos, from a planet that is heating up to unspeakable acts of violence abroad and at home, to just the day-to-day meanness exhibited on Facebook.
Yes, we know something is wrong with “the world.” But us? Something like what Saint Paul describes? “The good that I would, I do not, but I do the very thing I hate?”
Can we say with Paul, “O wretched man/woman that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Do we prefer, as the saying goes, to think of ourselves as good people who occasionally make bad choices? We might be told to “give ourselves a break,” or to “err on the side of grace.” After all, we’re just human.
Of course, we should be gentle with ourselves, and patient. There is no room in good Christian thought and practice for self-condemnation
Let us take care not to try to stand aloof from the scriptural truth, that though we are all created good (that we gloriously bear the image of God), yet we all suffer the ravages of sin. We are we like that despised publican standing in the temple, beating his breast and pleading, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It was he, remember what Jesus said, rather than the religious leader filled with self-righteousness, who went away justified.
John Wesley likewise emphasized the importance of self-awareness in a penitent heart. “The foundation of all,” Wesley says, “is ‘poverty of spirit.’” The Christian life begins with and is maintained by this self-awareness, that we are flawed, fragile, and fickle. No matter what our values, no matter how lofty or low, we don’t even live up to our own standards, let alone God’s. We need God’s grace to keep us on the path of discipleship, God’s constant, sustaining grace, to stay committed to serving the present age. In Christ, we know who we are and without him, we don’t.
Lent is the season that pointedly reminds us of these twin truths. We find ourselves confused by the mystery of our own iniquity. We need God’s mercy and God’s mercy we have received. The One who created us has come to share our nature to redeem and transform it.
Lent helps us to remember that there is work yet to be done in us on this pilgrim journey. Jesus said that it’s the truth that sets us free. Knowing the truth, even if it’s bad news, is better than not knowing at all. Hearing the outcome of a negative medical diagnosis is easier to handle than the waiting indefinitely to hear the outcome.
So, we face the bad news. We admit and confess the sin that remains. We also claim the promise that it need not reign. Even today, we can repent and believe the Gospel.