The Good I Would…

Romans 7:14-8:4
Union University Church
June 26, 2016
Reverend Laurie DeMott

You know what the problem with sin is?  It’s fun.  I mean, if sin weren’t at least a bit enjoyable, no one would have to warn us against it.  No one ever had to tell their child, “Now be careful that you don’t eat too many Brussel sprouts or you’ll spoil your dessert,” because whoever heard of anyone wanting to make themselves sick on Brussel sprouts?  Brussel sprouts are good for you and they taste like they are good for you while the things that aren’t so good for you – chips, pop, brownies, rocky road ice cream smothered in hot fudge sauce and whipped cream – now, they taste absolutely sinful.  Gladys Peckham, who was a professional nutritionist, used to say, “If something tastes good, spit it out. It’s probably bad for you.”

Christians throughout history have had that same attitude toward fun, deciding that to be absolutely sure that one remains untainted by sin, its best just to assume that anything fun must be sinful which is why there have been Christians who forbid their children from going to movies or dancing.  If you enjoy it, they decided, it must be wrong.

Of course, that’s not accurate.  Just because sin is fun doesn’t mean that fun is sin.  There are a lot of activities that are fun and perfectly OK with God: soccer, listening to the stereo, playing Monopoly, reading a good book, hiking down a buttercup strewn path with your dog, watching “NCIS”, eating chocolate cake with your family, and of course, a good baseball game, especially when your team is winning.  Life is full of fun opportunities that God not only condones but encourages because, unlike the claims of our Puritanical ancestors, God is not a dour humorless God who forbids anything that smacks of entertainment.  On the contrary, God gave us laughter and expected us to use it.

So when I say that sin is fun, I don’t want you to make the mistake of thinking that I am saying that anything fun is sin.  Rather, when I talk about sin I am talking about those behaviors, attitudes, and activities that separate you from God, that separate you from others, or that separate you from yourself – from the self that you are meant to be, and the problem is — the reason that sin is so attractive and difficult to weed out of our lives – is that the kinds of behavior and activities that do that, that drive a wedge between us and the ones we love, that make us less than the person we should be, are often initially enjoyable.   Who hasn’t felt the little thrill of relief when you let loose words of rage and frustration at another person?  There’s a bit of a high that results as that adrenalin streams through your body.  Some people really enjoy hearing the power of their invective as it rolls off their tongue and there are people who secretly revel in their cutting wit as they get off little digs at another.  This is why Twitter has flourished because it satisfies people’s joy of insulting others without the risk of doing it face to face. It makes people feel clever and powerful. Some people commit the sin of adultery because they enjoy the exhilaration of knowing that they are doing something illicit; some engage in destructive behaviors because they like the buzz of being high or the gratification of a deep craving or the indulgence of self-pity.

We all crave different things and have different weaknesses and temptations but whatever your particular sin may be, chances are that the reason you sin is no great mystery.  You do it because it makes you feel good.

Or at least, it starts out that way.  And here is where you can determine the difference between something that is just fun and something that is a sin, because sin is something that may start out fun but the next thing you know, it begins to take over until you realize that it’s changing your life in ways that you no longer like.  It’s hurting your relationships; it’s making the people you care about miserable; it’s making you into someone different from who you were, someone different from who you could be.  We often talk about sins in the plural as if we can make a list of behaviors that are forbidden to every person alike but Paul talks about sin in the singular because Paul knows that sin is a state of being. Sin is being separated from your true self, from others, and from God, and to some extent what puts you in that place is different for every person.  I’ve known people who can occasionally say a bitter word against someone else but then, realizing what they’ve done, can apologize and move on with little harm done.  On the other hand, I’ve known men and women whose bitter words have become a habit, who cannot say anything without giving it an edge and whose whole attitude has become critical and sarcastic. For these people, their cynicism is their sin because it separates them from others by the barb of their tongue.

So I can’t stand here and tell you what your sin is. Your sin may not be my sin and my sin may not be your sin but I can tell you that we all have something that is sin.  We all have something that threatens to take over and make us less of the person God wants us to be.  What is it that you are doing right now that is hurting the people around you?   What is it that you are doing that is making your life a struggle, that is keeping you from being happy in your family and in your heart?  Think about who you know you could be and who you know you should be, who you want to be, and ask yourself what you are doing that is preventing you from becoming that person?  That is your sin.

Paul said, “I do not do the good I want to do but I do instead the very thing I hate.”  Paul knew very well our struggle to stay away from the temptations to give in to our weaker selves since he himself had been the worst of all people. And the longing with which he talks of becoming new creatures suggests to me that his desire to be different from the person he was arose from an intimate knowledge of how easily we can manage to wreck our own lives and relationships when we do the very things we know we shouldn’t be doing.  We hear Paul’s words and nod in agreement, “You are right, Paul; it really is hard to change.  I’m messing up my life and hurting those I love and I’m really not the person I want to be but every time I decide to be different, my old self gets the best of me and I do the very thing I had sworn not to do.”

Paul recognized that we are prone to sin, and that even when we know that our sin is hurting us and others, our efforts to stop sinning often result in failure because the problem, of course, is that when sin separates us from God, from others, and from our true selves, we are left feeling alone without the help we need to change.

If we are going to change, we need to believe that we have the strength to change.

If we are going to change, we need to believe that we are capable of better things.

If we are going to change, we need to believe that someone cares about whether we change.

If we are going to change, we need to believe that we don’t have to be the person that we have become.

And yet the very sin we want to rid our lives of has convinced us that none of that is true.  Our sin has convinced us that we are alone, that no one understands, and that we are hopeless weaklings. Paul says, “For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”

So what is the answer to our dilemma?

Paul says it is this amazing thing called grace. Theologians have spilled oceans of ink defining exactly what grace is using phrases like substitutionary atonement and justification by faith, but what it comes down to is that grace means that no matter how much you’ve messed up and no matter how alone you feel; God has not let go of you.

There is a famous book by Barbara Woodhouse on dog training called, “No Bad Dogs,” and the book’s thesis is that all dogs are trainable if the dog owners follow some basic rules and that one of the most important rules is persistence. As the dog owner looks at the squirming stubborn wild puppy running around the room, the owner has to say, “I know this dog can learn to sit.”  As long as the owner is persistent in that belief and keeps working with the puppy, the dog will eventually learn to sit.  Some dogs may learn the command in ten minutes; others may have to have their rump pushed into position 1000 times before they get it, but as long as the owner persists in believing that there is a good dog within that wild puppy body, the good dog will eventually emerge.  The reason, Woodhouse says, that there are so many disobedient dogs out there is because too many owners gave up believing.

Grace says that God will not give up believing. Whether you are 5 or 95, God continues to have faith that there is a heart within you capable of deep and abiding love and a spirit within you capable of great things.  God is looking at you right now and saying, “I made you and I know you and I know the peace that can be yours, the joy that you can have, the strength that is in there, I know the goodness that you can live — I know it is there even if you don’t and even if you mess up and turn away, I will forgive you and keep on believing in you until that belief gets right down into your bones and strengthens you enough that you can do what you have to do to be the person that I see.” And God’s grace isn’t a one time thing — maybe you were that person 20 years ago but somewhere along the way, you got lost. Life took a turn for the worse or you got off track and couldn’t remember your way back. Grace isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it’s a as-many-times-as-you-need in a lifetime opportunity.  Paul said, “For I am convinced 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.”  God’s grace will endure.

Grace is a wonderful promise, and yet Paul himself anticipates the objection to grace: “What then,” he imagines the church at Rome asking, “shall we sin so that grace may abound?”

Or as the comedian, Emo Philips expressed it, “I asked God for a bike but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked God for forgiveness.”

Paul’s response was that when you accept God’s grace, you find the strength to change because you will no longer want to live for your own gratification; you will want to live instead in a way that shows how grateful you are for that love. You will no longer want to live just for yourself but instead you will want to live for the one who believes in you.

When Martin Luther described his understanding of grace, someone objected, “If this is true, a person could simply live as they pleased!”

“Indeed!” Luther replied. “Now, what pleases you?”1

H.A. Ironside was a Bible teacher in California in the 1920s, and he tells of a time he was teaching in Oakland, trying to explain to a group of young students Paul’s understanding of grace. The class was having difficulty grasping the concept until one young man who had come from a very rural part of the state offered his opinion. He said, “I think grace is like this. When Mr. Ironside brought me from my home, [the train stopped] at Barstow, and there I saw the most beautiful railroad station and hotel I have ever seen. I walked all around and saw at one end [saw] a sign [that said], ‘Do not spit here.’ I looked at that sign and then looked down at the ground and saw that many had spitted there, and before I thought about what I was doing I spit myself. Isn’t that strange when the sign said, ‘Do not spit here’?

“ [Then] I came to Oakland and went to the home of the lady who invited me to dinner and I was in the nicest home I have ever been in: such beautiful furniture and carpets so nice I hate to step on them. I sank into a comfortable chair, and the lady said, ‘Now, John, make yourself comfortable while I go out and see whether the maid has dinner ready.’ I looked around at the beautiful pictures, at the grand piano, and I walked all around those rooms, and as I walk, I am looking for a sign; and the sign I am looking for is, ‘Do not spit here,’ but as I look around those two beautiful drawing rooms, I cannot find a sign like this. I thought to myself, ‘What a pity when this is such a beautiful home to have people spitting all over it — too bad they don’t put up a sign!” But then, I looked at the carpet, and can’t see anywhere that anyone has spit. What a queer thing! Where the sign says, ‘Do not spit,’ a lot of people spitted, but where there was no sign at all, in that beautiful home, nobody spitted.

“That sign is law,” he concluded, “but inside the home it is grace. They love their beautiful home, and they want to keep it clean, so they don’t spit. They don’t need a sign to tell them not to. I think that explains the law and grace business.”2

No set of religious laws, no threats of hellish punishment, no strict and cold doctrines will keep people close to God if they don’t want to be close to God. It is only the experience of the wonder and beauty of living in the light of God’s inexhaustible love that gives a person the desire to be a new person. When we experience the amazing grace of God’s continuing belief in us; when we hear God call us back no matter how many times we stray; when we know that God’s faith in us is inexhaustible and that nothing can separate us from God’s love; when we discover that God’s love goes all the way to the cross for us, we will want to live bathed always in the beauty of that belief. Sin will lose its hold over us as our eyes and our hearts focus on God alone and we will strive to live a life that pleases the one who has given so much to us. We will no longer find enjoyment in our sin because goodness and mercy and God’s amazing grace will be our joy.

Footnotes:

1. Michael Horton, The Agony of Deceit, Moody Press, 1990, pp. 143-144.

2. H.A. Ironside, Illustrations of Bible Truth, Moody Press, 1945, pp. 40-42 (I have edited some of the dated conventions used to imitate “rural uneducated” speech.)