Summit Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2011
Romans 7: 15-25
Will Power and God's Power
I don’t believe in a devil with a long tail, horns and a pitchfork. You probably don't either. But imagining sin, or evil, as a devil - or an army of devils, also called demons - is a time-honored way for us to describe, and try to and understand the way evil that works in the world. CS Lewis wrote a funny and wise book called "The Screwtape Letters," in which a senior demon, named Screwtape, writes letters to his nephew, a junior demon named Wormwood, instructing him on how to lead his human astray. I read the book years ago so I don't remember the details, or the theology, but I remember enjoying it. So my apologies to C.S. Lewis, who I may be vaguely plagarizing, as I offer a few ways in which I think the devil gets a hold of us. I'll start by saying that while he may sometimes tempt us with fun and delicious things like ice cream and dancing, he has much bigger weapons in his arsenal. He is clever and powerful with many tricks up his sleeve. (Please excuse my non-inclusive language. We know that evil does nothave a gender, and that sin is neither male nor female).
First, he's a master of disguise. He has a way of disguising what is sinful as "ordinary" or even good. He can use our best intentions to recruit us to his cause. He takes advantage of the fact we have limited knowledge -- both of the world and of ourselves - so that even when we want to do the right thing, we're easily led astray. I'm not talking so much about mistakes we make in love - as parents, teachers, husband or wives - things that we would have done differently if we knew better. I'm talking about the way the devil can use our idealism for his own nefarious purposes. Since it's the fourth of July, I'll use patriotism as an example. Patriotism - at it's best - taps into our gratitude for the beauty of our country and our desire for the well-being of our neighbors. It can unite us and give us courage when we're facing a threat -- as it did in World War II. But just as easily, and more often, the devil uses it to further violence, to gain land or power at the expense of others, to silence those who might speak up for what is right --as in the Patriot Act. So when we rally round the flag we may will what is right, but we can end up doing the very thing we hate. Sowing war instead of peace. Encouraging the idolatry of nation rather than the worship of God. The devil knows how to wrap up evil so that it looks like good.
Second, he can make his army look even bigger and more powerful than it is. He can overwhelm us with the numbers. Anyone who has tried to stop smoking or drinking knows how this works. The idea of of going 365 days a year - that's 525,600 minutes - year after year, with no cigarette or no beer can seem like climbing Mt. Everest without proper equipment. So, many who long to do what is right, who long to free themselves from an addiction, can't. It's too daunting, even when they try and think about it one day at a time. This holds true for collective addictions as well. When we think about our dependence on fossil fuels, and the problem of global warming, the math is intimidating: the parts per million of carbon dioxide that we have to stop spewing into the air, the number of coal plants that need to be shut down or wind turbines that need to be built, the number of ways rising temperatures can bring disaster -- the challenge seems too big. So we do what we do not want, polluting the air and wasting resources, continuing our dependence on oil and gas and coal, because it's too much. We feel hopeless. We retreat into denial, or apathy.
Third, the devil can use God's law as a way for us to feel so much shame and guilt we're too depressed to do the right thing. We're so burdened by sins of omission or commission we don't have confidence we can do what God wants us to do. The church has often helped the devil in this regard. Historically, it's been good at shaming people, at reminding us of all the ways in which we don't do what Jesus instructed or what God commanded through Moses, threatening the fire and brimstone of judgement and underplaying God's mercy and forgiveness. The devil uses this preaching to his advantage by making us feel incapable of doing good - or, by convincing us those preachers are wrong, we aren't such big sinners after all, that we're good people doing the right thing most of the time and we really don't have that much to confess. And so evil lies close at hand.
Paul did not believe in a devil with a long tail, horns, or a pitchfork. In all his letters he mentions Satan only in passing, and I'm not sure he would approve of talking about sin and evil as a creature separate from ourselves. But in the scripture we read this morning, Paul testifies to the power of sin and the power of evil. A power that is not part of his deepest self, but that he says dwells within him: a power that keeps him from doing the good that he wants, and indeed leads him to do they very thing he hates. Paul wants to do the will of God -- he delights in the law of God in his inmost self - but nonetheless is captive to the law of sin. "For I do not do the good I want," he says, "but the evil I do not want is what I do." Good intentions aren't enough. Will power is not enough. Paul may explain how that sin works it's power differently than I did. He would doubtless have a somewhat different list - not entirely different, I hope - of what he'd consider sinful acts. But captive he feels -- longing to do what is right but unable through mere desire, or intention, or will to do so. "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? It's a question for all of us. For it is rescue that we need . . . . . . we can't free ourselves from the power of sin, the stranglehold of the devil, on our own.
And then Paul proclaims the good news: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, rescues him - and us. For as powerful as sin and evil are, Paul insists they do not have the last word. The death and resurrection of Christ is a sure sign that ultimately good will win over evil. When Christ went to the cross, the power of sin was broken -- even though it's not yet obvious, even though we are still living in the time of here but not yet. As followers of Christ we still struggle with sin - that can't be denied - but, Paul insists, in Christ we're no longer enslaved to it. We're no longer enslaved because the Spirit of Christ is with us. The spirit of Christ which helps us and guides us, as we seek to discern God's will through prayer and study. The Spirit of Christ that brings us together in the church, so that we can encourage each other to do what God calls us to do. The Spirit of Christ which offers us hope in the face of so much evidence that evil is winning, in the face of all those numbers. The Spirit of Christ which offers forgiveness and new life over and over again - so we can acknowledge guilt or wrongdoing without feeling worthless, without being weighed down or oppressed by it. As Paul says later in this letter to the Romans, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We don't have to rely on our will power or good intentions to do what God requires, together or alone. The grace of God is more powerful than our will, and more powerful than the one who would lead us astray. Twelve step programs recognize this when they make one of the steps relying on a higher power. That's what Paul calls us to do as well.
So in our struggle to do the right we can do more than just say no to sin -- which we know doesn't work very well. We can say yes to God: in prayer, in worship, in listening of scripture. And we can say yes through receiving, with gratitude, the bread and wine, the body and blood that Christ offers us, the presence of Christ that is more powerful than any sin or evil that would claim us. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.