Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Grace Prevails Over the Wars Within Us and Among Us

There are parts of the Bible I have a hard time understanding and cannot relate to, like the book of Numbers and parts of Revelation, for example. But one passage I understand and relate to very well, and I expect you might also, is Paul’s words from Romans 7. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

You know what he’s talking about, right? Some days, maybe even every day, we find ourselves in conflict, wanting to behave in one way, but instead behaving in another. We want to eat healthy, but we end up at McDonald’s or Crumbs. We want to get up early, perhaps to workout or have devotional time, but we end up hitting the snooze until the last possible second. We want to take care of matters of the heart, like calling our parents or friends who live far away or putting together the photos from last year’s vacation, but instead, we end up watching some pointless TV show or surfing the web.

Sometimes, when we “do the very thing [we] hate,” our actions are even more detrimental. We want to serve God, but we feed our own selfish desires instead. We want to give love, but we end up hurting the people we love instead. We want to follow a straight and narrow path that leads to life, but we end up going down the dark road that takes us deeper into the heart of our own misery.

As Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7: 18).

Being unable to do what we want to do is a part of being human. In a way, it sounds ridiculous. Why wouldn’t we be able to do what we want to do? Paul says that it is the sin that dwells within us that keeps us from doing the good we want. Without speaking any condemnation at all this morning, I simply want us to acknowledge that the inner conflict and the damaging behaviors that come from it are a part of our shared human reality.

We love God and we want to do what we believe is the good and right thing for us and others, but there is a war that rages within us. Sometimes, we follow the good. Other times, we are overcome, destructive, even possessed. We succumb to the very addictions, actions, and interactions that ultimately convict us of our brokenness and our weakness.

Everyone needs forgiveness.

Do you think the woman who committed adultery, was caught and put before Jesus as an example wanted to be in that situation?

I don’t! I can’t explain why she did what she did but I don’t think she intentionally wanted to be in a situation of adultery, knowing all the pain that causes so many people, including herself.

What happens to the woman caught in adultery though? No one is going to argue that she was right in her behavior, and yet, no one can condemn her or stone her.

You know what Jesus said. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And everyone disappeared because the scribes and Pharisees and people listening to Jesus suffer from the inner conflict and the actions it leads to just like she did, just like we do.

Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

Her reply, “No one, sir.”

And then these words, some of the greatest words in the whole Bible. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Everyone needs forgiveness, and in Christ, everyone receives forgiveness.

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our sin or weakness. Just the opposite: He saves us from it! Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then immediately, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” because it is Jesus who breaks the law of sin and death, and it is Jesus who takes our condemnation upon himself and keeps us in a dynamic, working relationship with God. It’s Jesus who gives us a fresh start and another chance every day. As our opening hymn reminds us, “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.”

Thanks be to God is right!

Doing what we don’t want to do is a part of what it means to be truly human. And rather than condemn us, what this must convict us of is that we need help. To be human is to be in need.

Everyone needs help, and in Christ, everyone receives help.

You might be wondering, how does God help us?

One way is by giving us each other. We have the choice of whether we will love each other through our troubles and difficulties or whether we will hold grudges and be unaccepting.

One of the most touching stories of reconciliation that I know was a friend of mine who lived in a seriously dysfunctional family. When she was a child, Veronica’s father was an alcoholic and verbally abusive. Her mother was afraid to leave because she had two young children and no money of her own. Sadly, it’s a common story. From birth until she was 13, Veronica’s father drank heavily every night, whether at home or the bar, and he barely paid attention to anyone in the family. Then on May 12, 2007, he quit drinking. I don’t know his exact story, but he had hit his bottom, as they say. He apologized to everyone in the family, but it was difficult to forgive after all the pain and suffering they had endured for those many years.

When Veronica left for college, she had no real relationship with her father to speak of. But when her dad got sick in her senior year, Veronica went to visit him in the hospital. The road to repairing their relationship has been a long one, but one time I was with Veronica and her whole family at one of her birthday parties. Her dad said to me very quietly but with conviction, “I love this daughter of mine so much because she was willing to see past my mistakes and love me again.” That’s it. That’s all he said, but I could tell that Veronica’s acceptance and love had changed his world.

Everyone needs love, and if we act like Christ acts towards us, everyone can have love.

Another way God helps us is by giving us the strength to change our ways and to actually stop doing the very things we hate. It is possible to do things differently, and I believe it is it the work of the Holy Spirit to empower us to see the world from a new perspective and to make new choices. Veronica’s father did it with his drinking, and there are millions of success stories of people like him, who went from being weak and broken to being strong and whole.

My prayer is that we can do this and that the people whom we love can do this as well.

So when you find yourself conflicted and acting in ways that diminish your existence as a unique, loving, Spirit-filled person, don’t waste time condemning yourself. When you see others going astray, don’t waste time condemning them. Jesus isn’t.

But point yourself or point that person in God’s direction. Turn your life back over to Christ. He will help you. God will be gracious to you. God will “relieve the troubles of [your] heart, and bring [you] out of [your] distress” (Psalm 25: 17).

This morning, I simply invite you to open up your hearts and lives and let God love you just as you are…perfectly imperfect. Acceptance, strength, transformation – these things can all be yours because…Everyone needs grace, and in Christ, everyone receives grace.

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