Sun, Jul 09, 2023

Who Will Rescue Me?

Romans 7:15-25 by Doug Gunkelman
Romans 7:15-25a
Duration:13 mins

Who is that?  Some people you just don’t want to run into. But it happens, inadvertently of course! Maybe it’s the pompous neighbor down the street, an old “friend” from college, or your nemesis in the lunchroom, or a church lady!  You dodge, duck, turn around and walk away faster than a scalded cat.

You might see him across the street while you’re rolling your trash can to the curb or waiting in line for coffee. Then, regrettably, he sees you, and you avert your eyes and make a beeline in the opposite direction. Why? Because you know him. He is narcissistic and a master manipulator. He uses passive-aggressive behavior to get what he wants. He’s abusive and threatening. He withholds information or spreads rumors. He is dishonest. He thinks he’s charming and flirtatious, and not above suggesting that if you’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to you.

You’ve met people like this. You may be struggling with a co-worker, family member or a so-called friend who is not above blaming you or even blackmailing you. If something sours in the relationship, you are to blame. The truth is repackaged, and you are made to think that you are the one who is going crazy!

As a pastor serving wherever, North Dakota, Nebraska, or Ohio, there are always 1 or 2 obnoxious, self-centered people trying to get under my skin.  Last month, Lori E. came into my office with a big smile on her face.

She said, “I just got off the phone with one of your fans”.  She told Lori that she and her husband came to the 11:00 service soon after I arrived and that I had changed the music to rock-n-roll.  Her husband, who has since died, said they would never come back until I was gone.  She heard I was retiring and wondered if I was gone yet.  Lori assured her that I was still here.  She said she’d call back at the end of the summer to see if I was gone.

I didn’t recognize her name, so I looked it up in our records.  They were placed on our inactive list 18 years ago and before that rarely worshiped.  She never served in any Divinity ministry.  She was clearly here to be served and not to serve.  When her 11:00 worship began using contemporary music, it was her excuse to blame the pastor, because of course the pastor makes all the decisions.  She obviously wasn’t open to worshiping at 1 of the 2 traditional services.  A very self-centered woman.

It’s important to protect ourselves from obnoxious people. But what is surprising is that the toxic person in Romans 7 may, in fact, be ourselves, or what the apostle calls the “old nature,” or what the King James Version of the Bible calls the “old man.” The text depicts a conversation within ourselves between the “law of the mind” and the “law of sin” (v. 23). What this person wants to do is “obey the law of God.”

But there is a problem: a war between these factions is raging inside the soul. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,” writes the apostle. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So, I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. … Wretched man that I am!” (vv. 18-21, 24).

It’s the war between the good wolf and the bad one, the responsible older brother and the reckless younger brother, between Cain and Abel, between the flesh and the spirit, between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, between purity and porn. It’s the conflict between light and darkness, the temptation that pulsates between sin and sanctity, the battle between good and evil.

The Bible says that we cannot play nice with the ugly side of our human nature. It must be mastered, or it will master us:

  • “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).
  • “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
  • “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
  • “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6-7).

Notice the severe and bloody imagery associated with the Bible’s call to be done with our dominating and cruel master. Put to death! Crucify! “Deny” ourselves! And so on.

According to Wikipedia, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [by Robert Louis Stevenson] is one of the most famous pieces of English literature and is considered to be a defining book of the gothic horror genre. The book has had a sizable impact on popular culture, with the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ being used in vernacular to refer to people with an outwardly good but sometimes shockingly evil nature.”

In the story, Jekyll drinks a serum that allows him to indulge his vices without fear of detection. Jekyll transforms into a wholly different person — someone who looks younger, but somehow decrepit, smaller and bad. Whereas Jekyll is a good man, kind-hearted and conscientious, Hyde is evil, self-indulgent and uncaring.

Initially, Jekyll controls the metamorphosis with the potion, but increasingly it becomes difficult for the wicked Hyde to return to the compassionate Jekyll. One reason for this is that Hyde enjoys being Hyde.

If we’re honest, we must admit that there’s more than a grain of truth to this notion. Although we might lament and wail, as does the apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24), a part of us doesn’t want to let go of the vices we serve. We have developed a sort of perverse Stockholm syndrome in which we have a vague sympathy for and attachment to our taskmaster, our captor, our jailer.

Saint Augustine echoed a similar sentiment when contemplating a future of living a chaste and holy life. He said, in effect, “I am willing, O Lord, but not right now.”

Dr. Jekyll expressed the Pauline Dilemma in words that sound eerily familiar: “I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness … I was radically both. … It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous [logs] were thus bound together — that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated?”

For his part, Dr. Jekyll resolves to cease becoming Hyde as we, too, often resolve to stop obeying our sinful natures. Yet, despite all his best intentions, one night he has a moment of weakness and once again drinks the tincture. Whereupon, Hyde, his desires having been caged for so long, kills a man.

Jekyll is horrified and tries earnestly to stop the transformations. Eventually, one of the chemicals used in the serum runs low, and subsequent batches prepared from new stocks fail to work.

Jekyll speculates that one of the original ingredients must have had some unknown impurity that made it work. Realizing that he would stay transformed as Hyde, Jekyll wrote out a full account of the events and locked himself in his laboratory with the intent to keep Hyde imprisoned and, as friends and household staff are about to apprehend him, he commits suicide by swallowing a poison.

This scenario seems to be one with which the ancient apostle wrestled, as do we. Do any of these thoughts resonate with our own experiences?

  • “I do not understand my own actions.”
  • “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
  • “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”
  • “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
  • “When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”
  • “[I am] captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
  • “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?”

Do you recognize these words? They are cited verbatim from today’s reading in Romans 7, and they’re from the pen of the apostle Paul.

If Saint Paul — revered theologian, evangelist, apostle and martyr of the Christian faith — had such sentiments, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us if we do, too. It might even come as a relief.

But Paul had a faith so powerful it turned sin away before it got in the door. Unlike the poor Dr. Jekyll, Paul had a potion so powerful it not only transformed him permanently into his better self, but destroyed Mr. Hyde forever. Paul had help being the person he truly wanted to be.

That help comes from Jesus Christ himself. Read what he writes: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).

It’s all about Jesus.

We are Jesus people.