Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9). Based on Romans 7:15-25a.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, WI. Preached on July 2 & 5, 2020.
The Christian’s Double-Personality Disorder
He woke up the next morning feeling ashamed of himself. He promised to himself that he would never waste his time and disrespect God’s will by visiting those websites ever again. And he meant it when he made that promise to himself. But after the rest of the household was asleep, the temptation started to pull him back where he didn’t want to go. He won the battle for several nights, but then one night he fell back into the sin that he wanted to avoid. Waking up with more shame, he worried if he was even a sincere Christian, because the same sin kept conquering him even though he genuinely wanted to avoid it.
She had finally had enough. It started as social drinking among college roommates. She made friends among the popular partying crowd, and soon spent most weekends drinking and partying instead of studying. Her grades dropped, but were good enough to graduate. But as she started her new job, became married, and started a family, the lure of liquor always seemed to tempt her. Most of the time she managed to hide it from her family. But in the back of her mind she knew it was sinful and that she needed to quit. “Why do I keep doing this when I hate myself so much the next day?” she silently wondered to herself.
Psychologists used to speak of “Multiple Personality Disorder,” a psychological condition in which a person could be characterized by two or more distinct personality states. That disorder has been given a new name recently, and we’re not here to discuss the psychological condition, but that disorder may be a good comparison to the spiritual double-personality disorder that many, if not most, if not all Christians find themselves struggling with at one point in their lives or another.
But how could a Christian profess one thing at one moment and then do the exact opposite in another moment? Isn’t that the height of hypocrisy? What kind of Christian does that?
How about the Apostle Paul? If you find yourself in a real battle against a temptation that you want to defeat but struggle with regularly, you are in good company. In the Bible reading that we are considering in today’s sermon, St. Paul describes his own spiritual double-personality disorder that led him to the same struggles that so many of us endure in our lives. Listen as Paul describes the symptoms of this struggle:
15 “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
The mother catches her child doing something very wrong. With that stern parental glare that could make the mafia cry, she asks, “Why are you doing that?” Embarrassed at being caught, the child responds, “I don’t know!”
Maybe that sounds like a lame answer to the question, but that is what Paul had to say about his own struggle with sin. “I do not understand what I do.” This was not a childish excuse, but a real struggle that led him to feel spiritually confused. How is it that we can wake up in the morning, determined to follow God and obey his will, only to look back on the day and wonder if we really practice what we preach? We can easily relate to Paul when he said, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.”
There is a part of us that actually wants to sin! There is an internal enemy that affects our hearts more than any virus could affect our bodies! Paul acknowledges the problem: “It is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” Contrary to common thinking in our culture, people are not basically good. No, there is a very real spiritual disorder within us that draws us away from God daily. And the result of that spiritual condition within us is that our daily behavior turns out to be the opposite of the good that we want to demonstrate in our lives: “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on practicing.” (The original word Paul used here means more than merely doing something; it can also mean that whatever you are doing is your practice.) You heard that right. Paul looked at the evil that invaded his life far too often and concluded that he could rightly be called a practitioner of evil!
Go back to those two examples from the sermon introduction. You could trade out the sins in those examples for something else. What is the struggle in your life? What is the “pet sin” that you have a hard time throwing away? Laziness? Anger? Dishonesty? Back-biting gossip? Unloving assumptions? Spiritual apathy? When we put ourselves into Paul’s words, we too must say, “The evil I do not want to do—this I keep on practicing.”
Is that too harsh? Don’t you know better? Don’t you know it’s wrong? Don’t you know that comparing your sins with the “worse sins” of others is no way to hide your own guilt? You have a conscience. You know the guilt you feel after the fact. You even know how you find slick-sounding ways to rationalize your sins and try to quiet your guilty conscience! And yet the same sins keep tripping you up over and over again. Why would we keep doing that? Why would we live our lives at times as if we are practitioners of a specific sin? Would we give God the excuses we give ourselves? Will those excuses really appease a just God?
Paul takes on the role of spiritual physician as he diagnoses himself—and us—in the next verses. 20 “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”
Through this entire section, Paul speaks in a way that separates himself from the source of these struggles. Something else causes these desires and this struggle—and it’s such a constant struggle that Paul describes it as if it is a law of nature like gravity. The symptoms, the struggles, and the frustration all lead to this diagnosis: “In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” There is a very real part of you that wants to follow God. Paul calls it his “inner being.” We often use the expression, “New Man” or the “new self.” But there is also a very real part of you that wants to rebel against God at every opportunity. Paul called that the “sinful nature” (verse 18). And those two very real forces inside us result in the diagnosis that Paul gave himself and that we must give ourselves. We have a spiritual double-personality disorder.
In 2008-2009, the FOX television network aired a game show called The Moment of Truth. Contestants were asked increasingly invasive and embarrassing questions. If the polygraph machine determined that they were telling the truth, they won money. If they lied, they lost their winnings. I never watched the show, but I remember an ad for the show in which a man was seated next to his wife and mother-in-law. In the ad, he was asked this question: “If you knew you would never be discovered, would you be unfaithful to your wife?”
How do you think Paul would have answered that question if he were the contestant? Based on these words from Romans chapter seven, what would Paul have said? What has he said so far? “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on practicing. … Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” Would Paul’s answer have been, “Yes, there is a real part of me that is capable of doing something as awful and sinful as that.” And we gasp in shock! “Really? Paul, you’re an apostle of Jesus! How could you even think of such a thing?” But that’s the nature of spiritual double-personality disorder. It leads even God’s people to be capable of the very sins that we hate!
But that’s not just Paul’s own self-diagnosis. That’s your diagnosis. We need to get to this point! We cannot say to ourselves, “Oh, I could never do this-or-that awful thing that offends me when I hear someone who is guilt of it.” Oh, yes, you could! Are you greater than St. Paul, author of half of the New Testament’s books? Do you have such great love for God that you are incapable of such sin, or do you avoid those sins because you realize that you could never get away with it? Do you avoid those sins because you wouldn’t even have the opportunity to commit them? Do you avoid those sins out of love for God, or out of fear of getting caught?
If one of Jesus’ own apostles fell away from him and betrayed him out of greed for money, if another of Jesus’ own apostles denied him vehemently against his promise to be faithful no matter what, if all of Jesus’ apostles ran away from him when he was arrested because they loved their own lives more than him—if all that occurred among Jesus’ own apostles, then who are we to say that we are not somehow prone to fall away from him? Will our weekly one-hour appearance in God’s house somehow give you spiritual immunity from the sinful disease that is already inside us and tries to eat away at our faith with every breath?
Denial isn’t the answer. Denial is the path to destruction. There is only one thing to say in light of this diagnosis, and it reflects the frustration Paul felt and that we feel today: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”
People suffering from addiction often hit “rock bottom” before their lives turn around. People suffering from spiritual double-personality disorder (and that’s every Christian!) also need to come to that moment of truth. How can we move from frustration to solution? Paul does it in just a few words: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
That’s not just a nice religious phrase or a spiritual talking point. Remember that the excerpt from Romans that we’re studying today comes after six previous chapters of Christian instruction. Paul’s readers would still have these statement echoing in their minds: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). “When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. … God demonstrates his own love for us in this: What we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:6,8,9). Jesus won a “not guilty!” verdict for the world when he gave his life to pay for our sins on the cross. That “not guilty!” verdict is our own personal possession because the Holy Spirit has brought us to faith.
When we feel shame because of struggles with sin, Jesus delivers us from that shame that is now wiped away by his blood. When we feel overwhelmed by guilt, Jesus fills our hearts instead with the conscience-calming good news that his death and resurrection have delivered us from sin’s eternal consequences. When we feel that God couldn’t possibly love us because of our past hypocrisy, Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Matthew 11:25-30), “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”—rest for your weary souls now, and eternal rest at his side in heaven forever.
Did you notice how Paul identified himself in these verses? He talked about his “sinful nature” and his godly “inner being,” but did you notice which one of those was doing the talking in these verses? With one exception—an exception that he clearly explains (v. 18)—every time Paul said, “I,” it was his “inner being” that was speaking. In other words, even in this struggle, Paul didn’t see himself as his sinful nature, but as his new, godly self.
Why is that important? The same God who inspired Paul to write these words in this way also looks at you in the same way. Our gracious God does not view you as the struggling sinner. He sees your “inner being.” He sees the New Man that his Holy Spirit has placed in you. He sees you through the victory won for you by his Son Jesus. And he leads us to see ourselves in the same way that he sees us: his forgiven, loved, redeemed child!
As we identify ourselves with our New Self, that God-given identity gives us strength for the battle against sin. That new identity fills us with the comfort of Christ’s forgiveness. That new identity gives you rest for your souls. That new identity fills your hearts with joy to say, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.