After Church – Paul and Romans : Doing What You Don’t Want to Do

14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

Romans 7

Anyone who ever touched the Christian religion surely understands its penchant for self-reflection, if not its downright forceful support of analyzing our actions. Paul, and the myriad authors of Scripture, all seemingly approve of this mode of thought, and Christians throughout the ages continued to perform that vital function in personal human existence. However, our adoption of this concept in Western culture may prove itself a bigger stumbling block than we wish.

For the purpose of argument, though, let’s suppose that self-reflection, in fact, damages us in modern American culture. Why would it do this? Anyone who grew up in America knows that we operate on the free enterprise system, an economic procedure pejoratively known as “capitalism”. One’s value to society comes through what we produce, rather than an innate value set within the person. How do you determine someone’s worth in that society? By how much power they wield (economically, socially, etc).

None of these things become dangerous in themselves, of course. Many millionaires and billionaires devote huge swathes of money in philanthropic efforts. The issue comes in our response to the existence of such people in the world. The truly independent people can do whatever they wish. They produced something of worth which other people liked…a lot…and in the process made lots of money. They may do what they please, and do what they wish due to this freedom.

So what do you think of these people? Do you believe they take away from the poor, from the lesser of society? Do they buttress society with their money, or do they hold an unequal share of all the wealth in the country? The number of response that could emerge from this particular question run the political gamut, of course, but what’s your personal answer?

More than likely, you provided yourself with a moral response directed towards someone else, interestingly enough. Their social status, their ability to effect change, far dwarfs our own as they represent the premier values of the surrounding culture. So what do we do instead? What else – look for hypocrisy. Once you find it, we can feel great about ourselves and use them as a proxy for the validity of their worldview (without discussing it or contesting it, of course). The belligerent search for contradictions, as I’m sure you know, spreads across all modern news media: websites, television, blogs, the whole lot.

You aren’t responding to their social status so much as your response actually derives from the question this poses towards your personality. Your response to their existence as super rich dudes/gals, to their identity as defined by society, says more about you than you think. The reason you have a problem isn’t the moral stance of the person and what you think of them, the self-reflection reveals unwanted feelings in yourself that you project outward.

Such a question provokes unwanted feelings in yourself, perhaps a sudden wave of inadequacy, a jealousy of power, or any number of other related ideas – but you’re not any of those, are you? Projection means less pushing your feelings onto other people than it is an issue of perception. Projection does not involve actually doing anything to the other person (you can’t give them your feelings, silly). Instead, you actually feel something, unconsciously declare this as an undesirable element of your personality (inconsistent, say), so we believe it’s coming from the other person. The psychological tricks occurs in all numbers of contexts, and often lets us remove a particular action or state of mind as inconsistent with our publicly developed personality. And there’s nothing more that we, the collective narcissist generation, love to cultivate more than our tastes in consumption, social issues, or anything else.

This is how, for example, someone can claim themselves as a social justice advocate, yet do nothing towards that goal, or say that “I believe X” without doing anything to convince others of that belief. I can take this one step further: the same system which, in our example, I assume you oppose is also the same system from which you benefit immensely. It lets you participate in a system you don’t like merely by opposing it mentally (we can call it “emotional detachment”). We can rationalize our inaction and participation in things we don’t like once the projection starts, and our brain wins – but we don’t. We continue a cycle of not changing ourselves at all, while tricking ourselves into thinking we did. Such a great trick! Where did you learn it?!

If I had to venture a guess from my religious perspective, a sinful nature plays into what we know about psychological behavior perfectly. How else could we find ourselves more lazy, or ineffective, then by continually convincing ourselves we don’t need to do that? But merely recognizing that we do this isn’t enough; if the process just ends by saying “I am performing said trick on myself”, then you play right into the hands of sin all over again. Self-reflection, as you can see, merely leads to recognition, not change.

Why does the Apostle Paul not have this problem? Because he recognizes that he does things he does not want to do. The sin within us does these things, and identifying it means we can move past it. If any element ever impaired the Christian faith more than any other, missing the freedom of grace and salvation might still remain the biggest one. How can you change if you don’t accept it wholeheartedly and see sin for the farce it is? You changed; the sin within you has not. Christians transformed by Christ want to do good, but find themselves beset by our nature. That’s why Romans 7 seems like such a rant: it’s a recognition of our inability to escape our own narcissism without Christ.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8

So what will you do? Will you continue to rationalize your actions as inconsistent with yourself, or will you free yourself from the bonds of sinful human personality and accept a new identity in Christ?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.