I can remember in the old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, that Tom, the cat, would have the chance to do something mean to Jerry, the mouse. The cartoonist would picture the battle within Tom by having an angel with a halo and white robe sitting on one shoulder, and a demon with a pitchfork and horns out of his head sitting on the other shoulder, each whispering in his ear. Whom would he choose to listen to? Of course, he listened to the demon telling him to do a mean thing, or else the cartoon wouldn’t have conflict.
What was pictured is similar to our wrestling with temptation. This is clearly laid out in chapter 7 of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the previous chapter Paul speaks of baptism’s defining content – that of crucifying our sinful self with Christ, the burial with Christ in the watery grave of baptism, and being raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. In that commitment, we have switched who owns us, transferred from being slaves of sin to being slaves of righteousness. In that transfer we have received the gift of eternal life.
Since we died to sin’s reign in our lives, we should be living a life without any sin. Sin should no longer be a problem for us. Paul then speaks of the dilemma of sin for the Christian. He speaks of his own struggle, using the first person singular pronoun to give emphasis to his own wrestling. He says “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Romans 7:21-23)
Like Paul, we each have probably fought this battle time and time again. We know what we should do, but end up doing what we shouldn’t do. We mentally and emotionally beat ourselves up for our failures and promise we will do better the next time, only to fall prey to temptation again. We echo Paul’s frustration: “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?”
While our desire is to live righteously, we give in to the temptations our desires bring. It is not that the desires we have are evil in themselves, but many times our ways of fulfilling the desires are sinful. We become influenced by a culture driven by selfishness. To not fulfill the desires the way the culture does is viewed as being weak. Our selfish culture drives ambition that lacks concern for others, greed that values possessions over people, lust that abuses and objectifies sexuality. To succumb to our desires in a selfish way is to return to sin’s authority in our lives.
We live thinking, breathing, “What a wretched person I am!” Is there any rescue from this constant dilemma? How can I win the battle over sinful desires and live righteously for my Lord Jesus Christ? Paul doesn’t leave us without hope. He says, “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25) But how? I am weak, giving in to temptation too often. Sin within me condemns me to death. How can I have hope?
I like our number system, because chapter 7 of Romans is followed by chapter 8. Paul begins, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So no more worries, I can live as want to live? NO! He begins speaking of having the Holy Spirit gain control of our lives. Having God’s presence within us is a resource we can call upon to help us to make the right choices, choices that honor God. It is not just taming the sinful nature within us, it is putting it to death. Paul states: “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live”. (Romans 8:13)
Allowing the Holy Spirit to take full control of our lives will free us from sin’s domination. The Holy Spirit works best when we give ourselves to the meditation and study of God’s Word, seek God constantly in prayer, and keep company with the community of faith. We also allow the Holy Spirit to work within us by avoiding opportunities for sin to entice us. We stay away from situations in which sinful desire might rise within us, triggering our giving in to sin. It is a daily growing process, as we realize that we don’t fight the battle alone. God’s Spirit dwelling within us aids us in our desire to live wholly for God.
Rev. Andrew Wade is pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Logan and a member of the Logan Ministerial Association.