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.[a] 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. 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. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[b] a slave to the law of sin.
We Certainly Aren’t Perfect
Congregational Church of Easton — July 9,2023
I opened the front door early Wednesday morning to go out and get the paper. There on the stoop was a gentleman laying out 6 bags of groceries from Whole Foods, purchased by my son, Mark. When he came downstairs and started opening them, I snapped, “Why did you do that!? There’s no room in the refrigerator! A shouting match ensued, and we both parted angrily.
I didn’t want to do that! The devil made me do it! How many times do you and I do things we don’t want to do?
And how about the flip side? How many times do we fail to do things we want to do? before he died, I wanted to visit my friend who was permanently confined to a nursing home, but I never seemed to get around to doing it. I should have visited him more often, but I didn’t. I felt badly when he died that I hadn’t been more attentive to him. I imagine you find yourself dilemmas like this also. Am I right?
In our reading from Romans this morning, Paul knows what it’s like to do things he doesn’t want to do. He knows what it’s like to fail to do what he should. Paul’s frustrations about not coming up to his standards are no less painful than ours. Listen again to how he puts it in Romans Chapter 7, verses 15 to 20:
…I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the things that I hate…. But… I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it’s sin that lives in me. I know that good doesn’t live in me — that is, in my body. The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.
But if I do the very thing I don’t want to do, then I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it is sin that lives in me that is doing it
He’s saying a force like the devil makes him do it. In Paul’s worldview “sin” was a word that referred to more than bad actions. People in his world assumed that sin or evil is more like a physical entity, a thing with an existence of its own which acts powerfully in the world and in individuals.
Paul goes on to say in verses 24 and 25, “I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse? Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
That’s the question I’d like us to focus on this morning: “Who will deliver us from the painful conflict all of us experience between our intentions and our less than perfect actions?”
Paul says Christ is our deliverer. But what does that mean? How can trust in Christ or his message get us out of our dilemmas wanting to do what’s right and so often failing to do so?
I looked for answers in a book I highly recommend, The Spirituality of Imperfection. It’s written about the 12-step movement and is full of stories about recovering alcoholics coming to terms with their powerlessness over their addictions. The authors, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum begin one of their chapters with a funny story about a fellow named Clifford who fell off a cliff and broke his fall by grabbing a branch halfway to the bottom. There was no way to climb back up. There was no one who could hear his shouts for help. He knew when his strength gave out and he had to let go, he would be dashed to death on the rocks. I’ll read you how the story ends:
Desperate, Clifford cried out to the heavens: “God hep me!…. To [his] amazement, he heard an immediate answer. “All right,” came the voice…. “Let go.”
Looking down, Clifford saw the huge boulders waiting below, and he knew that if he let go he would surely die. Let go? He thought, “But God, you don’t understand!” he yelled. I’m too far up. I’ll….
“Let go,” the voice repeated. Silence filled the canyon. Then in a weak, terrified voice Clifford called out, “Is there anyone else up there [who can help me]?1
The authors say the moral of the story is, “so long as we cling we are bound.” They say, “We crave release, but we refuse to release – and so long as we cling we are bound.2
That’s an odd thought. What can it mean: “As long as we cling we are bound.” Paul can be our role model here. He has let go of his clinging to the law. And clearly he has let go of his clinging to any hope that he can be perfect. He let’s go of control over his life and says,
Who will deliver me from this dead corpse? Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!3
That wonderful line reminds me of other ways Paul talks about how Christ saves us from our dilemmas of being imperfect. He talks about dying to self For example, in Colossians 3:3 he says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”4 In Galatians he says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Jesus says much the same thing when he tells us we have to lose our lives in order to gain them.5
Over and over again, the New Testament tells us to let go, release, surrender. The spiritual journey is one of coming to surrender or release our self-centeredness, our focus on self. That’s easy to say, but how do you do it? Stop worrying about yourself! Stop thinking about yourself! It’s like yelling up to Clifford hanging on that tree branch and telling him, “let go!”
So how do we let go of our focus on self, so we don’t have to beat ourselves up for our imperfections? One way is to stop “shoulding” ourselves. When i tell myself I should have visited my friend in the nursing home more often I could remember that should is a judgment and judgements are always harsh — and, they’re demotivating!
An alternative to judging myself for not visiting my friend would have been to focus on my “want,” not my “should.” Yes, I truly did want to see Steve more often. I had a lot of compassion for how miserable he must have been with his disability. “Wants” are motivating. By focusing on my desire to spend more time with Steve I could have let go of thinking about how imperfect iI am and just gone ahead and found a time in my calendar when it was convenient to make the trip.
Another way to let go of judging ourselves about our imperfection is humor. Laughter is so healing! Silly old me, there I go again, having a second helping. Maybe I don’t I really don’t want to lose that 5 pounds that I gained last month.
Paul, in our second reading this morning could certainly stand to lighten up.
Silly old Paul, thinking he could be perfect by following each rule of the Jewish law.
Get over it! When I beat myself up for snapping at Mark, the appropriate response is “Get over it! God loves me and God loves you no matter what we say or do. And God loves Mark.
Feeling badly about our imperfections is self-centered. Jesus never told us to be perfect. Instead he told us to love ourselves and love others. The one passage in Matthew that says, “Be perfect like your father in heaven is perfect” is a mistranslation. It should read, Be whole,” not “Be perfect”
That’s why Jesus can say in our passage from Matthew,
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
I’d like you to consider that when we let go of our focus on self and stop worrying about whether we are good enough, we can experience release! When we catch ourselves judging ourselves, we are free to laugh at ourselves and shift our focus to others. When we forgive ourselves for our imperfections, we open ourselves to the love of God. And reconnecting to God’s love naturally overflows into loving others.
So take a load off! Lighten up! You and I are not perfect and never will be. And we are loved just the way we are. We are a forgiven people!
If I can forgive myself for yelling at Mark on Wednesday, maybe the next time I’m unpleasantly surprised by something he’s done, I’ll have the wisdom to keep my mouth shut.
Let us pray. Thank you, Holy One, for lifting the burden of our self-criticism. Thank you for loving us in all our imperfections. Amen.
1 Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum, The Spirituality of Imperfection, NY: Bantam, 1992, pp. 163 & 4. https://www.amazon.com/Spirituality-Imperfection-Modern-Classic-Stories/dp/0553083007/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1688657611&sr=8-1
2 Ibid., p. 164.
3 Romans 7:24 & 25.
4 Galatians 2:20.
5 Matthew 10:39.