Every one of us sometimes- sometimes every day- deals with that one recurring sin we wish was not a part of us. It might be the every day, life and death battle against some addiction, or some lust. Or it could be our Britney Spears "Oops, I did it again" thing. As integral a part of our existence as "sexual orientation", or learning not to yell at the guy who's going 37 MPH in a 40 zone. I was dealing with that very subject this week, and had the double duty of trying to learn about it from my three-chapter readings through the letters of Paul- the king of the run-on concept, whom even Peter described as "...speaking in (his letters) of these things, some of which are difficult to understand..."
And like many of you, I had a good run against my personal "thorn in the flesh", only to slip up as the week wore on. That I had success in the first part shows that I knew what to do: I gave the whole matter to God, as many times a day as it came up; I gave Him all the aspects of the matter, what we called in Catholic schools the near occasion of sin right down to the action itself. I went to Him at each sign of difficulty, and each thought of heading down the old familiar roads of temptation. But in the end, I failed; and from this week's "Paul in three chapters" we can look at why that happened.
In Romans, Paul's first three chapters divide up conveniently into three topics. Chapter one- the Gentiles who turn from God and have their perspective darkened by their use of human "wisdom"; Chapter two, the Jews, who think that because they are Jews they only have to follow some ritual to be right with God; and chapter three, where all have to admit to having fallen short. Where this comes into my story? When you look at Chapter two from verse 17 on, you see that Paul talks about those who are doing what they are "supposed to":
17 Indeed[b] you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.
Great people right? But Paul then shows them who it is that, even though all that is true, they fall short:
21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? 24 For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,”[c] as it is written.
You see, they were focusing on the "task"- the letter of the Law- rather than the deep meaning that would TRULY change their lives. And sometimes, when you focus so much on eradicating a particular sin, you forget about WHY it is you want rid of it. The relationship with God is the important thing- if you work at that, the sin becomes something you want to be rid of. If you focus on the sin, the elephant in the room crowds out God.
I Corinthians makes much the same point. Much of it's beginning talks about Christians who are "following Apollos," or "following Peter", etc. Man-made divisions and arguments over semantics that distract from the true battle:
9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12
So the whole battle has to be based on the foundation of Christ- if the sin becomes the foundation, the battle is lost right off.
2 Corinthians introduces us to the concept of "the veil" (3:11-18) which separates us from the will of God. And sometimes through pride, we pull that veil over our eyes, and refuse to see what God is doing to help us. I had all kinds of ways, all kinds of means, all kinds of encouragement from God not to stumble- but at a certain point, you draw the veil, pretend it isn't there, and sin anyway. And do our best to ignore verse 16:
16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
And why do we draw the veil? Look at Paul's next letter to the "Foolish Galatians". They hear the deceptions, and rely on the flesh, rather than the spirit. Chapter two talks about how Peter got into a "follow the crowd" mode- and we have a LOT of crowd to follow in our lives. What movie, what TV show, what website, what advertisement doesn't sell sex, vulgarity, debauchery? But Peter got straightened out when Paul "withstood him to his face"- and that's what we have to do to ourselves. It's not enough to pray to "lead me not into temptation" and then let the chips fall. We have to know when it's time to "withstand" the temptation and go to God to take care of it.
Next comes Ephesians, a very positive letter to a set of very successful believers. And how did they stay successful? Look here in Chapter three:
14 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,[c] 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
"Being rooted and grounded". Would it surprise you that my tumble occurred on a night when I didn't read my nightly chapter- and that it would have been THIS chapter? Defeating sin, especially ground-in sin, is work- and if you don't do YOUR job, it don't get done.
Finally, a little bit of success can cloud your eyes (draw the veil, as it were) to the fact that while we still suck breath, the battle ain't over. Witness in Philippians 3:
12 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
So even though the battle is full of day to day, moment to moment victories, the true victory is the one that lies ahead- and the prize isn't beating the sin, it's what you did while you were running. Juli could tell you that while the goal is crossing the finish line, it's the work it took to get there that makes it a prize.
Focus not on the task, but on the reason;
Make Christ, not the sin, the foundation;
Don't draw the veil!!!
Withstand the temptation to YOUR face;
Keep yourself rooted;
And remember the race isn't won in this life.