Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Law, Sin and Guilt

Lent 3B 2015

Fr. Dale Matson
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Please pay particular attention to the opening sentence. Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. An alcoholic friend of mine once said to me as we were drinking, “When it comes to drinking, I have the will power, I just don’t have the won’t power.”

So then, do you say to yourself if you are trapped in a chronic particular sin, “It’s God’s fault?” “I’ve asked him for forgiveness but God isn’t putting a stop to this.” Forgiveness is not a proactive remedy that God has given us to deal with sin. We don’t ask for forgiveness for a sin we are about to commit. We don’t say, “Lord forgive me for what I am about to do.”

The root cause of sin is willfulness and it began with Adam and Eve. The serpent said, “God knows that if you eat from The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you'll become just like God, and will be able to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong."

From that point until the Law was given, people did not know what was right and what was wrong. The Law gave them boundaries and with those boundaries, they became free from uncertainty and confusion. When the Law is rejected, people lose sight of what is the proper conduct. For those of us who embrace the Law of God and we know what the right thing to do is, we have trouble doing the right thing even though we know that we should. The past behavior has become so firmly established because we have done it over and over again that our will to change cannot overpower the sin that has become ingrained in our being. That sin has become a part of our nature.

Eventually we get to a point where we want to stop sinning but we no longer can resist sinning because we have done it so often for so long. We are stuck in a rut. It is having the willpower to not misbehave but not having the “won’t power” to stop misbehaving. Dealing with sin requires turning our will over to God. Paul talked about our human struggles in today’s Epistle lesson from Romans Chapter seven. “If I could only do those things I want to do and not do those things I don't want to do.” Once we decide to quit doing something, we have to overcome the momentum of how we have acted in the past. Our sins are not just outward actions. Our sins change our inner nature.

We have committed some sins so often; they have become a part of who we are. They are a part of our identity. Someone who drinks too much becomes a drunk. That is how they are known and it is a real identity crisis to quit drinking because it would be giving up a part of your identity even though it is an ugly part. People who know us expect us to act like a drunk. They can even unconsciously help us remain a drunk and that is called “enabling”. That is also why it is difficult to love the sinner and hate the sin because the sinner can become so immersed in their sin; it is no longer a behavior. It is a character defect. C.S. Lewis once said that chronic grumblers become grumbles.

What St. Paul is saying in Romans seven is that the Law is good but the Law cannot make men good. The Law tells us what is right and what is wrong. We do not decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. The Law does not empower us to stop doing the wrong thing and start doing the right thing. That is where we ask for God’s empowerment. We affirm this in our baptismal vows. The bishop asks, “Will you resist the devil and all rebellion against god?” We respond, “I will with God’s help.”

On those occasions where we experience guilt there is only one healthy response. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). Guilt is a symptom of sin, with sin as the underlying illness. For us, there is the weekly confession of sin and there is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We hear the following from the BCP, “When the penitent has confessed all serious sins troubling the conscience and has given evidence of true contrition, the priest gives such counsel and encouragement as are needed and pronounces absolution.” (p.446, BCP)

Unfortunately many Christians are crippled by what is referred to in Hebrews (12:1) as “Weights and Besetting Sins.” In the King James Version we hear, “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. What does St. Paul mean by weights and besetting sins? By “Weights” he means obsession with bodily concerns, fondness for and worries about this world. It was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times that one in five Californians say they need mental health care.

By “Besetting Sins” Paul means those sins that we have given a place in our lives to the extent that the sins now possess us. We are in captivity to them. They can be sins of addiction and in many cases they are also hidden sins. Some of these sins are hidden from the sinner and the sinner knows others. There are at a minimum three individuals who know about these sins. They are God, us and Satan the liar, thief and murderer. Eventually, more people may find out and at the last judgment you will have to account for these sins.

King David lusted after Bathsheba, which eventually led to him having her husband killed in battle so he could have her as a wife. Not everyone is fortunate enough as David to have a Nathan to reveal his Besetting sin to him or her. In this case it was lust. The outcome from this sin was the death of Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, David's son, a curse on the house of David and a warrior king turned into a cowardly fugitive from his own son Absalom.

I have had several besetting sins in my life. Perhaps the best way to describe them is that the sins can occupy and consume our thoughts. One of my remaining sins is fear. My fear of flying is a specific problem that kept me from flying for twenty-five years. Fear can control your life. To the extent sin controls your life it diminishes it. Christ said, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10).

So what is our spiritual firewall? How do we keep the accuser out? We are called to live a holy life. We are called to be a holy people. Our spiritual firewall is Virtue. In the King James Version of Holy Scripture it states that when a woman with a bleeding problem touched Christ, she was healed and He felt a virtue leave Him. (Mark 5:30) Virtue is power. But you say to me, “I don’t have to be a holy person, Jesus paid the price of my sins”. That is true but he also told the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

So what are we to do with these besetting sins that give Satan an opportunity to steal our identity, blackmail short circuit and rob us of our power as Christians? I believe the first step is with our will. We must ask God to give us the will to turn away. I prayed for two years for the desire to quit smoking. Even though I knew smoking was bad for me; I did not have the will to quit. I was a slave to this sin. Smoking was an addiction that owned me. The second step is what Psychologists call providing a replacement behavior. For example in Alcoholics Anonymous the expression is, “Don't pick up a drink. Pick up the phone.” In the case of the seven deadly sins, there are also seven corresponding virtues. The prescription is to practice virtues that work against the entrenched sins. I believe that is why St. Paul listed the Fruits of Spirit following the sins of the flesh in Galatians. For example, if you are someone afflicted with hoarding behavior, the most freeing thing you can do is to give things away. You are replacing greed with charity.

I would like to summarize thus far and offer an additional prescription. I believe many Christians see themselves as imposters and powerless. It may be because they have secret sins that Satan exploits. They have asked for forgiveness over and over yet remain captive of those sins. These are besetting sins that keep us from progressing as Christians. These secret sins keep us from being a holy people. We must ask God for the will to resist these sins and seek a virtuous replacement. Brothers and Sisters, the Kingdom of God is an upside down Kingdom. The weak are strong, the last are first. The foolish are wise and the poor are rich. To rid ourselves of these sins, we must do the opposite.
In verse seven of our Psalm the law is perfect and revives the soul; *it is sure and gives wisdom. In verse eight the law is just and causes the heart to rejoice; *It is clear and provides light to the eyes. In knowing the law we are enlightened (The NIV says we are warned) and in keeping the law we are rewarded.

Verses twelve and thirteen discuss two kinds of sin, unintentional and deliberate sin. In verse twelve the psalmist asks God to cleanse him from his secret faults. These are not faults hidden from others but faults unknown to the psalmist. I believe some of our unexplained suffering is God removing the debris of sin from these unknown areas of our life. Verse thirteen asks God to keep the Psalmist from presumptuous sins. These are sins that we commit and know are sins expecting God to be merciful. They are a great offense to God. It is interesting that the there is a concern that these sins could get dominion over the person. For the person who is an addict, they have sinned against their body and the sin has in fact gained dominion over them. Finally, in verse fourteen, we hear a verse used often as a prayer prior to the preaching. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight”*. What does this mean? May I be clean inside and out as I present your Holy Word.

The verse ends with an acknowledgement that it is God who provides our strength and is the one who has redeemed us. May you find the will and ask for God’s strength to resist the sin in your life. Amen

1 comment:

underground pewster said...

It is encouraging to know that Paul also grappled with this. That's be to God for inspiring and preserving his letters.