Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Battle

What we looked at in the last two sermons was very encouraging. We have been freed from the power of sin, freed to live to God as whole people. And to be reminded of that part of the Gospel can be encouraging, indeed. Yet, as you know, that’s not the whole picture. There’s also the other side of the coin. This morning we’re going to take a look at the battle that we all face. Listen to how Paul describes this battle in his life.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. Romans 7.15-25

What I just read is Paul’s description of the battle that every Christian has to deal with. We delight in God’s Law. We desire to obey it, to do it. That’s the result of our being freed from sin. And yet, as Paul wrote, ‘evil lies close at hand’. And what, all too often, is the result of that? What did Paul write?

I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Instead of living lives of perfect obedience, we struggle with and too often are defeated by sin. We need to explore this.

Here is the first thing that I want you to see. Having this battle with sin is not an indication that you are somehow failing as a disciple. No, this ongoing battle is actually a part of what it means to be a Christian. You might even call it a ‘normal part’ of being a Christian. I say that to be encouraging to any of you who struggle with this and maybe even doubt that Jesus has rescued you. You’re not a failure. You’re fighting the battle that every Christian is called to fight. In fact, if a Christian is not facing this situation, is not battling against sins as Paul describes here, something has gone wrong, seriously wrong. Fighting this battle is part of what we are called to do.

Some of you have heard about movements like Victorious Christian Living or the Higher Life. These were popular in years gone by. Their claim was that a Christian could skate through life without any of this battling with sin. That’s for lesser Christians. But if you had the faith to believe, to really believe, this painless life could be yours.

The names for this kind of attitude are different today, but the lies are the same. Jesus never promised carefree Christian living. Actually, quite the opposite. And such claims certainly don’t fit with what Paul has described here as his own experience. Don’t be fooled. Living as a faithful Christian is hard. There are battles to fight.

Here’s a way to understand this battling that really helps: Christian suffering. That label defines any situation where a Christian is fighting against sin. It may well be that the attacking sin comes from outside of us. Here, think of persecution. But Christian suffering can also be about something that is internal, like our battles with sin. And the Gospel is clear that suffering is a part of every Christian’s life. What Paul has described is every Christian’s experience.

Now, let me ask a question you might be thinking. Why? Why is it this way? God could have set things up so very differently. Actually, He could have set it all up so that we would, in fact, all be ‘victorious Christians’, never having to face the evil of sin in the way that Paul has described. The Father could have decided that once a person becomes a Christian he or she is completely sanctified. All issues about sin would be gone. All sin would be gone. Every act and thought and attitude would be the response of holy obedience. And that’s not hard to imagine. After all, this is exactly how we will live after Jesus returns. Every act and thought and attitude will, in fact, be the response of holy obedience. The Father could have moved up the timetable so that perfection would happen in this life instead of waiting for the next life. He could have done that. But He didn’t. No, instead, here we are battling away, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Why?

It’s important to remember that God’s goal in the Gospel is not for us to arrive in heaven. No, His goal is greater than that. His goal is for us to become whole people, just like Adam and Eve before that first sin, whole people whose purpose is to reveal the beauty of God. But we’re not whole people. And God wants us to become whole.

Now, one thing that is required if we’re going to become whole people is growing in our understanding of reality. It’s having a growing understanding of God, of ourselves, of our situation.

We need a growing understanding of our situation. We live in a world that sin has corrupted and twisted all up. It actually is worse than we realize. We need to see that more clearly. It’s only as a person really gets the bad news that the good news will be seen as really good. We need to see the world as it really is.

We also need a growing understanding of ourselves. So, who are you?

Why do you do the things that you do? And that includes the good things as well as the bad things that you do. Why do you do them?

What are the priorities of your life? Not your announced priorities, what you might tell others, but your real priorities, what your heart really thinks is important?

What stirs your soul?

How does the evil of sin express itself in your life?

These questions need good solid answers if you are going to understand yourself. But how many try to live without really understanding themselves. That can only lead to poor choices, being deceived and experiencing frustration. How sad. By the grace of the Spirit, we can avoid those problems.

Behind both of those, understanding your situation and understanding yourself, is understanding God. People don’t understand life or themselves or much else because they don’t understand God. But think about it. He is the one who runs all of this. And He does that having certain goals in mind, following a certain style, using certain methods. So, who is He? What is He like? What are His priorities? How does He achieve those priorities? And where does He want us to fit in with all of that?

I went through all of that to be able to ask a question and to answer it in terms of our topic. How do you grow in understanding? One tool that God uses for your growth in these things is suffering. And that includes things like having a knock-down, drag-out fight with the sin that lives within you. It’s when you are confronted with that battle that you are able to see the real you in action. That’s when your heart, what you really believe, is revealed. In addition to that, you get to see your God in action. You get to see His style, His priorities, His responses to your tactics in this battle. It’s in the midst of this battle that you’re able to see the real nature of this life. That’s when you can see how your life has been corrupted so greatly by the evil of sin. And that’s when you can see how your God is at work redeeming your life.

Now, being able to see these things, growing in understanding, is not an automatic result of this battle. There are many who suffer without growing at all in their understanding of important things. But the battle is an opportunity for that growth to happen.

Don’t take what I’m saying as an attempt to sugar coat your battles, as if I were saying that they are somehow good. They aren’t good. Sin is still evil and dealing with it can be very wearying. But God uses evil to produce good. Remember the Cross. This battling sin really is one of God’s tools that can result in you growing in your understanding of God, of yourself and of your situation. It’s a pathway to becoming a whole person.

And that’s one reason God has set up life in this way.

Now, for the practical question. So, what do you do? How do you respond to this battle? Here are a couple of things.

Lament. As you find yourself in the midst of this battle with sin, this wearying battle with sin, it’s good and right to lament, to express to God your grief at all of this. David and others do that often enough in the Psalms. And isn’t that what Paul is doing here?

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 

Wouldn’t that fit in a Psalm of lament? Never minimize the evil parts of life. Lamenting fits.

Another thing that you need to do is to continue to fight those battles. As Paul wrote here, you do serve the law of God. That is who you really are. So, you fight on so that you will serve God’s law. And that is something that you can do with great optimism. You can defeat those sins and get rid of them, one by one. So, fight on. Paul will explain how to get rid of sin in the next section of his letter. So, next time we’ll look at that to see how we can battle our sins and win.

There is one more thing to mention here. And Paul gives a quick glance at this before he moves on to that next topic.

For reasons that I’m not going to go into, Paul associates the evil of his sin with his body. And that’s why he asks this question.

Who will deliver me from this body of death?

And the answer is obvious. Jesus will. And He’ll do that at the resurrection. That’s why Paul answers his own question with this.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Some words that Paul wrote elsewhere fit here. They’re about our future resurrection bodies.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

All this will happen at the resurrection. This is when we will enjoy the victorious Christian life. This is when there will be no more sin to battle. No more suffering. No more losing to sin. No more weariness. So, another thing for you to do is to work to develop and pray for a lively hope in the age to come. As that hope develops in you, you will be able to keep fighting this battle. It is the hope of the resurrection that will keep you going.