Wishing I Could Do Better
I want to ask those of you who are parents a question. And it doesn’t matter whether your children are still babies, or in school, or in college, or grown and gone and maybe have their own kids. The question is this, “How many of you who are parents would say that parenthood changed you?” How many of you would say that parenthood brought out some unbelievable good that was in you that you had no idea was there? Like how many of you found that you found capacities for love and joy that you didn’t know existed before you had kids? And how many of you would say that parenthood has shone the light on some incredible ugliness inside you that has come out at times that you had no idea was there? I’ve often said that being a parent is at the same time the greatest joy and the biggest heartache and challenge and frustration all rolled into one.
Nancy Ortberg, wife of pastor and author John Ortberg, who is herself a fantastic teacher and often fills in for John in the pulpit, said this about her experience of motherhood:
“A transformation occurred in me with the birth of my children. I traded in that professional look for sweatpants. I found myself at the park with my children, looking at working women and thinking, I’d like to be doing that.
But the transformation went deeper than trading my business suit for a pair of sweatpants. There was something else going on when I had children. I knew my life had been invaded by God in a way in which I would never be the same. With the birth of each of my children, there emerged from within me this person I had never met, a person whom I liked very much—this loving, caring, nurturing woman. And I watched her, amazed.
There was another transformation that occurred. Another person emerged who was not as attractive, who was frazzled and angry and impatient. And I was in amazement as I watched her. It was a sort of Jekyll and Hyde split – a creature that came out of me who was wonderful, and a creature that I didn’t know.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, Jekyll and Hyde, he starts his story with a quote: “I stood already committed to the profound duplicity of life, that humankind is not truly one but two. And that these polar twins should be continuously struggling. One of these polar twins, who was the Mr. Hyde character, bore the stamp of the lower elements in my soul.”
I found that there was a polarity in motherhood. In the transformation a struggle emerged.
In her book Ourselves as Mothers, Sheila Kissinger, a social anthropologist, writes:
Becoming a mother is a biological process, but it is also a social transformation, and one of the most dramatic that a woman may experience. The home is supposed to be a haven of love and good feelings. Thus it comes as a great disappointment to many women when it proves not to be so for them. For home is also a place where the ugliest and most destructive emotions are experienced, where there is disturbing interpersonal conflict, and inside four walls these raw feelings are concentrated and mixed together as if in a pressure cooker. She hates what she has become. Happy as a woman may be to have a baby, and although she may enjoy being a mother, she must now pay the price of motherhood: the total and virtual annihilation of self.
Fatherhood changes dads too. Well, I’m not sure if parenthood causes these changes or if it just applies the pressure that brings them out, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Because the truth is that there is a little bit of Jekyll and Hyde in each one of us. In each one of us a battle between good and evil, between righteousness and sin is waging. There has never been a human being in which that battle wasn’t being fought. Even St. Paul, the Holy Spirit-inspired author of most of the New Testament, knew that battle, and he describes it in Romans 7:14-25. Open your Bibles and turn there with me now.
READ TEXT. Before we dig in to this passage, we need to understand something about it. This is easily the most controversial passage in Romans, and one of the most controversial passages in the entire New Testament. The issue centers around who exactly is the subject here?
One view is that Paul is talking about someone who isn’t following Christ but wants to do and be good. Others think Paul is talking about a normal follower of Christ. And others think Paul is talking about a carnal Christian who isn’t really living for Christ. I think that Paul is using himself and the ongoing battle within him as an example of a normal follower of Christ. He shifts from the past tense earlier in this chapter to the present tense here, and it seems most natural to see Paul as talking about his current experience here.
So lest we think we are alone in this struggle, St. Paul describes his own experience of this internal Jekyll and Hyde struggle of the good and the evil in us. Vv. 15-16. In other words, I need restrictions to keep my behavior in line. Vv. 17-20.
Maybe Paul was a mother. He really hits the nail on the head. There is a constant struggle inside of me where a good person responds to my children, and then this creature I don’t know comes out.[i] So, if what Paul has said over and over again in Romans is true, that I have been crucified with Christ, that my sinful self was crucified in him, and I now have his resurrection life, why do I continue to struggle with sin? Why this constant Jekyll and Hyde struggle?
Because I WANT to obey God. Look at Vv. 18 and 22. When I place my faith in Christ, accepting God’s forgiveness and grace, something changes in my life. There is now something in me that wants to do what is right, that wants to obey God. There is something in me that longs to overcome the sin that so often taints even the best of intentions. Even those who have not yet come to faith in Christ want to get better, do better, improve their relationships, their behavior, their lives. Sales of motivational and inspirational self-help books have risen dramatically in recent years, up from 1.4 million books sold in 2013 to 4.3 million books sold in 2019. We long for improvement. We long to live better, to love better, to parent better, to be a better friend, a better boss, a better employee. And when we come to faith in Christ, and God begins to transform our sense of right and wrong, that longing grows.
Now there’s nothing wrong with reading inspirational books, trying to improve myself in any number of areas. But in this life or death struggle with the monster inside of me, it doesn’t matter how much skill I develop, how much discipline I manage to maintain, how many of my negative core assumptions I challenge and transform, I won’t be able to completely overcome it.
And when we come to faith in Christ, we tend to bring that self-help mentality with us. In recent decades, sermons have gone from teaching and expounding the Word of God to brief, inspirational self-help talks with a little scripture thrown in for good measure. We’re still trying to save ourselves, we’ve just added God to the mix. Add a little Jesus to the recipe and hope the outcome is better now. And that doesn’t work, because sin resists my desire to obey God very fiercely. Look at Vv. 17-18a. And then down in Vv. 21 and 23. I cannot obey Christ on my own. I mean, I don’t wake up in the morning and go, “I’m going to be a horrible parent today.” Or “I’m going to be a real jerk to my spouse today.” Or, “I’m going to betray my friend’s trust today.” I don’t go to work saying, “I’m really hope nothing goes right today and I mess a bunch of stuff up.” Most of us don’t get out of bed in the morning going, “I plan to really mess things up today.” We don’t do that. But somehow … sometimes. And most of the time, no matter how hard we try, no matter how well-intentioned I might be, something gets messed up.
John Newton, British slave-trader turned pastor and writer of the song Amazing Grace used this metaphor to describe the impact of sin on the Christian life. Imagine a Christian sitting down with a blank page and pen. He begins to write out his perfectly scripted life, explaining how he would love others, how he would structure his prayer life, or how he would [build a beautiful Christian family]. But indwelling sin and Satan crouch at his elbow, disrupting every pen stroke and messing up every word and sentence as our Christian friend tries to write the script.
At every point in the Christian life [our own flesh] and Satan jab our elbow, and our pen skids across the page as our perfect plan is reduced to scribbles. This is a metaphor of the Christian life with indwelling sin. Yet the biggest problem is that sin is not at our elbow – our sin is in us![ii] There is a constant battle going on inside me.
This battle requires far more than a little bit of spiritualized, Christianized self-help. And that’s what we so often turn to. We make rules, lists of dos and don’ts to guide us, and a dynamic faith in Christ is reduced to a list of religious rules. Once a man planted a garden and was delighted when shoots emerged. Every day he watered and weeded, and his garden grew until he was ecstatic to see plants bearing produce. However, a few days later, he went to his garden and was dismayed. Every plant showed evidence of hungry rodents and rabbits that had raided his crop. So he decided to erect a fence.
A few days later, the man again went to his garden and saw the same thing. So he put up another fence, another, and another. Every time he checked, he found vermin had raided the garden. Finally he realized critters could go over, through, or under each fence. So he built a brick wall with a deep concrete foundation.
Weeks later, he climbed the garden wall and was horrified to find it was choked with weeds. The ground was cracked, the plants wilted, and worst of all, his crop gone. Trusting in the wall’s protection, he had forgotten to tend the garden. He failed to realize the wall was blocking the sun’s rays. He also completely overlooked the greatest threat to his garden: the animals that had been inside all along.
How many of us trust in similar walls? Our carefully built boundaries erected to protect us from threats to our moral well-being, to our relationships, or simply to manage our time? Just relying on rigid systems won’t work. They may even lead us right into the sin we’re hoping to avoid.
We already have boundaries in God’s law. God’s law is good but cannot save us. If those boundaries are not enough to transform us, why do we believe our own rules will be enough to decrease our desire to sin?[iii]
St. Paul is so anguished over the nature of his own life. Look at how he cries out down in Vv. 24-25a. I want you to notice something here. I want you to notice what Paul DIDN’T do. He didn’t cry out, “What can I do about this?” What did he cry out instead? “Who will deliver me?” Who will rescue me? And then he cries out in thanksgiving to God for sending Christ. You see, both my salvation and ongoing transformation by God are gifts of grace. I cannot earn them and I don’t deserve them. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for me to DO. Far too often, we’ve turned God’s free gift of grace into cheap grace. I can’t earn it so there isn’t anything for me to do. Just sit here and ZAP, God transforms me regardless of what I do. That isn’t the case. Grace should not lead us into a passive life in Christ.
In Philippians 2:12, Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God works in you, so you work out. And in 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Work out. Discipline. Keep it under control. Does this sound like a passive spirituality, a passive discipleship to you? No! So I engage in spiritual disciplines, I worship in a community of believers, I study, I pray not because doing these things makes me acceptable in God’s sight, not as a list of rules or marks of spiritual maturity, but because they draw me deeper into a loving relationship with Christ.
Sometimes these verses have been used to justify sin and stagnation in our journey with Christ, and that isn’t Paul’s intent here. He writes to remind us that we will always be in a battle with sin, but that doesn’t mean we should just give up the fight.
I do a lot of relationship counseling. And I can give couples a list of things they should be doing to enhance their relationship. Go out on dates regularly. Make love regularly. Communicate clearly. Really listen to one another. Learn how to argue well. Avoid things like criticism and contempt. But they aren’t a checklist. They’re things couples can do because they love one another. And because they love one another, they do these things. It becomes a cycle of growth in their relationship that draws them closer to one another. If they’re just things on a to do list, the relationship won’t grow. Likewise, if I fast and pray and read because I think I’m supposed to, I might feel more religious, more spiritual, but my relationship with Christ won’t grow. I do these things to get closer to Christ.
And as I grow closer to Christ, I grow in my ability to fight sin. Will I become sinless? No. But I will sin less. I’ll get better at fighting the battle against sin. And my transformation, a gift of grace from God, will serve as a testimony to God’s goodness and mighty power. I mean, if he can do this in me, he can do it in anyone, right? The struggle itself points to the fact that God is at work in my life, that Christ is alive in me, carving out space for himself, moving things out that don’t align with his character.
Look again at Vv. 15 and 19. I WANT to obey God, but sin resists this fiercely. That’s why I cannot obey God apart from Christ, and I cannot follow Christ in my own strength. And sometimes I have to remember that the struggle itself points to God’s work in my life. Let us pray.
[i] Nancy Ortberg, in her sermon “The Jekyll and Hyde of Motherhood,” PreachingToday.com
[ii] Tony Reinke, Newton: On the Christian Life (Crossway/2015), page 112
[iii]Amy Simpson, “When Moral Boundaries Become Incubators for Sin,” CT Pastors (March, 2019)