The Inner Conflict (7/3/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Today’s sermon involves two great Bible passages, one from Paul’s letter to the Romans and the other from the Gospel of Matthew. There are 27 books in the New Testament, and Paul is credited with writing 13 of them, each in the form of a letter. Scholars argue that Paul actually wrote only seven of those letters, and that the other six were written by followers of Paul who signed his name to their own letters. But that’s a story for another day.
All scholars agree that the passage we’ll examine this morning was written by Paul himself, in what most consider to be Paul’s most important letter—his letter to the Romans. This letter is different from all the other letters of Paul. Paul’s other writings consist of letters he wrote to individual churches that he himself had started. Typically, Paul lived in a city for a couple of years, supporting himself by making leather goods. Over time, as he preached and talked with his customers, he would establish a church in that community. After the church was going strong, Paul would move on to another community, where he would do the same. Paul’s friends sometimes visited him and reported on the progress of the various churches he had started. Often those churches were having problems, and Paul would write a letter to the people of that particular church, hoping to straighten them out.
This has caused a lot of problems for those who insist on reading every word of the Bible as the literal and unchangeable truth of God. For example, after Paul left the church in Corinth, that congregation came to interpret Paul’s message as meaning that God loved them so much, there was nothing they could do that would make God upset with them. They need not follow any of the laws of the Bible—Jesus Christ had freed them from the law.
On the other hand, the church in Galatia, after Paul’s departure, came to believe that they must adhere to every little nuance of the biblical laws, including all 613 laws from the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Paul wrote very different letters to those two churches. To oversimplify things, he told the Corinthians they should pay attention to the laws of the Bible, and he told the Galatians they need not be all that concerned with those biblical laws.
The point is, each letter was addressing a specific situation—but not the letter to the Romans. Paul had never been to Rome when he wrote his letter to the Roman church. He did not start that church. So in his letter to the Romans, Paul is not addressing the particular problems of a particular congregation. In this letter he talks very broadly about the Christian faith, and that is why it is such an important letter.
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That is a long—but I think necessary—build-up to today’s text from Romans—a text called the inner conflict. Much to the consternation of some of my seminary professors, I used to call this passage “Paul’s psychotic breakdown.” I’ll read the passage, and I hope you will listen carefully to all the Pauls that are involved in this little text. There seems to be at least three—the good Paul, the bad Paul, and a third Paul who is looking deep inside himself and observing with great confusion both the good and bad Paul. This is from the 7th chapter of Romans:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 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 that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Wow. Now there is one confused guy! It’s as if he’s tied his head up in one of those Chinese hoodoo knots—impossible to unravel, and the knot gets tighter and tighter as you try to undo it. This, truly, is a man at wits end.
Many people don’t realize what a tortured soul Paul was. I wish somebody would take his writings and seriously psychoanalyze him, because he is without a doubt one of the most interesting and complex human beings in history. Paul had a brilliant mind.
I’ve been unable to find a study comparing the thinking of Carl Jung with Paul, although it seems like a study that needs to be done, both for the sake of Christianity and psychology. Paul looks deep inside and sees the good Paul and the bad Paul doing battle in the depths of his psyche. The great psychologist Carl Jung did the same thing. He recognized a dark side within himself that was almost unbearable. But these two great thinkers discovered very different solutions to the problem.
For Carl Jung, the answer was to accept and integrate his dark side into his life. Stop hiding from it. Recognize it, and become a whole person by accepting all aspects of your being. For Paul, the answer is found elsewhere in his writings. His solution is to allow the bad Paul to die, that Jesus Christ might live through him. There is no compromise. There is no integration of the good and the bad. Paul says we must die to ourselves that Jesus may live through us.
Of course, that is easier said than done. Paul remained a tortured soul. But he did ultimately come to the conclusion that in spite of that evil twin inside of himself that he could never quite shake, God loved and forgave him. Further, Paul came to understand that there was nothing he could do to be good enough for God. He could not possibly earn God’s love. It was a free gift. And that sounds a little bit like Carl Jung, who found peace by accepting himself as he was. Like I say, somebody ought to write a book on this subject, if they haven’t already.
The reason this passage from Paul has always captured my imagination is that I find life totally irrational at times. We human beings are such fragile creatures. We stand tall, and walk through life as if we’ve got it all together, as if we have all the answers. But the fact is, for the most part, we are clueless. We are in the middle of a mystery so amazing and so profound that we hardly dare to give the matter much thought. It’s easier to just stay busy. Keep moving. Walk tall.
We don’t take a lot of time for self-reflection, because we don’t want to end up like Paul—diddling our lips and wondering why we sometimes know what’s right and do what’s wrong while looking at our actions as if it were some third party who was doing all those things. It’s easier to switch on the TV and keep our minds on more mundane matters, like what some fictional television character is doing with his life. That is much easier than thinking too long and hard about our own life.
But now and then life just slaps us in the face. When I say we human beings are fragile creatures, I mean each and every one of us. We are all just one or two events from coming completely apart at the seams. And when life turns upside down, we better have some sort of powerful spiritual anchor to keep us moored to reality. That’s what Paul is looking for in that passage from Romans. He is looking for his spiritual anchor. As his world spins out of control and he tumbles head over heels in desperation, he is looking for that foundation where he can take a stand.
And Paul finds it. I left off the final line from that passage from Romans. After all that confusion and despair, and after Paul writes, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” he writes these words: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
He goes on to write about life in the spirit, saying that Jesus Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death. And true to Paul’s nature, he makes a complex argument about the nature of our freedom from sin and death through Jesus Christ. Paul was a heavy thinker.
But it is the other Bible passage for today is the real key to solving the confusion Paul finds within himself. This passage is also the key to handling all the irrational barriers life throws in all our paths from time to time. This is the passage that can untie all those Chinese hoodoo knots we tend to create in our minds. Listen to these words of Jesus, from the 11th chapter of Matthew:
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will… ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
What a great passage! There is no knot into which we can tie our minds that Jesus can’t untie with a single word. Relax! All we need do is surrender to Jesus—to take his yoke upon ourselves. But what is this yoke? If you look up the word yoke in the dictionary you discover it is a type of harness used to join together two animals, usually draft animals like oxen. It forces them to move and work together as they pull their load.
Jesus says, 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ Jesus is asking us to yoke ourselves to him; to think like he thinks; to act like he acts. And how amazing it is that the one we call the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ—the one in whose name two million people worship—he did not spend his days debating complex theological matters. Oh, he was introspective. He spent a great deal of time in prayer. He loved to go off by himself and spend time alone with God. But he didn’t stay on the mountain top. His inner journey led him to the very love that was calling him into being, the very love that holds the universe together, and he came down from the mountain. He came down from the mountain and poured that love he found deep within himself all over the crazy and hurting world in which he lived.
And he did so joyfully, and fearlessly. We too often envision Jesus as some dour, serious martyr, stoically facing the terrible death he knows God has planned for him. But Jesus enjoyed the banquet. He enjoyed gathering with friends around the table and eating, and drinking, and finding joyful abundance in life. He himself admitted that he was often accused of being a glutton and a winebibber—a drunk. He surely was no drunk, but he just as surely enjoyed breaking bread and sharing wine with his friends.
So when he says that our burden will be light when we yoke ourselves to him, what burden is it that we are asked to bear? If we are yoked to Jesus like a pair of oxen, what load is it that we are asked to pull?
Isn’t it simply the burden of caring? Isn’t the load a Christian must bear simply the pain that comes from being unable to turn away from the despair of others? And in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that an awfully easy burden to bear, since it is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives?
What a great religion. Seriously! Christianity is a great religion. What are we asked to do as Christians, really? We are not asked to martyr ourselves. We are not asked to turn away from all life’s joy and immerse ourselves in the misery of the world. We are not asked to turn inside ourselves and spend our days in silent contemplation. In fact, Jesus said that he came into this world so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Abundant life! Life filled with joy, and laughter; with friends, and love.
And we are challenged to confront the evils of this world without losing that joy in our hearts. There is enough food. People should not go hungry. There is enough wealth. People should not have to sleep in the streets. God has given us all the resources we need to take this world of ours, which is undoubtedly on a perilous course, and make it a much better place.
We have plenty of everything, with the possible exception of love. We human beings have the brains, and the resources, and the talent to solve the most pressing problems we face. The only thing that seems to be lacking is love—enough love to make us willing to use our brains, and resources, and talents in a way that leads to abundant life for all God’s children.
And that’s where we come in—Christians. That’s why we’re here. None of us can change the world by ourselves. All we can do is bind ourselves to one another—for strength—and to Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. And together, we can bring a lot of love into this hurting world, while our inner conflicts melt away into simple joy.