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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible - Romans
I Don't Do What I Want To Do

Romans 7:15-25

Ideas. Pure ideas. Not history. Not parables, miracles, and anecdotes from Jesus’ life. Not one of these gospel stories about Jesus’ life is found in the book of Romans. Not one story. Just ideas. Just pure ideas in the book of Romans.  Also, in the book of Romans,  there is not one story about the life of the Apostle Paul as found in the book of Acts. Not one story about Paul’s life in the book of Romans. Again, all there is … is ideas. And these ideas are about Christ, who is the mind and heart and incarnation of God.

Today’s sermon focuses on one fundamental idea that is found in Romans, chapter seven. And this chapter has become a favorite. You know, a favorite like John 3:16, for God so loved the world. Or a favorite like Psalm 23, the Lord is my shepherd. Or a favorite like I Corinthians 13, if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love. Similarly, Romans 7 is enormously popular because the idea and ideas in Romans 7 are so true about human nature. 

“I do not understand my own actions because I do not do what I want to. But I do the very thing that I hate. … I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that 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 who does it but the sin that dwells within me. … Wretched person that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death, from this life of sin? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And we love Romans 7 because this chapter is so accurate in its description of our human nature.

Some stories about this idea:

Recently, I saw an old friend who belonged to this congregation. He since has moved out to Gig Harbor. His name is Larry. When I see Larry, I always remember an old story about Larry which will be forever associated with him. Larry was one of these people who would always go into the refrigerator late at night and make one of those large, creamy chocolate sundaes with whip cream and nuts. In the quiet of the night, when his wife was not around to nag, when his children were not around to see, when the dog was curled up and fast asleep on the rug in the family room, Larry would slip out into the quiet of the night and the quiet of the kitchen to indulge his sweet tooth. As with so many of us, that does have broadening consequences, and Larry’s body was starting to broaden ever so slowly and surely. Like most of us, Larry wanted to get control of his habit. He knew that he was addicted to ice cream, sugar, chocolate and nuts, and so he did what a lot of us have threatened to do. Larry went and bought a chain and padlock. Yes, he actually chained the refrigerator shut, padlocked it, and then gave the key to his wife. He is the only person that I know who has actually done this.  Later, in the darkness of the night, his wife heard this chain rattling out there on the refrigerator. She could hear her husband mumbling and cursing under his breath that he had given the keys to the padlock to his wife. She gradually fell asleep again and woke up the next morning to find what seemed to be claw marks on her refrigerator door. Her husband had been desperate the night before.

O yes, we laugh. We know that it is fundamentally true: that which I don’t want to do, is precisely what I do. We understand what the Apostle Paul is talking about.

I am forever on a diet and my wife makes a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies. She suggests to have one cookie. So I do. I have one …  handful.

A friend tells the story that she came home from a Bible study at church. Her husband asked where she had been and she reported that she was at a Bible study at church. He said, “Again?” In her defensiveness, she attacked him with words, “You always go golfing with your friends. Or fishing.” On further reflection, she asked herself “why?” “Why did I need to verbally attack the person I deeply love? My animal nature, my animal instincts, just took over.”

I would like to tell you a parable which picks up the same theme. I will call the little boy, Billie. He was the same little boy that I told about in the children’s sermon this morning. Billy was about five years old and six year old sister was building a tower out of blocks. Billie knew that he should NOT have pulled out that little red block that was at the base of the tower. He knew it was wrong. He knew that he would get a spanking. He knew that he would be in big trouble. He knew is would be a disaster in the family. But did that stop Billie from pulling the red block out from the tower of blocks? No. Little Billie just reached in there, grabbed that little red block, pulled it out, and the tower collapsed immediately, blocks all over the place. His sister cried, yelled, and created a scene just like he knew she would, but Billie still did it. Why? Because of that power of sin, something inside of him wanting to do it.

So Billie grew up a little more, and Billie grew to sixteen years old, perhaps seventeen, and was known as Bill. Bill started dating a nice girl by the name of Cheri. They had been going steady now for six months and they would go and park in his car in some nice secluded spot. They would turn on the radio, turn off the ignition, began kissing and then making out more intensely. Bill was a Christian and he wanted to do what was right. He knew that he did not want to go past a certain line. He knew it was wrong. He knew the possible devastation and the nasty consequences for everybody. He knew he should not do it but there was something inside of him that pulled him past of the line of what he thought was the proper boundaries. He knew that there could be devastating consequences but he still went ahead and did it anyhow.

Years went by. Bill got married. In fact, Bill married Cheri. The two of them got married and they had been married now for fifteen years. Love had begun to wane between Bill and Cheri. They no longer felt like they used to. Now, Bill wanted to love Cheri. Honest to God. He really wanted to lover her. He wanted to love her with the same love that he had years ago. But there was something inside of him that got in the way when he wanted to say, “I love you, Honey.”  There was something that got in the way of his saying those loving words to a woman who wanted to hear those loving words from him. He wanted to do what was right by her, but the good that he wanted to do, he could not do because of something inside that got in the way. And Bill did not want to be drawn to that other woman that he kept watching out of the corner of his eye. He knew it was wrong, but he kept on letting himself be attracted to her.

Well, time went on and Bill had other struggles. Bill continued to wrestle with feeling good about himself. He had struggle with lingering feelings of inferiority. He was a walking inferiority complex, and he would get around certain kinds of people and he would feel inferior. Around dentists. You certainly would have guessed he had an inferiority complex. The way he walked. The way he talked. The way he looked. He looked like he was filled with self confidence. But … Around doctors. Around dentists. Around lawyers. Around people who were rich, mechanical or talented, Bill would find these feelings of inferiority blooming and blossoming again and again.  Here he was, a mature human being, so he thought about himself, in his sixties. He should be over those juvenile feelings. But when he would get around certain kinds of people, he would again have feelings of inadequacy. He didn’t want to have those feelings. He would say to himself, “Now, I am not to feel this way. When I get with that person, I am not going to feel inferior.” He would get with these people and they would start to talk about their wealth, their jobs, their high level of education, and once again, Bill would feel inferior.  Bill wanted to do what was right; he wanted to feel inside what was right; but the good that Bill wanted to feel and do, he could not. Even when he told himself over and over again what he needed to do and feel.

Now, we all recognize the patterns within Bill. Bill is you. Bill is me. When the Bible says that which I want to do, I do not do; and that which I don’t want to do, is precisely what I end up doing.” We all know how true this is. The exact scripts may vary with each of us, but the stories of our lives are closely similar.

Wasn’t it said in some comic strip, “We met the enemy and the enemy is us.”  Or another author said  that we have a civil war going on inside of us. Not a war going on between two different nations but a war within our inner person.

I like that story about Victor Hugo who wrote that famous story called Les Miserables which has become a favorite musical for many of us. Victor Hugo was a writer, an author, and he was supposed to write every morning but something would get inside of him and get in the way. He would walk the roads, work in the garden, putter around the house, but do anything other than write which he was supposed to do. So Victor Hugo asked his servant to take away his clothes every night, so he would be forced to stay in his room in the morning and write. We laugh and we laugh because we all understand how true it is of us.

In preparation for the sermon for today, I telephoned Dr. Douglas Anderson, a close friend and professional counselor in the parish, and told him I was working on Romans 7 and the theme, “that which I want to do I do not do, and that which I do not want to do is precisely what I do.” Does he have any insights about Romans 7 based on his own personal or professional life? … “O yes. I know that passage well. In my line of work as a counselor, I talk to many people who are stuck. They are stuck in a rut. They have intentions to act in a certain way but their actual experiences contradict their intentions. They have these good intentions to love a neighbor or a spouse, but they look at their actual experiences and track record. They says, “I have not done what I intended to do. I am stuck in a rut: I have good intentions but I do not do them.”  ‘There is this clash between intentions and reality. We human beings are so full of self-contradictions: wanting to do what is right but not doing it.

Dr. Anderson also said, “This is true for me personally and not just professionally. I have a list of things that I was going to change when I was in my twenties and when I am in my sixties, the list is pretty much the same.”  That is true for me. That is true for you. And a man in his eighties came out of the last service and grumbled something that the issues that haunted him sixty years ago still haunt him today.

So I asked myself about my own personal life and the civil wars going on in me. I have come up with the following observations about this inner civil war. I do want to be more spiritual. Honest, I am your pastor. I am one of your spiritual leaders. I do want to pray and have a closer walk with God. I want to have a deeper interior with God. When I wake up in the morning, I want to be able to sit down and pray, read the Bible. When I go walking, I want to concentrate on my prayers and not have so many random thoughts come wiggling in between my sentences of prayers. What do I do? First thing in the morning, my feet hit the floor and I am out and my mind is racing around and busy. I go for a walk and I go barely a half of a block and I cannot focus totally on God. I keep on listening to all of these thoughts in my mind that come creeping in to my brain and then racing around. I want to do what is right. I actually require my confirmation students to pray and read daily. But do I do it? That which I want to do, I confess to you, I don’t do.

Another sample of the civil war. Throughout my life, I have wanted to live a simpler life style, as a means of identifying with the poor and the oppressed on the world. I have wanted to sell our home, sell all of our possessions, and move into a small plain house and live with very simple resources. I want to be able to organize my life so we can give forty to fifty percent of our income to God’s work with the poor. Honestly, that is what I want to do. But what do I do? The same thing that I have done for the past thirty years. And I find myself accumulating more junk around the house. And percentage wise, I give no more to the poor than I used to several years ago. I want to do what I perceive to be right, to do what I perceive is God’s will for our lives, but do I do it? No. What is wrong?

Another sample of the civil war. I want to eat more simply. As you can see by looking at me, I don’t. I want to get off the ice cream addiction. I want to be a vegetarian. Yes, I want to enjoy a meal of all vegetables and lettuce with no beef. Really. That is what I would really like: to love all vegetables. I want to get off the starch and off the salt and off the sugar, and I want to get up in the morning and do my back exercises. But do I do it? Is that what I do? No, not at all. Even though I know that it would be good for me.

Another same of the civil war in myself. I am happily married, for forty years now, and my wife is here today, and so it is uncomfortable for me to say that I look lustfully at certain women. Jimmie Carter, when he was President of the United States and also the most famous Bible teacher in the Baptist church, made the front page of TIME magazine by confessing he still had feelings of lust, even though happily married. He didn’t want to have such feelings. Neither do I. Neither do you. But in reality, we have them.

So I come to the conclusion: what kind of a Christian am I anyhow? I must not be a very good Christian. I must be a weak Christian. I must be a compromising Christian. I must be a sinful, imperfect Christian. What is wrong with me? Why are there so many contradictions living inside of me. What kind of a man is this that lives inside of me?

We all have these kinds of inner struggles within ourselves. You have yours; I have mine.

Now, who is it that wrote these words? “That which I want to do, I do not do. And that which I hate to do is exactly what I do.”  Who is it that wrote these words? Was it some seventeen year old kid who was off parked with his girlfriend one night and he  discovered his hormones were stronger than the Holy Spirit?  Was it some newly “born again” Christian who was a recent Christian convert? Was this written by some TV evangelist who pompously parades around on some platform,  preaching and pretending, that all of these temptations have left him?

We all know that the man who wrote these words was the Apostle Paul. Here he was at the very high point of his life. Fifty-five to sixty-five years old; a mature Christian; he had been a Christian for some twenty to twenty-five years. Here was the Apostle Paul who prayed fervently, who worked mighty miracles, who wrote numerous letters to the churches. Here was Paul who spoke courageously before governments, kings, and rulers. Here was Paul who was tossed into prison, beaten and stoned. Here was Paul, the most mature person of the Christ-centered life, at the high point of his Christian, at the top of his game, at the top of his A game (to use an analogy from golf) saying, “I don’t get it. I do not get it. I do the things that I hate. And the very things that I want to do, I don’t do. That which I don’t want to do, I do. What is wrong with me? What a wretched person?” 

And then it begins to dawn on us that one of the marks of a mature Christian is the awareness of this struggle with evil in your life. One of the marks of a mature Christian is this honest awareness about who are, honest about this civil war within us. It is to struggle with evil until your dying day. We all struggle. We all say to ourselves, “O wretched person that I am.”

Or perhaps have you outgrown this? Have you become so mature, so holy? Is your life so together, so you have finally arrived at the point where you say, “I am just fine. I am not life the Apostle Paul. You say inside, “Wretched are those other people. I have won the battle with my sin; I have conquered my sinful self and my civil war.”

According to the Apostle Paul, a mark of a mature Christian is that a person continues to struggle with sin until your dying day. This is not a sign of Christian immaturity,  not a sign of Christian weakness, not a sign of Christian double mindedness and doubt. This is a mark of a real Christian who lives in a real world and has real feelings inside and real awareness of himself or herself. Yes, we know that we struggle with it.

So here we are. The Apostle Paul, at the very top of his life, at the top of his game, at the very apex of his Christian life, when he was writing the finest letter that he had ever written, he says, “What is wrong with me? How come? The very good that I want to do, I do not do. That which I don’t want to do, is precisely what I do.” The Apostle Paul, who was the most mature Christian in his era, was writing these words.

But … is that all there is? That we struggle with sin? No, not at all. That is Romans, chapter seven. Chapter seven sets the table for chapter eight. Chapter seven is a prelude for chapter eight. At the end of chapter seven, he adds the transitional verse: “Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord.” If you move into Romans, chapter eight, you will discover Paul talking about the power of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit that comes into your life and gives you strength. He talks about the Holy Spirit who helps you get over your alcoholism, your drug addictions. He talks about the Holy Spirit who helps you get control of those destructive behaviors that are hurting your family, your marriage, yourself and hurting you in so many different ways. Paul talks about the Holy Spirit coming into you and strengthening you and helping you to do what is right. He talks about the Holy Spirit, forgiving you through the death of Christ on the cross.

Romans 8 is one of the fines chapters in the Bible. In this summer sermon series, I have preached one sermon on chapter three, one on chapter four, one on chapter five, one on chapter six, one on chapter seven; but when we get to chapter eight next week, there will be five sermons on one chapter. Romans 8 is one of the grandest chapters of the Bible.

But meanwhile, back at the ranch, based on chapter seven, we remain sinners. At the same time, we remain with our self-contradictions.  Even after you have memorized all the verses of chapter eight; even after you have assimilated chapter eight; even after you have put chapter eight into practice in your life, chapter seven still stands.  You still live with the truth from chapter seven. You never can escape the civil war inside of you.

Martin Luther understood this well, when he used this Latin phrase that sounds like this: “simil Justus epecator.” It was a very famous phrase during the Reformation. Simil Justus Epecator.” Simultaneously, saint and sinner. Simultaneously, when you are a saint, you are also a sinner. This phrase is true. You, as a Christian, are going to struggle with the sin inside of you until your dying day. That is just the way it is.

I have it figured out. The foolish religious-type said: “Tomorrow, I am going to start again. There will be a new leaf tomorrow. Turning over a new chapter in my life I am going to get up and roll out of bed and before my feet hit the floor, I’m going to pull out the Bible and read and pray for an hour. And then tomorrow morning, I am going to have a vegetarian breakfast, then a vegetarian lunch and then a vegetarian dinner. Tomorrow night, late, about midnight, when everybody is asleep, when the wife is asleep and the children are not watching and the dog is asleep by the fireplace, I am going to sneak into the refrigerator and just … pig out on a bowl … full of vegetables. Amen.

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