Why can’t we do the good we so desperately want to do?

What frustrated Paul so much was not being able to do what he so desperately wanted to do – and isn’t that the problem that frustrates all of us? In our inner beings we’d love to do good and make our world a better place. Barack Obama’s stirring call “Yes, we can!” struck a real chord, because “Yes,” we’d love to make a difference.

We see it in our huge drive of late to “go green.” We’d love to band together to save the planet, reduce pollution, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and make the Earth beautiful, livable and able to renew itself – but – our efforts are constantly being hampered by the self-interests of governments, large corporations and people who put their own lusts ahead of the right thing to do. It’s so frustrating. We want to end poverty and disease, make cities safe, see girls get the same opportunity as boys, but there’s always something holding us back, be it weird religion, stifling tradition, power-hungry maniacs who care for no one but themselves – and our own personal excuses, too.  

Our experience as humans tells us so clearly we have a problem: We want to do good but we just can’t do it. Paul discovered the same thing happening in himself, too: “In my mind I’m a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin,” Romans 7:25. In his mind he desperately wanted to do good, but there was this other power inside him constantly working against him making the good he wanted to do so difficult. It was always an uphill battle, just as it is today trying to get anything good going that would improve life on this planet.

If only the entire world realized, then, that “Yes, we can” do the good we so desperately want to do because God sent Jesus to make it possible. How? By dying for us, first of all, because his death “condemned sin in sinful man,” Romans 8:3, literally knocking the legs out from under our sinful nature, releasing us from its grip. He also gave us his Spirit – and it’s this marvellous “Spirit of Christ” (verse 9) that “gives life to your mortal bodies” (verse 11).

What gives life to our desire to do good and make it possible is Christ’s Spirit living in us, because “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body,” verse 13. It’s the Spirit in us that keeps the legs of our sinful nature knocked out, so that finally, at last, “Yes, we can” do the good we so desperately want to do. 

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Why should one man’s sin wreck things for all of us?

The monster within us, this sinful nature we’ve got that has us completely captive to “sin and death,” was in for a shock when God sent Jesus.

Up to that moment, it had complete freedom to do whatever it wanted with us, because anything we threw at it was useless. Our determination to obey God’s law, for instance, only gave our sinful nature more ammunition to condemn us, because all the law did was show us, to our embarrassment, just how many laws we were breaking, and our powerlessness to keep them all. Our efforts were no more effective than shooting paintballs at a tank. The law, even God’s law, had no impact on our sinful nature whatsoever. It rolled on regardless, without a dent in sight. It was unstoppable.

Until, that is, God sent Jesus to be a “sin offering,” Romans 8:3, the effect of which must have startled our sinful nature as it frolicked away inside our heads, because Jesus’ sin offering “condemned sin in sinful man.” It was like a massive great fly swat swishing out of nowhere, whacking our sinful nature to the wall. But how was Jesus able to do that for everybody? How was he able to get inside everyone’s head with the fly swat, hunt down the monster and destroy it?

Paul explains how in Romans 5:12, 19 – “Therefore just as sin entered the world through one man…so also through the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous.” Since sin came into the world by one man, it can also be destroyed by one man. So, anyone saying it wasn’t fair that Adam’s sin condemned us all, would also have to say it’s not fair that Jesus’ sacrifice saved us all, too. But God is fair, because in both cases it’s one for one: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” verse 15.  

“Consequently,” verse 18, “just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” Jesus’ sin offering covers everyone who ever sinned since Adam. The power of sin, that gave our sinful nature control over us, has been broken. Neither it, nor the law, can condemn us any longer, Romans 8:1.

So what’s not fair about one man’s sin wrecking things for all of us, when one man’s righteousness put things right for us too?   

Can we save ourselves by keeping God’s law?

Paul was probably looked up to as a good man before he became a Christian, because he was “a slave to God’s law,” Romans 7:25. His obedience to God’s law was immaculate, not a thread out of place, which made him a paragon of virtue among his peers.

But that was only the outward image of himself that he presented to others. Inside his head, meanwhile, a battle raged, because for all his dedication to God’s law he also had to admit that “in the sinful nature I’m a slave to the law of sin.” Outwardly, he knew he looked good, and sounded good too. But the effort it took to maintain that image was excruciatingly painful, because he knew it was all a sham, a fake image of himself that told nothing of the real thoughts going on in his head.   

From a distance he probably looked fine, though. He wasn’t reeling like a drunk or waving his arms around and yelling obscenities. He could walk and talk quite normally, which gave the appearance of a man under complete control of himself. But he knew he wasn’t in control of himself at all. His law-keeping kept his outward actions under control, but it couldn’t control his thoughts. He was having a terrible battle, therefore, keeping up his public image.

But the battle taught him that “what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his Son,” Romans 8:3. Paul now knew by hard experience that keeping God’s law wasn’t the means to making a man good through and through. It required more, and that’s when Paul came to realize it was never in God’s plan for his law to save us, because we humans have a nature far too powerful for any law to contain.

It was never up to us, then, to reel in this monster in our heads, wrestle it to the ground and stab it to death. God sent Jesus to do that for us. But HOW could Jesus do that for us? By coming “in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering,” verse 3. Jesus would come to this planet as one of us, take upon himself and into himself the awful raging mess of thoughts that we humans are, and kill it on the cross, so that no longer would we have to be slaves to the law of sin or have our sinful nature messing up our thoughts again.

The law could never do that for us, but Jesus could.  

The old way of the Law (part 4)

Why are people you meet constantly moaning about their lot in life, judging other people for how they dress or how they talk, or worrying themselves to death about their family, their health, their finances and the future of the Free World? None of their complaining, judging or worrying helps them, and it doesn’t help anyone who has to listen to them prattling on either. So why do it? 

Paul has a shocking surprise for them. It’s because of this “other law at work, waging war against the law of my (their) mind,” Romans 7:23. And this law is so powerful you can’t just shove the wretched creature out into the street because, unfortunately, it’s part of us. Wherever we go, it’s always there in the passenger seat, babbling its insanity into our heads.

And before Paul became a Christian, that was life for him too. And it came to boiling point eventually. He couldn’t stand it any longer, and he burst out in verse 24 with, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” 

And that’s the question, isn’t it? – when we discover, to our horror, that we’ve never actually been in control of our lives at all, and human beings are really nothing more than robots in the hands of this other creature, who can manoeuvre us in whatever direction it wishes. We can totally hate the thoughts this other creature makes us think, but its thoughts just keep popping into our heads – and there’s never a day we can stop them. And if we try to think right thoughts instead, it only stirs up the wretched creature even more.

It is horrible realizing, as Paul eventually realized as well, that we live in a “body of death.” What a horrible situation to be in, living inside a body that isn’t the least bit interested in preserving us, or in any way making life turn out for the best for us. it’s mad. It’s completely insane, nuts from top to bottom, because all it wants to do is make life miserable for us, make us critical, negative and ready for a fight at the slightest provocation, and it doesn’t care one bit if we come off worse in a scrap or destroy a relationship by saying something stupid. It hates us! No wonder Paul cried out, “Help, please, anyone, get me out of this body that’s out to kill me!”

And at that point, when he knew there was nothing he could do to help himself, he found the help he was looking for ….. (continues in “The new way of the Spirit”) 

The old way of the Law (part 3)

For all his great knowledge of God’s law, and despite his great desire to keep it, Paul realized he was nothing but a puppet on a string. He was constantly being manipulated by forces within him that he had no control over. The shock of it was horrible. Wherever he went, he said, “I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me,” Romans 7:21

And the more he tried to obey God’s law, the worse it got. He’d try to think good thoughts, try to keep his emotions under control, try to do the right thing, but it was hopeless. Up would pop these evil thoughts in his head, appearing out of nowhere, messing up his relationships and messing up his day. And there was no escaping them either, verses 22-23, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work….waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin.”  

A law at work? That worked every time like gravity? Yes. He’d set out in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, determined to put in a good day full of good thoughts and good actions – all in obedience to God’s law – and what would happen? By the end of the day, if he was able to play back on screen his every thought and action, it would be embarrassing. Up would come scene after scene of this other law at work in his mind, constantly taking him prisoner to its thoughts instead.   

And it never let up, either. He couldn’t view other people without comparing himself to them, and he only felt good if he came off looking good in every encounter. it was disheartening. It was all self, self, self. Self-interest, self-gratification, self-esteem, self-confidence – the focus was so on himself. And he hated it. But he couldn’t do anything about it. The incessant selfish babble in his head never stopped.  

It was like being stuck in a car with a passenger who never stops talking, never stops pointing out other people’s faults, never stops thinking the world revolves around him, and never for a moment wants to know what you’re thinking. You look grimly ahead, desperately hoping for the journey to end, but on and on it goes. So now what? If dedicated obedience to God’s law hadn’t given Paul the power to subdue this creature inside his head, what on earth would instead? …. (continues in Part 4)