Living With the Tension

I want to begin today by sharing a painting with you that I painted several years ago. Most of you have probably seen it before, but it’s been laying in the corner of my office for a while. It’s not the most cheerful thing, and it’s kind of abstract. Some of you may even remember what this painting represents for me, as I have shared it before relating to today’s reading from Romans.

For those who haven’t seen it before, you may note that there are three panels that make up the image, and there is a figure hanging cruciform in the middle. There are chains above each arm, but the shackles are off to the side.

What you may not know is that it didn’t start out as a reflection on Romans 7. Instead, it was the passage that helped me understand the image. It happened something like this, some time ago I was looking over some old sketches, and I found an image that repeated itself. It was a person hanging from chains at the wrists. As I had continued drawing this image over the course of several years in doodles and sketches, something began to change about it.  The shackles began to disappear from the wrists even though the person was still holding on to the chains.

A friend suggested this probably meant something on a spiritual level and that I might find meaning through scripture. Somehow God led me to this passage from Romans, and I realized that I had found my answer. The chains represented things that the figure had come to love, even if only for their familiarity. They represented patterns of behavior. They represented destructive attitudes and actions. They represented relationships and priorities that had once been helpful but had lost their meaning over time.

So, I set about one day to paint this image, and I found myself just throwing paint on it with a painter’s knife. All around the figure the fires of chaos began to swirl, and I realized that the person could be free but chose not to.

That is how I have come to understand the internal conflict that Paul has described – this conflict that seems so very personal to Paul. He uses “I” language and particularly talks about his own internal conflict, but he is also speaking to a particular people about what it means to be God’s people. Neither of these should be lost as we ponder the riddle of his words: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” 

What does it mean to us that Paul – an Apostle of Jesus Christ, the evangelist who brought the Christian faith to the gentiles – struggled in this way? It means that each of us must struggle in the same way. It means that just because we have done the best we can do to confess and turn aside from particular actions of defiance to God there is yet something within us that yearns to take us in another direction. 

Maybe it is a hunger. Maybe it is a fear. Maybe it is a desire that is disguised as a hope. Whatever it is that haunts us and gives us the desire to become self-defeating, Paul has named it as sin. And the most convenient way to interpret his words is, of course, to pass the buck and say, “Aha! See. The Devil made me do it.”

Well, not so fast. Paul tells us that he is to blame – not the law, not the devil, but Paul. Why? Because he is a human being. Because he has learned through the indwelling Spirit of God that anything he wants is tainted by the simple desire to find benefit and comfort for himself and for those he loves.

It is the same for the crowds that Jesus chastises for expecting him to dance for their tunes or join in their rituals of sorrow. It’s not that they literally want him to dance, but they certainly want him to perform. I can almost hear Jesus responding like an old guitar player I used to know who would say, “Sure, I take requests. I just don’t play ‘em.”

What I mean to say with that is that Jesus was telling them that they were getting it all wrong. What Jesus had to offer was intimacy, not empire. What Jesus came to offer was an awareness of God’s presence, and the abundance of life that comes through a shift from self-centeredness to God centeredness. He offered to them, just as he offers to us, the opportunity to be free from the burdens and worries that weigh us down – and even from the familiar things we hold onto because they give the illusion of safety.

Paul recognized these patterns in his life and cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” But then he said something more. He said, “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”

The important thing here is that he recognized the tension that he lived with. It is a tension that all people of good faith live with. It is the tension that we feel boiling up when we see videos of police brutality and also heroism. It is the tension that we feel when nationalism seems at odds with the quality of life in our nation. It is the tension that we feel when we try to reconcile our belief in a good and just and merciful God while there is terror and violence and inequality all around.

Sometimes the church seems to have no voice in these issues. I wonder if that is because we are too busy asking Jesus to dance to our rhythm rather than taking on his yoke. I know that some of you believe that social issues are fundamentally individual matters of conscience – and they certainly are – yet I believe the scriptures are constantly challenging us to go a step further.

There are problems in this world, and even in our community, that will exist whether we talk about them or not. And if we do not, they certainly won’t get better. The beautiful thing is that we are called to let go of the burden of expecting ourselves to fix it, and pick up the yoke that guides us through our work together. And that yoke is none other than the call to gentleness and humility.

Jill Duffield, the Editor of the Presbyterian Outlook magazine says it this way:
“Gentleness and humility make the difference in which yoke we wear and what burdens we bear or place on others. Gentleness keeps judgment at bay and humility contains the relentless pursuit of self-justification. It is hard to roll our eyes and make fun of others when we are keenly aware of our own failings and shortcomings. Gentleness opens us to empathy and humility reminds us of our constant need to learn. Gentleness and humility invite us to rest from the exhausting work of appearing invincible… Gentleness and humility allow us to stop scrutinizing ourselves and others and they free us to see and hear Jesus.”

So then, Beloved of God, let us live into this tension together. Let us lay down all that separates us from God and one another, and let us give thanks to God for the tension of faith that holds us together even as sin seeks to tear us apart. For in the tension of faith, we will find rest for our souls – even here, even now, Amen.

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