Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions.” “I can will what is right but cannot do it!” (Romans 7:15-25) Have you ever had the experience of observing yourself do things you know will harm to yourself or others? Have you ever lived in the place between knowing what is good and doing what is good? I have a lot.
Now I know that this is crazy. But if you have ever denied truth by delaying action in your own life, then you understand how it can seem perfectly reasonable at the time. If you have ever told yourself that -- you will stop drinking, tomorrow; you will spend time with your loved one tomorrow; you will take that stand for justice tomorrow; finish that assignment tomorrow; go to the gym tomorrow; send in that check tomorrow; ask for forgiveness tomorrow ... And you also might understand why that song from the musical Annie, is such a huge hit, “Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love you tomorrow! You’re always a day away.”
It is self-deception, of course. All we ever have is now. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I will what is right, but cannot do it.” Paul was not writing about: diet, exercise, health, prayer practice, anger management, addiction interventions, productivity, interpersonal relationships, consumption, contribution to society, or reduction of one’s carbon footprint. But Paul did write about the nature of human beings and therefore wrote about all these and more.
“I have left undone those things I ought to have done and have done those things I ought not to have done.” Good intentions are not enough to help us choose the good. Knowing what is good is not enough. Laws or rules of behavior are not enough. Trying harder does not help. Denying does not help. Seeking answers outside us to challenge and change does not help. Blaming or punishing others does not help. Recognizing, accepting, and owning our struggle is a beginning. And asking for help is the first step. Paul wrote, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (v.24)”
One of my favorite hymns begins – “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” This hymn was written by a slave ship captain, John Newton, who repented his sin and changed his life. He wrote these words in the context of his history and conversion. I sing “Amazing Grace,” knowing that I am wretched as well as knowing that I am a beloved child of God with the image of God stamped upon my heart. I fall short in so many ways... lost between knowing what is good and doing what is good... found again and again by God’s grace. Paul did not teach against the law. The law guides and contains struggles without and within. But Paul testified that even when he persecuted Christians in Jerusalem, he was following the law! Paul’s life was changed on the road to Damascus on his way to find and punish followers of Christ. Paul’s encounter with the crucified and risen Christ on the road to Damascus changed his life. Christians who cared for him, and forgave him transformed Paul’s life. Law does not change lives. Relationships change lives.
We need not be undone by the wrongs we commit or the good that we leave undone. But at the same time, we must not hide from honest admission of our failure and our need to ourselves, to others, and to God. We need not let shame or guilt or regret, or messages of hate, or structures of injustice keep us from the good news that deep within and through it all every child of God is created in God’s image and precious in God’s sight.
As we left the half of the year and as we have faced the rest of the half of the year, ours is a God of second chances and third and fourth and fifth and seventy times seven. God’s love and grace are new every morning. Amen.
By Pastor Eun-Joo Myung, Patterson Federated Church. Sermon Notes is a column by local religious leaders.