Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Natural Behavior: Romans 7

The most frequent excuse for our behavior is this: “It’s just natural!” Whether it is in the refrain of “Kids will be kids” or “I just couldn’t help myself,” typically we find our desire to cover up by blaming others just comes, well, naturally. The response is often that we should exercise more self-control, but Paul’s argument in Romans 7 is that self-control is useless, unless the self has changed.

Take a read through the passage. Sin is the owner and driver of human nature. Behavior that is ‘natural’ is not automatically good, and can in fact be quite bad. This can apply across the spectrum of human behavior—just because you like it and it comes naturally does not mean you should do it.

After all, I’ve yet to meet a gluten-allergic person who actually hated bread. Just ones for whom the ingredients were toxic but who had a love for it. Same with many other problem-raising behaviors: most of the time, it feels good. It’s the after-effect that kills us.

The difficult is that in the spiritual realm, it is not enough to reject the doing of sin by living according to the Law of God. Unlike learning to abstain from gluten or avoiding peanuts, or always carrying your Epi-Pen in case something slips past, we start off with the toxic effects. The Law only serves to demonstrate just how many ways we have this problem.

Seeing the Law as the source of the problem is like blaming cardiologists for congenital heart defects: it’s just the messenger, not the cause. Rather, we are born with the problem. It will, eventually, kill us. Some of us may exacerbate the difficulty by piling on issues, but it will get us all in the end.

The solution is not to act naturally. The solution is to change natures. This is where we are in Romans 7:4. Our old natures are not just to be controlled. Instead, they are to be put to death with Christ.

Then, by the settled work of Jesus at the Cross, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made alive to live based on what is His nature, not ours. We still struggle with falling into our habits, falling back into what was once natural.

We can see that when we learn new things—consider handwriting. Consider my handwriting. It’s awful. Why? Because I learned to write with a broken arm, and have only lately begun to try and retrain myself. I still handwrite with my elbow locked at 90 degrees. I look foolish, and it’s quite inconvenient.

It just became natural when I started writing that way. I don’t have to do that anymore, but I still often do. Why? Muscle memory, old habits, call it what you will…

But it’s not necessary. I have to change the nature of my writing. It is a process which I am working on, when I think about it. (Aside: I’m using a Journible to go through Psalms, and I’m seeing positive improvement. Hoping to be legible by Psalm 119.)

Likewise is the life of the Christian. We are not locked into the cast of sin any longer, and are free to move in obedience to God. Instead, though, we often fall back and obey the old hardened self. It’s not necessary, and quite the opposite of what God has created us to be.

You see, that’s the problem for us: what is natural prior to being made new in Christ is the dead opposite of what God created us to be. We are naturally bent toward self, but are made to be bent toward God. And self-control is not the answer. Christ control, through the Spirit and the Word, is.

Today’s Nerd Note: There’s an old legend regarding a Roman punishment that connects to Romans 7:24. Allegedly, the Romans would chain criminals to corpses in some form of “body of death” punishment.

There’s precious little to substantiate the idea, and much to mitigate against it. That the concept is even considered reflect poorly on many of us preachers and teachers: there is no reason to repeat or recycle things that are probably not true. Be cautious, and teach with truth.

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