Good News for the Wretched

(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on September 5, 2014)

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:22-25a, KJV)

I don’t think that you have to be religious to recognize certain phenomena in the world. The world is full of problems. Is it not? Whether it is violence between nations or within a household, people suffer and die every minute of every day. There are places in this world where one’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, physical ability are the basis for oppression. Furthermore, these things are created by people. The slaughter of innocents, whether it was in Auschwitz, Rwanda, or the mountains of northern Iraq where extremists have been murdering men, women and children over the last few weeks, are all of human origin. People are doing this to other people. And to make things worse, we find that even while we condemn such actions, we are complicit. The fact that there are 29 million human slaves in the world today is because we are enmeshed in a global economy that exploits human labor, whether we are aware of it or not. And these problems are historical. Discrimination, religious persecution, economic inequalities, these things did not begin at 8 AM this morning. They all have a history, which is human in origin. And you don’t have to be a religious person to see this. It is apparent to anyone who can take an honest look around. But for those of us who are Christians, we happen to have a name for this horrible reality: Sin.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, articulates the reality of sin in a poignant way. Sin is so endemic to our human experience it is as though sin is a disease, a parasite that sets up shop in the host of our bodies. And having comprehended this, he cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body that is subject to death?”

The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been used for almost 80 years to help alcoholics get sober is that, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” The first step is an admission that whether the alcoholic is wet or dry, his or her life is broken. It is the paradoxical surrender in order to find victory over a chronic and fatal illness called addiction. When I hear Paul cry out, “Wretched man I am!” I hear the essence of a first step.

There is amazing power in an honest admission that things are not going so well. Why? Because it is the truth. Ugly or not, it is the truth. And while the mere admission that something is broken, whether it is a machine, or a human life, is not itself the cure, there can be no cure without that admission first. An honest recognition of he problem is the doorway leading to the solution. And again, I don’t think that there is anything uniquely religious about this reality of human problems (which I call “sin”).

But here is what makes the difference: while there is nothing exclusively Christian about admitting the brokenness of the world, the search for the solution to those problems look remarkably different depending upon what you believe about the ultimate reality of human existence. I happen to be enormously skeptical and cynical when it comes to the suggestion that human beings can save themselves from the very same problems created by human beings. I think this conclusion fails to fully reckon with our situation. And so if we are to somehow be delivered from the problems of this world, then the only rational conclusion is that it must be a power greater than us. It’s just logical. And it is a virtual certainty that a power equal to or less than humanity can save humanity, because it’s already not working. Interestingly, the second step of AA is “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

While I am a skeptic at heart, and while I am not often mistaken for an optimist, I nonetheless have extraordinary hope. I have hope because I have witnessed with my own eyes what can happen when a person languishing in the depths of addiction throws in the towel and asks God to help him or her for no other reason than because the addict has no other options left. I am hopeful because I have seen transformation with my own two eyes. I have seen individuals healed, families mended, enemies reconciled, and communities strengthened. I have seen what can happen when people throw up their hands and cry out, “Wretched one I am! Who can save me from this body that is subject to death?” And I have participated in the celebration, joined the voices of the delivered, shouted alongside Paul in the answer to his question, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

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