In Part 1, I mentioned what often happens when we try to change our ways. Although a small percentage of us will succeed, most will not see a meaningful, sustained difference. And I think that in Romans 7, Paul describes why that is the case. It took me many years as a Christian to see that Paul is actually admitting the difficulty that we all face when we try to change ourselves. It was too hard to believe that the Bible was acknowledging these things.
Look at Romans 7:4-5, “In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”
Notice that Paul mentions “sinful passions aroused by the law.” This is why changing one’s lifestyle through self-motivation can be impossible. You set rules for yourself, but when you push yourself to follow the rules, desires to do the opposite are also energized, so the net result is little or no change, or even a negative difference. The “just do it” mentality breaks down.
Some have said that when Paul refers to the law, he is only referring to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, and that he is not referring to Biblical morality. If we were talking about the epistle to the Galatians, that is probably the right interpretation (I may write an article on that later). However, in Romans, the concept of law encompasses more than religious rituals. The problem that Paul addresses of law stimulating desire to do the opposite, thus nullifying one’s efforts, applies to laws of any type, and I think subsequent passages in Romans 7 make this clear.
Paul writes, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” (Romans 7:7-8).
More evidence that trying to follow laws can keep us trapped in bad habits comes when Paul has to address the misconception that the law itself is sin. If Paul were not saying that good laws can trigger bad psychological reactions leading to sin, why would anyone come to the bizarre conclusion that the law itself is sinful? Also notice that Paul uses the law forbidding coveting as an example. This is the ultimate proof that, in Romans, Paul’s references to law are not confined to ceremonial rituals.
Looking at verses 19-20, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Here Paul is describing a human condition which further explains why the “just do it” mentality can fail us. Notice that Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Notice that he used the word “cannot.” Some people say that we should stop using the word “cannot.” But Paul used that word! Many think that if we fail it’s because we’re not trying hard enough. In a sense, that may be true. However, if we’re under a mentality of law, antagonistic parts of our minds will eventually cause us to stop trying. At least, this is what my personal experience has shown.
So, if imposing rules on ourselves causes these problems, should we stop trying to follow those rules and just do whatever we are inclined to do instead? I think we need to find a balance between two situations, the first being insistence on doing what’s wrong even if the temptation to do it isn’t all that strong. This approach makes existing problems worse. The other situation is forcing ourselves to continue noble but vain efforts that contribute to a vicious cycle. I think that Romans 8, which we’ll look at next time, has some clues for how to find a balance between those two situations.