Caught Between Two Laws
So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:25)
I have wrestled with this verse for many years, and in the past few days I have found myself face to face with it again, still seeking to make better sense out of it. This is not just an intellectual sparring exercise to see how smart I can get, but rather a desperate attempt to make more sense out of my own relationship or lack thereof with God. For it seems that the more my mind is learning the real truth about what God is like, the more ugly my own condition and situation appears.
Now, I am fully aware of the quotations and verses that are supposed to explain this condition to reassure me that indeed this is naturally the case for anyone coming close to God. I am not trying to discount that truth, yet on the other hand my own life seems to not be tracking in line with other verses and quotations that strongly indicate that a life seriously being taken over by the Spirit of God is going to demonstrate marked changes in attitudes towards others – like having more love flowing through them and exhibiting less selfishness. Based on the plethora of evidence along these lines I keep finding myself questioning seriously whether I have even gotten onto the scale or chart yet, or whether I am still just living in an intellectual or religious illusion of thinking I am a Christian but without the transforming power in my heart. I very often have serious reservations as to whether or not I am actually converted, or even what that word means.
I can completely resonate with the old adage that says, “when I look at myself I can't see any way that God could ever save me, but then when I catch a glimpse of God's goodness and mercy I begin wondering how anyone could be lost.” This is not just a cliché but in my experience is a very troubling reality, at least the first part.
Each time I have read through Romans 7 in the past, I found myself both resonating very strongly with Paul's feelings of frustration and confusion while at the same time wanting to just skip to chapter 8 because chapter 7 is entirely too depressing for me to handle very long. Honestly, I feel an aversion to reading Romans 7 and have for many years. It is far more encouraging to read the answer to chapter 7 in the glorious descriptions of the victorious life described in chapter 8. And yet at the same time I also feel a disconnect from 8 because I cannot resonate sufficiently with all that is described there even though I desperately long to and crave to have that level of assurance and joy and connection with God's Spirit.
But this transition verse between these two contrasting chapters has long been a real source of puzzlement for me. It almost seems like an oxymoron that doesn't fit well anywhere into the theology that I have been taught. So this morning as I found myself staring at this verse once again I decided this time to hit it head-on like an iceberg to see if I can uncover what seems so incongruent here or maybe discover something I have been missing.
As I meditated on each word in this verse my attention was drawn to the word serving. I can relate to the inconsistency of embracing the ways of God with my mind or intellect or left brain while experiencing all too intensely the ongoing presence of urgings and temptations in my flesh that are in total contradiction to everything my mind is discovering in God. That part I can get, but this word serving just doesn't seem to make the verse congruent with everything else I am learning about true spirituality and growth. In my understanding, to serve is a voluntary choice, and though I do long intellectually alright to serve God, and this might fit in this verse to some extent, I certainly cannot see how I am willingly serving the law of sin. I suppose this might be the crux of where I have long felt stuck in trying to make sense out of this verse.
So I decided to go back to see what the original Greek words are behind the translation. And what I found was a real shock, for the English hardly comes close to conveying what apparently was written originally. I will confess immediately that I know no Greek or Hebrew and am completely dependent on simply relying on Strong's concordance to piece together definitions, and that Strong's lacks many missing pieces as far as tenses of words etc. But even with those limitations a great deal can still be gleaned by comparing the original word definitions with the English words that translators have chosen to replace them with in English. I also am aware that every translator brings their own bias and preconceptions and opinions about God to the work of converting concepts and ideas into a different language, and those prejudices and assumptions always color or even distort the outcome, even leading to misleading inferences many times.
What I found here was actually a breakthrough of sorts for me, for instead of finding the original word implying a voluntary choice to serve either of these laws, the original word actually means exactly the opposite. The Greek word translated serving in this verse actually means to be a slave; involuntary servitude, bondage. In addition, this English word serving is actually taken from two Greek words, and the other one has to do with conceding something, and the definition says it is usually followed by a contrasting statement. This is obviously true in this verse that contrasts two opposite systems or laws competing for dominance in my life.
So, how did this verse come to be translated with such a neutral term as serving while the original language apparently conveyed a far stronger and more negative idea? I don't know, but what I do know is that if I am seeing the Greek words anywhere correctly that they better fit my own experience far more accurately than what I am reading in the English translations.
If I am not too far off, this verse could be more accurate and consistent with the original language if it read something more like this:
In conclusion, or accordingly, my own intellect and understanding feels irresistibly drawn to follow the principles of God's law of life that make so much sense and are logical to me; but in contrast my inescapable sinful cravings still enslave me to the principle of sin (taking offense).
That is what I find as I examine every word in this verse in the original Greek and put the definitions together. This fits perfectly with how I feel so much of the time. With the intellectual part of my mind I find myself often very excited about the amazing continuity and beauty and attractiveness of the amazing things that God has been revealing over recent years. It seems that He is showing me so many things so fast that I cannot even keep up and I find myself sometimes desperately trying to write everything down before it escapes my conscious awareness.
At the same time I realize that temptations that I believed should by now have become repulsive to me, given all that I know about God's wonderful system of life, still seem to hold just as much attraction as they did when I was young and confused by a legalistic religion, living in constant terror under assumed threats of severe punishment from an offended deity who was looking for any excuse to block me from getting into His heaven.
I can see why back then temptations to indulge in sins promising short bursts of intense pleasure might be more appealing given the oppressive atmosphere that filled my thinking. But with so much new light and truth and blessing and new awareness that all of that darkness was a mirage that distorted the real facts about God; and I now know that He is radically different than anything I had ever imagined in the past, why do I still find my heart being manipulated by those old patterns of illogical fears about God when my head is so full of glorious truths about how much better life can be following God's ways? This is the part that is so amazing and baffling to me; how my heart seems to still be stuck in my dark ages while my mind seems so advanced and able to discredit those lies of my past.
This sharp divergence of knowledge and feelings and desires constantly colliding inside of me, mostly out of sight of anyone else but yet very real, is why for so many years I have felt that possibly the most accurate verse in the entire Bible that describes me is the previous verse before this one that says, Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
Now, how am I supposed to wrap this writing up with a nice tidy conclusion that resolves all the tension that I have just exposed about what is so disturbing inside of me? I don't think I can, for what I am writing here is not a tidy conclusive study with a pat outcome, rather this is an affirmation that what I am finding in Romans 7 is an all too accurate description of how I have felt for much of my life. The only hope that I have is the same that I have clung to each time I arrive in this passage, the hope that somehow God has a way to deliver me from this body of death through Jesus Christ as Paul points out in the beginning phrase in the initial verse partially quoted at the beginning. And Paul's answer to all of this frustrated, involuntary bondage appears to be located in the following verse that has been so tragically disjointed from what comes before it by an artificial chapter break.
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2)
To include the first verse that I have unpacked in the same paragraph as this last verse and make them fit together is the conundrum that has challenged me for most of my life. It seems that somehow I must live with this paradox while trusting that God knows what He is doing in healing and restoring me, for much of this still doesn't make much sense to me. On the other hand, the best news that I always relish in this passage is the explanation that whatever condemnation I may feel from this internal tension between my two slaveries never comes from God. Maybe that is the pivotal truth that is the key for me to hang on to no matter what else may try to pull me away from trusting Him.
How can I relate to being stuck with a heart that is still in bondage/slavery to the cravings of my sinful lusts, while at the same time believing that God is saving me from that slavery? I can't explain that very well and I am still not satisfied with any of the explanations offered by religious experts, or even novices that I have heard. What I want is for God to not just show me answers to these real-life frustrating oxymorons, but much more to deliver me from this bondage to the law of sin and death so that I can live in the liberated freedom of the Sons of God as described in the rest of chapter 8.
I want to know for myself the freedom spoken of in this last verse that is promised to me as the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. I am seeking to know more about how this works, but far beyond just wanting knowledge about it I want to experientially know this freedom as a vivid reality at the heart level. What it will take to get me from here to there I do not know yet, but I do know that God knows and cares and that I can only trust Him to remain in charge of getting me from here to there whatever that involves.