Sunday. December 24, 2 Samuel 7: 1-11; 16 David was about to run ahead with his plans for God. He was well intentioned but thought he knew the mind of God. Advent waiting is an invitation to slow down, to examine my assumptions in the light of God’s will. To surrender to God’s Sovereignty.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be with me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:34-38)
Anyone who would understand the nature of a tree should examine the earth that encloses its roots, the soil from which its sap climbs into branch, blossom, and fruit. Similarly to understand the person of Jesus Christ, one would do well to look to the soil that brought him forth: Mary, his mother.
We are told that she was of royal descent. Mary’s response to the message of the angel was queenly. In that moment she was confronted with something of unprecedented magnitude, something that exacted a trust in God reaching into a darkness far beyond human comprehension. And she gave her answer simply, utterly unconscious of the greatness of her act. A large measure of that greatness was certainly the heritage of her blood.
From that instant until her death, Mary’s destiny was shaped by that of her child. This is soon evident in the grief that steps between herself and her betrothed; in the journey to Bethlehem; the birth in danger and poverty; the sudden break from the protection of her home and the flight to a strange country with all the rigors of exile — until at last she is permitted to return to Nazareth.
It is not until much later — when her twelve-year-old son remains behind in the temple, to be found after an agony of seeking — that the divine “otherness” of that which stands at the center of her existence is revealed. (Luke 2:41-50) To the certainly understandable reproach: “Son, why hast thou done so to us? Behold, in sorrow thy father and I have been seeking thee,” the boy replies, “How is that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” In that hour Mary must have begun to comprehend Simeon’s prophecy: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce.” (Luke 2:35) For what but the sword of God can it mean when a child in such a moment answers his disturbed mother with an amazed: “How is it that you sought me”? We are not surprised to read further down the page: “And they did not understand the word that he spoke to them.” Then directly: “And his mother kept all these things carefully in her heart.” Not understanding, she buries the words like precious seed within her. The incident is typical: the mother’s vision is unequal to that of her son, but her heart, like chosen ground, is deep enough to sustain the highest tree.
Eighteen years of silence follow. Not a word in the sacred records, save that the boy “went down with them” and “advanced” in wisdom, years, and grace “before God and men.” Eighteen years of silence passing through this heart — yet to the attentive ear, the silence of the gospels speaks powerfully. Deep, still eventfulness enveloped in the silent love of this holiest of mothers.
Then Jesus leaves his home to shoulder his mission. Still Mary is near him; at the wedding feast at Cana, for instance, with its last gesture of maternal direction and care. (John 2:1-11) Later, disturbed by wild rumors circulating in Nazareth, she leaves everything and goes to him, stands fearfully outside the door. (Mark 3:32, 31-35) And at the last she is with him, under the cross to the end. (John 19:25)
From the first hour to the last, Jesus’s life is enfolded in the nearness of his mother. The strongest part of their relationship is her silence. Nevertheless, if we accept the words Jesus speaks to her simply as they arise from each situation, it seems almost invariably as if a cleft gaped between him and her. Take the incident in the temple of Jerusalem. He was, after all, only a child when he stayed behind without a word, at a time when the city was overflowing with pilgrims of all nationalities, and when not only accidents but every kind of violence was to be expected. Surely they had a right to ask why he had acted as he did. Yet his reply expresses only amazement. No wonder they failed to understand!
It is the same with the wedding feast in Cana in Galilee. He is seated at table with the wedding party, apparently poor people, who haven’t much to offer. They run out of wine, and everyone feels the growing embarrassment. Pleadingly, Mary turns to her son: “They have no wine.”
But he replies only: “What would thou have me do, woman? My hour has not yet come.” In other words, I must wait for my hour; from minute to minute I must obey the voice of my father — no other. Directly he does save the situation, but only because suddenly (the unexpected, often instantaneous manner in which God’s commands are made known to the prophets may help us to grasp what happens here) his hour has come. (John 2:1-11) Another time, Mary comes down from Galilee to see him: “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren are outside, seeking thee.” He answers, “Who are my mother and my brethren? Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:32-35) And though certainly he goes out to her and receives her with love, the words remain, and we feel the shock of his reply and sense something of the unspeakable remoteness in which he lived.
Even his reply to the words, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee,” sometimes interpreted as an expression of nearness, could also mean distance: “Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”
Finally on Calvary, his mother under the cross, thirsting for a word, her heart crucified with him, he says with a glance at John: “Woman, behold, thy son.” And to John: “Behold, thy mother.” (John 19:26-27) Expression, certainly, of a dying son’s solicitude for his mother’s future, yet her heart must have twinged. Once again she is directed away from him. Christ must face the fullness of his ultimate hour, huge, terrible, all-demanding, alone; must fulfill it from the reaches of extreme isolation, utterly alone with the load of sin that he has shouldered, before the justice of God.
Everything that affected Jesus affected his mother, yet no intimate understanding existed between them. His life was hers, yet constantly escaped her, Scripture puts it clearly: he is “the Holy One” promised by the angel, a title full of the mystery and remoteness of God. Mary gave that holy burden everything: heart, honor, flesh, and blood, all the wonderful strength of her love. In the beginning she had contained it, but soon it outgrew her, mounting steadily higher and higher to the world of the divine beyond her reach.
Here he had lived, far removed from her. Certainly Mary did not comprehend the ultimate. How could she, a mortal, fathom the mystery of the living God! But she was capable of something which on Earth is more than understanding, something possible only through that same divine power which, when the hour has come, grants understanding: faith. She believed, and at a time when in the fullest sense of the word probably no one believed. “And blessed is she who has believed. . . . “ If anything voices Mary’s greatness, it is this cry of her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary believed blindly. Again and again she had to confirm that belief, and each time with more difficulty. Her faith was greater, more heroic than that of any other human being. Involuntarily we call to mind Abraham and the sudden, terrible sublimity of his faith; but more was demanded of Mary than Abraham. For years she had to combat an only too natural confusion. Who was this “Holy One” whom she, a mere girl, had borne? This “great” one she had suckled and known in all his helplessness? Later she had to struggle against the pain of seeing him steadily outgrow her love, even purposely flee it to that realm of ineffable remoteness which she could not enter. Not only did she have to accept this, but to rejoice in it as in the fulfillment of God’s will. Not understanding, never was she to lose heart, never to fall behind. Inwardly she accompanied the incomprehensible figure of her son every step of his journey, however dark. Perseverance in faith, even on Calvary — this was Mary’s inimitable greatness.
And literally, every step the Lord took towards fulfillment of his Godly destiny Mary followed — in bare faith. Comprehension came only with Pentecost. Then she understood all that she had so long reverently stored in her heart. It is this heroic faith which places her irrevocably at Christ’s side in the work of redemption, not the miracles of Marianic legend. What is demanded of us as of her, is a constant wrestling in fide with the mystery of God and with the evil resistance of the world. Our obligation is not delightful poetry but granite faith.
Mary’s vital depths supported the Lord throughout his life and death. Again and again he left her behind to feel the blade of the “sword” — but each time, in a surge of faith, she caught up with him and enfolded him anew, until at last he severed the very bond of sonship, appointing another, the man beside her under the cross, to take his place! On the highest, thinnest pinnacle of creation Jesus stood alone, face to face with the justice of God. From the depths of her co-agony on Golgotha, Mary, with a final bound of faith, accepted this double separation — and once again stood beside him! Indeed, “Blessed is she who has believed!”
The source of this meditation can be found The Value of Sparrows..
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Luke 1:38
What does obedience to God look like? Apparently more than just following rules. Like Jesus, and like Mary, it seems to have a lot to do with simply giving your life, trustingly, to God. Mary’s obedience led to great joy as we hear in her Magnificat. Why was she so blessed? Because she knew that her life was given over to God in faith and trust, and that the Lord had recognized and accepted her offering of trust.
As one who believed without question that God’s will would be fulfilled, Mary becomes a model of faith for us all. She is an example of what the disposition of the Christian and the church could be towards God. The effect of her response shows us something of what God accomplishes in us if we give ourselves to His will as she did. “Let it be unto me, according to Your will”.
Like Jesus, Mary embraced with all her heart whatever God willed for her life. She did not ask to understand, to know God’s reasons, or to see where this would all lead her before she said yes. Mary submitted without reserve to God’s action in her life. This is why Mary is often called the queen of contemplatives. She models for us the disposition of one who is fully given to God. She shows us how to more perfectly co-operate with the divine action in our lives.
What does it mean for you and I to do likewise? It means to simply submit to God’s word that is constantly calling us to conform to God’s will. As brother Roger of Taizé once noted, “The Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts and whispers constantly to each one of us, ‘Surrender yourself to God’s will, in all simplicity.'”
God’s word is more than speech, more than what’s written in the Bible. It is a living action that creates us in the image of God, our imago dei. The question is, do we receive that word? Are our hearts sufficiently humble to welcome and abide in that Word which would transform us? Jesus once told His disciples, “If you continue in my word you truly are my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). The person who gives their life to God’s will have great freedom. And with great freedom, comes great joy. “Let it be unto me, according to Your will.” The gospel is really as simple as that. To pray this offering and seek each day to participate with its fulfillment will lead anyone to a more perfect obedience and to spiritual joy.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. Jn. 15:9
For Group Discussion:
1. How would you describe Mary’s obedience to God?
2. Do you see parallels with Jesus’ relationship to his Father?
3. How do you experience that kind of surrender and freedom?
For Prayer: I offer as much of myself to you as I am able, and ask for the desire to participate with You, God, in the transformation of my will. May You be fulfilled in me.
Sunday, Dec.17 – Isaiah 61: 1-4; 8-11 Someone has given this the title “Good news for the oppressed” and it must have warmed the prophet’s heart to be able to proclaim good news to his people. He tells them that, because they are rightly related to God, they will be strong, upright and fruitful – like mighty oak trees, planted to give honour and glory to God. Today I pray, asking God’s Spirit to show me anything in my life that is disordered and interferes with that right relationship. I ask that I might grow towards the image of that oak tree, in my marriage, my family, my community – but most of all, to bring glory to God.
Monday, Dec.18 – Ephesians 6:10-17 My enemies are generally things unseen. The coming of Christ brings unlimited resources for defeating enemies of fear, envy, anxiety….. so we can dress for success by putting on these pieces. I will pray this today.
Tuesday, Dec.19 – Psalm 125 I notice the corporate language in this Psalm. This is not about an individual, but about the Lord’s people. I see myself as part of something much bigger than me – a community “whose hearts are in tune” with the Lord. Today I am praying for my heart to be in tune in all the events and conversations of the day. I pray for friends, family and faith community to be drawn to the reverberations of that heavenly tuning fork.
Wednesday, Dec.20 – Malachi 3:16-4:6 These words of mercy and judgement are the last words in the Old Testament. They come after an impassioned call to repentance. Then I turn the page and my eyes fall on, “This is how Jesus the Messiah was born.” (V. 18) My prayer is about how this changes everything. I re-read the Malachi passage in light of Matthew.
Thursday, Dec.21 – Hebrews 1: 1-4 Jesus’ birth is a part of the whole work of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Prayerfully ponder the beauty of this Father-Son relationship.
Friday, Dec. 22 – Hebrews 1: 5-14 This is to say that God’s Son is greater than the angels. Not many in my world would argue this. But look at verse 14. What role have angels played in my life? Seen or unseen? Think about the role of angels in the Advent/Christmas narrative. Am I open to the care of angels?
Saturday, Dec. 23 – John 7: 40-52 Oh, I would like to sit with the birth story, to picture the Nativity scene, to stay with the moment. But to ponder this in isolation is to miss the magnitude of Incarnation. I must go to the arguing crowds, the plotting Pharisees, the conflicted followers. In this season of waiting, we know how the story unfolds and that it continues to unfold in our lives, even as we wait for Christ to come again. I will put this into prayer with the Psalmist’s words as refrain. “Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Wait patiently.”
Sunday, Dec. 10 – Isaiah 40:1-11 “The glory of the Lord will be revealed”. There is such a contrast between “glory” and “wilderness” – or is there? My prayer will be about finding glory in the midst of a time of dwelling in wilderness.
Monday, Dec. 11 – Psalm 27 I am drawn to verse 5. It feels so safe to be “hidden in his sanctuary.l” From this place of quiet protection, I can learn how to live and my quiet heart can wait and be brave. My prayer is for grace to see that I am invited to begin living in the house of the Lord, now. Think and pray about that!
Tuesday, Dec.12 – Psalm 27 I am returning to this Psalm. There is too much to find here for one day. As I read, I am drawn to a phrase or an image. I stop there and find my prayer for today.
Wednesday, Dec.13 – Luke 1:5-17 Today, I am paying attention to the sounds of the growing crowd outside the temple, the pungent scent of incense, to the elegance of the priestly robes. Into this, an ordinary day of work for this devout priest, bursts the angel of God, bearing news that will change everything – for the priest and his wife – for the world. And so the story begins to unfold, sending feelers out in all directions. I am part of the ripple effect. I pray that my life , now and what remains for me to live here, will cause this ripple to keep moving. May I be part of that on-going invitation.
Thursday, Dec.14 – Habakkuk2:1-5 What in my life seems slow in coming? I will use this refrain: wait patiently, for it will surely take place.
Friday, Dec.15 – Habakkuk 3:2 this is a prayer sung by the prophet. I will pray verse 2 today and I will try singing it. Alone.
Saturday, Dec.16 – Habakkuk 3:17-19 I am listing the challenges in my life as I see the present and the future, I will write after each one “yet I will rejoice in the Lord!” I will end my prayer with verse 19.
Sunday, Dec. 3 – Is. 64:1-9 Is there a place in my life, or in my prayer where I feel that God is being silent? I will describe that place or that longing and offer myself as wood, waiting to burn or water, waiting to boil. (v.2)
Monday, Dec.4 – Micah 4:1-5 Is my life focused on ascending to the house of the Lord? Today I will write my prayer asking that God will teach me his ways and I will walk in his paths.
Tuesday, Dec. 5 – Psalm 79 Sometimes when I look around at the world, at my community, my friends and family and my own life experience and I see things that are just not fair, I want to help God out, to get him moving faster. Today I will express some of these desires. Then I will sit and listen before I conclude.
Wednesday, Dec.6 – Micah 5: 1-5a As a young citizen of Bethlehem, how might these words have landed on my heart? Today I will listen to Micah’s words as a teenager in Bethlehem and I will write words to describe what I feel.
Thursday, Dec.7 – Psalm 85 As I read this Psalm, I search for words to pray as a breath prayer. Breathing in to a count of 4 and out to a count of 4, I will write a breath prayer to keep always with me.
• Show us your unfailing love (breathing in)
• And grant us your salvation. (Breathing out)
Friday, Dec.8 – Jeremiah 1:4-10 Lately, I have felt that I am too old to be doing all that I think the Lord expects of me. Today, I will tell the Lord how I feel and ask for clarity and for wisdom, to know which are mine to do and which I have let my false self talk me into.
Saturday, Dec. 9 – Mark 11: 27-33 When I choose to please people over being attentive to the Holy Spirit, I miss out on what the Spirit may be saying. My prayer today will be to ask for the grace of attentiveness, above all, to the Holy Spirit, present in me.
Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. 2 Cor. 5:2
Paul uses an interesting combination of words here to describe the push and pull of our spiritual lives— “groaning” and “longing.” These words represent the two main thrusts of our spiritual direction. The first is a desire to move away from the place or condition we are presently in, and the second is a movement towards that which our hearts ultimately long for. In their many varied expressions, these two movements of the Spirit propel the spiritual direction of every human life.
The word “groaning” well describes the heart’s experience of the first movement. It is a restlessness that seeks to push us away from “what is.” We are tired of who, or where, we are in life and we long for change. The Greek word used here is stena. It means to complain, usually with a sense of grief. We hear something of this type of sighing in the words of the Psalmists. “My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?” (Psalm 6:3) “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Ps. 13:2). “How long must your servant wait?” (Ps. 119:84). Perhaps you’ve also heard similar sighs in yourself at times. “How long must I remain in this condition?” “When will things ever change?”
Groaning is a birth pang that bemoans the ill-fitting state we find ourselves in. We long to leave the status quo in favour of the new creation that we picture possible for ourselves. It is a God-given restlessness that causes us to yearn for something beyond the “old order of things.” Even if we enjoy this life, our instincts tell us that it must surely pale compared to what lies ahead. The more we recognize the poverty of our situation in relationship to our “heavenly dwelling” the more our hearts will pine for our eternal inheritance.
If groaning represents the first movement of pushing away that energizes our spiritual direction, the second one comes from our forward-leaning desires. Paul says that our spirits “long to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” The Greek word translated as “longing” here is epipotheo¸ which describes a deep yearning for what lies ahead. Much more than simply waiting for something to happen, it means to live in active participation with that which we hope for. Because we greatly desire it, we lean forward, anticipating the promise that awaits us. We hear something of this intense longing when the Psalmist cries out, “My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Ps. 84:2). It is physiological. Even our bodies cry out for eternity as we long to be united with God.
Our hearts anticipate the fullness of joy that awaits us in God’s presence. We instinctively long to be more fully alive and everything in us resists the blanket of death that threatens to smother this hope in us. Because of Paul’s confident assurance that such is the destiny of every Christian, he is able to say to the Corinthians that “God has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2Cor. 5:5). No wonder we long for such things. They already belong to us!
Someday soon there will be no need for either of these yearnings as all will be fulfilled in Christ. In the meantime however, we will often experience groaning and longing in the push and pull of our spiritual lives. They are the two movements of the heart that carry us forward in our spiritual direction. Because we are restless for eternity, and because we groan at the unfulfilled state of our present lives, our pilgrimage will continue until we are one day finally “clothed with our heavenly dwelling.”
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Phil. 3:12-14
Rob Des Cotes
Imago Dei Christian Communities
(written for July 2nd, 2009)
For Group Discussion:
- Consider the movement of ‘pulling back from’ or looking for change in our lives. What are the things in your life which cause groaning in your spirit? Do you recognize what the groaning moves you TO?
- What is a yearning in your heart? As you examine that desire, what does it awaken in you? Is there an invitation from God?
For Prayer: Look at these movements in your life together with God. Ask God what direction He might be encouraging in you.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Gen. 3:6
We remain in sensitive union with God only in so far as we receive our relationship with Him as pure gift. To try to grasp this gift, or to manipulate it with our will is to fall from such grace. But mercifully, God will not allow us to do so for long. Thomas Merton, in his Seeds of Contemplation, describes this “jealous” wisdom of God that prayer helps us appreciate, especially as it applies to the intimacy of His presence with us. Merton writes,
- As soon as you try to grasp the simplicity of this undivided interior peace it loses its savour. You must not touch it, or try to seize it. You must not try to make it sweeter or try to keep it from wasting away.
In a beautiful insight of theology Merton recognizes the primal impulse that our propensity for grasping spiritual experience represents. He writes,
- The situation of the soul in contemplation is something like the situation of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Everything is yours, but on one infinitely important condition—that you not take it, but that you allow it all to be given to you. There is nothing that you can claim, nothing that you can demand. For, as soon as you try to take something as if it were your own, you lose your Eden.
This ongoing process of losing and re-discovering our subtle receptivity of being is what purifies the heart in relationship to its desires. Such purity demands the utmost humility of self. Merton recognizes this virtue as the essential key to right relationship in prayer when he writes,
- Only the greatest humility can give us the caution that will prevent us from reaching out to claim for ourselves the satisfactions of God’s presence. The moment we demand anything for ourselves or even trust in any action of our own to procure a deeper intensification of this pure and serene rest in God, we defile and dissipate the perfect gift that he desires to communicate to us.
Echoing the insight of John the Baptist who recognized that “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30), Merton adds,
- There is nothing we can do directly either to procure it, to preserve it, or to increase it. Our own activity is, for the most part, an obstacle to the infusion of this free gift of God. We must realize to the very depths of our being that this is a pure gift of God which no effort and no heroism of ours can do anything to deserve or obtain.
The closer we come to rest in God, the more the intensity of our desire will naturally increase. But we must resist the urge to satisfy that desire ourselves. As the Song of Songs counsels, we must not “arouse or awaken love before it so desires” (SS 8:4). Rather, we must allow God to purify His love in us until it truly reflects the free gift that it is. As we mature in this, our part becomes increasingly passive. We simply remain still in the cleft of the rock as the Lord passes over us. Merton describes something of this passivity by which we are to receive the Lord’s initiative.
- We can dispose ourselves for the reception of this great gift best by resting in the heart of our own poverty, keeping our soul as far as possible empty of desires for all the things that please and preoccupy our nature, no matter how pure or sublime they may be in themselves. And when God reveals Himself to us in contemplation we must accept Him as He comes to us, in His own terms, in His own silence.
Our ultimate disposition must simply be one of pure gratitude in recognition of the goodness and grace of God’s love for us. Even now, the Lord’s gift is most honoured the purer we are in our receiving. And the beauty of His grace is most recognized the less we presume to coerce it.
We thank Him less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is
our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.
Rob Des Cotes
Imago Dei Christian Communities
(written for Jan. 12th, 2012)
For group discussion:
- Merton speaks of “undivided interior peace,” “pure and serene rest in God,” and the “satisfactions of being in God’s presence.” In what ways might we attempt to grasp or manipulate these or other blessings that may flow from time spent with God?
- How is the reality of the “pure gift” nature of the satisfactions of prayer and silence both gloriously good news as well as a caution?
- From the meditation and from the quotations of Merton, name and discuss the dispositions of heart which we seek to cultivate as an appropriate response to God’s presence with us in contemplation.
In prayer this week seek the grace of accepting God “as He comes to us, in His own terms, in His own silence.” Rest “in the heart of your own poverty” and rejoice in God’s sovereign presence and loving activity in your heart.
Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Rom. 7:20
Paul’s detailed description in Rom. 7 of his relationship to his sin nature can be quite confusing to read or preach on. The logic of his argument gets lost in his over-use of the pronoun “I” unless you realize that there are, in fact, two “I’s” that Paul is referring to—the “big I,” by which he means his desire and will, and the “small I,” which refers to his unruly sinful nature. Paul has cultivated a healthy detachment with regards to himself that we too can apply to all aspects of our inner life.
If we consider the whole passage of Rom. 7:15-20 with this type of differentiation in mind we can perhaps see more clearly how Paul applies this logic to his relationship to his sinful nature. Note the positioning of the two “I’s” in the following passage. To highlight this distinction I have capitalized the “big I” and left the lower case for the “small i” (as well as the word “sin” which it refers to).
- I do not understand what i do. For what I want to do, i do not do, but what I hate, i do. And if i do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me… For I have the desire to do what is good, but i cannot carry it out. i do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this i keep on doing. Now if i do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Paul recognizes that there are two “I’s” at work in his inner life—the “I” of his redeemed will and the “i” of his unruly flesh. The fact that he disagrees with himself is what differentiates the “I” that wants to do good from the “i” that doesn’t do what the “I” of his will wants. And it is this differentiation that he ultimately recognizes as his saving grace.
When, for instance, Paul appeals to the fact that “I agree that the law is good” he stands in agreement with God. But he is also aware of the contrary actions of his small “i” and how these actions do not agree with what he (and God) wants. Following this logic he concludes that, since his true self agrees with God, the “i” that is doing this— in other words, the “i” that is in disagreement with both he and God—is not his true self. His summary statement then is that “it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me.” Logically speaking, it is a fair assessment of the good and evil that are both at work in his inner life. But being aware of this, in itself, does not resolve his dilemma.
Like all of us Paul feels trapped by the forces of sin in his body. It is a fearful predicament to find oneself in—that though I disagree with myself, I nevertheless continue to do things that both God and I would condemn. Being attached to your sinful nature is like having a millstone tied around your neck, which is why Paul later exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Rom. 7:24).
The answer to Paul’s question, “Who will rescue me?” is, of course, Jesus, which is why the apostle then responds with gratitude for the mercy of the cross whereby he knows that he is no longer attached to the fate of his sinful nature. “Thanks be to God,” he cries, “who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25) His sinful nature will never have a share in the kingdom of God (1Cor. 6:9), but Paul knows that he is no longer attached to its destiny. For to the extent that we agree with our sin nature we are yoked to its fate. But to the extent that we disagree with our sins we too can lay claim to the reasoning that Paul is expressing here.
Rob Des Cotes
Imago Dei Christian Communities
(written for Feb. 19, 2015)
FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:
- How would you make a similar distinction in the inner workings of your own life between the “I” of your redeemed will and the “i” of your unruly flesh?” Can you see these as two separate selves?
- In agreeing that God’s law is good and thereby opposing yourself when you act contrary to that law can you say, as Paul does, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me?”
- Consider the statement that “to the extent that we agree with our sin nature we are yoked to its fate. But to the extent that we disagree with our sins we too can lay claim to the reasoning that Paul is expressing here.” Are there aspects of your sin nature that you still find yourself justifying in some ways?
FOR PRAYER: In prayer, allow yourself to be aware of your sin nature. Note how, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, you cannot help but feel opposed to this nature. Give thanks to God who, through Jesus Christ our Lord, has delivered you from the destiny of sin by detaching you from all within you that is contrary to His righteousness.
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:7-11
Many Christians suffer much more than they need to with the guilt of failure, especially as it applies to their faith. It is a secret shame that many who share our pews carry deep within them. They presume that everyone else is doing well in their faith, but that somehow it hasn’t taken root in them as it should have. And they blame themselves in the belief that they have not tried hard enough, or not been faithful enough to the call, or strong enough in their desires for God. In short, they feel they have failed to become the Christians they had once thought, or been told, was possible for them. If this, in any way, describes your experience of faith, Jesus has a parable for you that comes with an unexpected word of counsel for high-achiever Christians: “You need to lower the bar of your self-expectations.”
Though it might sound suspiciously negligent, we are always wrong to set the bar of our spiritual expectations too high. It is a temptation of pride to believe that virtue, steadfastness, sanctity and godly love are all within our reach. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the disappointment that inevitably results has little to do with God. It is mostly related to our disappointment with ourselves. We have spurned the blessed humility of our poverty of spirit, and have rather believed the devil’s lie that “ye shall be as gods.” In other words, we have been presumptuous about our potential status in the kingdom, assuming that a place of honour should be more natural to us than a lower seat.
As Jesus makes clear in this parable, we are best to set the bar of our self-expectations quite low. We are, after all, not “as gods.” Rather, we are the blind, the lost, the faithless and the hearts of stone that Christ has come to save. And we do well to remember the humility of who we truly are.
Perhaps the best indicator of whether our bar is set too high lies in how we respond to our seeming successes or failures. Which do we seem most surprised about? That we have failed to be genuine in our spirituality? Or that we have succeeded? With the bar of our expectations inordinately high, we will often be dismayed that we have not achieved what we thought we were capable of. Our pride will see this as failure and we will respond with shame. But if we accept the humbling truth that the bar of our capacity is actually quite low we will be much more disposed to surprise. We will more readily marvel at the grace of God that allows us, at times, to be much more virtuous than we know ourselves to be. No longer will we see perfection as a personal achievement, but more as the gift of God’s grace that it truly is.
Jesus concludes His teaching with a simple formula: “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is certainly good news for anyone who is ready to embrace the blessed humility of their creatureliness.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Rob Des Cotes
Imago Dei Christian Communities
(written for Feb 9, 2012)
For Group Discussion:
- The practices of self-assessing and comparing ourselves to others in regard to progress in the Christian life come very naturally to us. They are also invariably bad practices! Discuss why this is so and how we may pray for mercy and transformation in this area.
- Why is our poverty of spirit such a blessing to embrace? How might we maintain this posture through experiences of both success and failure in our Christian walk?
- Reflect on the lovely invitation of Jesus to assume HIS yoke and find rest. How might the companionship of his presence implicit in this invitation transform our shame and negative self-talk?
Jesus describes himself as being gentle and humble in heart. In prayer, seek these graces in regard to your view of yourself. Meditate on the wonder and beauty of being able to lay down the burden of your self-expectations, and rest in the promise of Jesus’ presence in the circumstances and challenges of your current path.