A moment of transcendence

I am sitting in Starbucks, reading about the cave image in Plato’s Republic, reading about the way that the light of the sun illuminates reality and makes it hard to discern the objects that lurk in darkness.  Meanwhile, the sun shines brilliantly through the window into my eyes, and onto my computer screen.  In the dazzling light, I can hardly make out the letters on my computer screen.

Is the internet a new version of Plato’s cave?  Are we frittering away our lives in unreality, while the sun beckons to us each moment about something else, something new, something bright and warm — some reality I can hardly even begin to imagine?  Who shall lead me up the difficult pass, and into the light of day?

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“Can I Please God?” Romans Eight (2)

We usually think about the “flesh” in Paul’s letters as a principle focused on sexual or sensual gratification.  This reading is not entirely arbitrary, but it is extremely limited.  In Romans 8:6, Paul gives us a characterization of the flesh that we would be wrong to ignore: “the attention of the flesh is focused on death, but the attention of the spirit is focused on life and peace.”

We should ask, here, immediately, where our attention is focused.  What are you intent on?  Paying the bills?  Entertainment?  Doing your job well?  Pleasing people?  Fulfilling your desires for food or sexual pleasure?

THAT is the work of your flesh, if it distracts you from God’s work in your life.  All these things are, biblically, vitally focused on death.  Why do you worry about paying the bills?  Because you fear that the “treasures” you have here on earth will be lost to you — because you fear death, or a kind of death.  All the objects of fleshly attention carry with them some sort of anxiety about death or meaninglessness, and all of them keep us from the love of God — from life and peace, from the life of the birds of the air, whose needs their heavenly Father attends to.

This insight, I believe, opens up Romans 7-8 in a powerful way to all people — and just as importantly, to people whose struggle with sensual sins might distract them from the core anxieties that constantly fuel the flesh.  We ALL tend to be concerned overmuch about the world; we just do it in different ways.  When Jesus and Paul challenge THAT attachment, we all sometimes feel perfectly hopeless to change it — how can I stop being concerned with these things that are, literally, my lifeblood?  “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

As if Paul didn’t think we were hopeless enough, he piles on the hopelessness in verse 8, one of the simplest and shortest verses of the New Testament: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Except that’s not what it says.  Yes, this is one of those times where I show off my knowledge of Greek.  (Look, mom!  No lexicons!)  The verse says this, when properly translated: “While someone is in the flesh, he cannot please God.”  The point is not that God is constantly displeased with us because we often worry.  The point is that God is not pleased with us when we worry, when we focus on pleasure, when we obsess about our jobs, when we fear for the futures of our families.

The verse is a perpetual instruction.  Want to make your Daddy happy with you?  Stop with this flesh business!  When?  Now.  Worry about tomorrow tomorrow.  “Now is the acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.”

What do we do with the flesh?  The same thing they did with Jesus’s flesh: we crucify it.  We “remain” in the Spirit, in the vine, by constantly redirecting our attention toward Him who is at every moment redeeming us.  The Spirit “lives” in us, and the Father will “make alive our death-prone bodies” just as He raised Christ up from the grave.  The futility of the flesh is realized, decisively, upon the cross — the moment of pure hopelessness, for those that lack faith — but the vitality of the Spirit is realized in the Resurrection.  Even so, every time we turn from the flesh and heed the Spirit, we reenact the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our bodies, so that “in our bodies the life of Christ may be revealed” (2 Cor. 4).

And every turn brings joy and delight to our heavenly Father!

Romans Eight (1)

There is a law of sin and death at work in me, and in you.  Think about that.  It’s not merely that I sometimes do bad things.  It’s that evil is a law — a rule — at work within me.  I am occupied.  As John Donne puts it, in his love poem to God:  “I, like a usurped town, to another due, / Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end / Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, / But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.”

My crimes, my sins, these both are and are not my own.  They are the work of that law that makes me “do what I hate” (Rom. 7:15).  And yet, they are my responsibility — for, in God’s economy, it is only by taking responsibility for my crimes that I can be freed from them.  I let the dragon in the door, and thereby made myself accountable for the havoc it has wreaked upon my life.  It is my dragon.  But it is not my dragon to coddle or to forgive or to be kind to.  It is my dragon to destroy.

My friend Josh and I have been having some discussions lately about sin, condemnation, and redemption.  (Josh blogs here).  We decided to do a series together on Romans 8, a chapter that — I think — should become a central rallying point for anyone who attempts to wage a battle against sin.  This is my first entry in that series.  I’ll just be looking at the first few verses of Romans 8.

In the sections leading into chapter 8, Paul describes the Old Testament law, a law which both (a) created the possibility of sin, and (b) created the possibility of redemption.  I will call this the “Law”, with a capital L.  Then, in Romans 7, Paul introduces another law: we might call this the “law of concupiscence”.  The Law is spiritual; Paul is not spiritual.  The law of concupiscence is — unlike the Law and unlike Paul — carnal.  The human person is neither spiritual nor carnal, but rather subject to both spirit and flesh.  He is divided between “ton eso anthropon” (the inward man, Rom. 7:22) and “ton exo anthropon” (the outward man).  In other words, he is a battleground.

The power of a law — any law — is its power to condemn.  The law of concupiscence drives on almost infallibly toward the violation of the Law of God.  By following one law, we are condemned by another.  This is the experience I’ve had with pornography addiction: when I follow the law at work in my members (the “addiction”), I am condemned, and condemned, and condemned.  If Romans 8 did not exist, I might assume — logically enough — that this condemnation came from God.

But Paul says quite clearly it is not from God.  There is NO condemnation if I am IN Christ Jesus.  Why not?  Because He has taken it upon Himself.  “He who knows no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5).  Whenever the devil tells me I am unrighteous in myself, the proper response is to say that I am righteous in Jesus.  Blessed be God for that wonderful truth!

The only person who is not worthy of condemnation is an innocent man.  The only innocent man is Jesus Christ.

But this is the reality of the crucifixion: that now, when God the Father looks at me to assess my guilt, He sees Jesus Christ His precious Son.  It is unthinkable to condemn me, so long as I am in Him — so long as I am in the vine.  Romans 8:1 is the central rallying cry of everyone who longs for innocence.  It is here, forever, when I offer myself up to the Father in pure and eternal gift.

To quote Jars of Clay, “He has washed us in His blood.  He presents our souls to God.”  Innocence at last!