Oreos and Cigarettes - Romans 7:15-25a
Do you ever have a hard time figuring yourself out? I have those times. We have cookies in the house so that if Joshua wants some cookies there will be some. It just so happens that often we keep my favorite kind on hand, the golden, double-stuff Oreos. I will see them and think to myself, “No, you do not need to eat any of those cookies.” A little while later, there will be a craving for something sweet. “No, you do not need any of those cookies.” I’ll fix myself a cup of coffee. “Well, maybe just two or three of those cookies wouldn’t be so bad…it’s not like I’m going to eat them every day.” So I quietly open the package, like if I hide the fact that I’m doing it from everyone else in the house, I’m hiding it from myself, and get out two or three. I dip them in my coffee and enjoy them. Then I look and I am out of cookies and still have a good bit of coffee left. “Well, maybe a couple of more won’t hurt.” And it keeps going on until I look down and a whole row of those cookies are gone. I have done exactly what I was bound and determined I wasn’t going to do.
It doesn’t have to be cookies, or a 5 lb Hersey bar, or anything we eat too much of. There are so many other ways we find ourselves doing the things we don’t want to do. It might be shopping when we know we have enough stuff and don’t really have the money to spend on more. It might be sitting in front of the television binge watching our favorite shows when we know there is work to be done. It might mean clicking on the links to websites that we know we shouldn’t be visiting—that no one should be visiting. It is saying something hurtful or hateful when we know we ought to speak words of kindness and love, or at least keep our mouths shut. It might mean another intimate encounter with that person who is not our spouse. Each of us, if we examine ourselves, will find our Oreo cookies.
When we give into the temptation and do whatever it is that we had set out in our minds and hearts not to do, there is a tendency for guilt to overwhelm us, and for us to develop an attitude of self-condemnation. We might even begin to feel ourselves unworthy of God’s love and unusable by God. When that happens, we might spend time struggling to try and understand ourselves and why we do what we do. The thing is, when it happens…when we find ourselves doing the things we do not want to do…and not doing the things we want to do…we are in good company.
Hear again these words from Paul…words from probably the most successful evangelist of history: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…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.” Scholars have long debated just what Paul was referring to as part of his struggle in this passage…the point is, Paul struggled with the same struggle in which we often find ourselves.
Encouraged yet—realizing you are not alone in the struggle? Or do you find it discouraging—realizing that it is a struggle that has been going on, most likely, since Eve and Adam bit into the flesh of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil? It can go either way. Sometimes it is good to know that we are not alone in our struggles—that our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those that we would look up to, have to walk the same path and face the same struggles we have. At other times, it could be discouraging, because we are looking for that one person who can help us straighten out the mess that we find ourselves caught up in—that cycle of doing and not doing—and we figure if there’s anywhere to find the solution, it would be here…and then we find Paul, apparently caught up in the same web of failure that from which we seem to be struggling to free ourselves. We may come to the point of Paul, crying out, “Wretched man (wretched woman) that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” It can seem really frustrating—there is no solution to be found in Paul.
The thing is, though, Paul does reveal the solution to us.
Paul says that the Law is good in that our sin reveals that we need the law to show us that we have fallen out of line with the will of God. The problem, though, comes when we try to use the Law as the basis for our relationship with God…because for every law within the Law we can claim that we are living obediently, there are a number of others that will reveal just how far we are from reaching perfection through obedience…meaning no matter how zealous we are for the Law of God, no matter how determined we are that we are going to live completely obedient lives…the harder we try, the more we are going to fail.
I started smoking when I was fourteen years old. It was submission to peer pressure. One of my friends who could drive picked me up, along with several of our other friends, and we were heading, I believe, to watch the Durham Bulls play. On the way, one of the folks in the car pulled out a pack of cigarettes and began passing them around…everyone was lighting up. I knew I shouldn’t. I had begged my grandfather for years to quit and he finally had…I knew it wouldn’t be good for my body, especially with my history of asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia…but I didn’t want to be the only one in the car not smoking, so I took one and lit up. After that it became an act of rebellion, at first in secret, and then openly…and then it became an addiction.
After about ten years of smoking, I decided it was time to quit. I would make an attempt to quit…throwing away brand new packs figuring the money it cost me would be enough to convince me to stay stopped. I was determined…and I might last a day or two…even a week or two…at one time even three months. Then something would come along and stress me out, and I would bum a cigarette off a friend until I could get by the store to buy some more. I found myself doing the very thing I did not want to do…not because I wanted to, but, as it turns out, as Paul points out, because of the sin that was dwelling in me.
Where was that sin…oh, it was in so many places…as it is in each of us when we do those things we know we should not do, those things we say we do not want to do…those times when we give in to the temptation, to the addiction, and fall into the same old trap.
First the sin was in the fact that I was doing something that harmed my body, which, Scripture reminds us, is the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, the sin was that I was worshipping an idol. Did anyone catch when I would fall back into the pattern of smoking? It was when I was stressed…it was when life became hard. When the going gets tough, the faithful should get going to their knees before God…but for me, when the going got tough, I would turn to Winston.
Finally, the sin of my attempts to quit, and the reason for the failed attempts, was that I was depending upon my own strength to change…to do what was right…and we are not strong enough on our own…because then we find ourselves doing the things we do not want to do, and doing the very things we hate.
The solution lies in the response of Paul’s rhetorical questions: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” “Who will rescue us from our failed attempts at doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong?” “Who will redeem us from our sin-filled lives?”
“Thanks be to God,” Paul writes, “through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
It is through Christ and Christ alone that we find true freedom from the quandary of doing the unwanted and not doing the wanted.
It is through Christ that we find forgiveness of all sin.
It is through Christ that we find that we are made right with God—we don’t earn God’s love through obedience, that love is freely offered to us in the midst of our sin.
It is through Christ, and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit, that we find freedom from the sin that would try to bind us.
This October it will be 23 years since my last cigarette. Is the temptation still there? Yes. Is the craving still there, at times, especially at stressful times? Yes. So, what’s the difference? Why have I not picked up a pack in almost 23 years? It is because in October of 1994, I made a decision. I decided I would no longer try to quit on my own. I did not turn to a pill or a patch for the strength to do what is right, I turned to Jesus…my battle with doing what I did not want to do was won, the victory was claimed, when I turned to the One who has already defeated both sin and its penalty, when I turned to the source of all strength, when I turned to the source of all hope, when I turned to the source of all life.
The solution to understanding ourselves, to breaking of out of the cycle of doing what we do not want to do, is to stop trying to do it ourselves, and surrender our lives and our attempts to Jesus—that we too may join Paul in saying, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amen.