22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)
Making Sense of Paul’s Writing
Paul has dense, rhetorical arguments. I find them hard to follow sometimes. If you, too, find Paul a little hard to follow sometimes, remember this: According to historians, these letters were supposed to be read out-loud in dramatic fashion, almost like a one-man play. They also would have been delivered with a messenger, who, after the first reading, would be asked to clarify Paul’s point. The letter would be read and discussed several times by the congregation. We don’t get to ask Paul (or his envoy) any questions directly, but we can read these letters multiple times, and read supporting material – of which there is tons on Paul and his letters – to help us understand better. I’ve got two books about Paul on my nightstand right now to get me through Romans.
This chapter is one of those dense passages, with back and forth reference to the law and sin, life and death, doing what he does not want to do but not doing what he does want – I don’t know if it is a problem with the translation or what, but it was thick. In a nutshell, Paul is putting forth the argument that the law (found in the Torah) was important because it showed God’s chosen people the difference between moral and sinful living. “I would not have known what sin was,” writes Paul, “had it not been for the law.” However, in doing so it also condemned them. The way I understand it, it’s kind of like a restrictive diet: You cold turkey all junk food: no cake, no chips, no soda. You are healthy, yay! But, even knowing those things are bad for you, you can’t stop thinking about them, and many people will give in to temptation and eat them again at some point anyway. (This diet analogy is not a judgement call on anyone’s eating habits, just an oversimplified analogy to get us through Paul’s writing.)
So what’s to be done? Are we just condemned by the very thing that saves us? That’s where the good news of Jesus comes in, which Paul explores in later chapters, as will we. For now, let’s push through this theme of law and sin and death. This heavy focus on the law of the Torah, and highly analytical argument about it’s pro’s and con’s from Paul, is put forth because he was speaking to a largely Jewish and Jewish-sympathizing audience. Their whole way of life – not just in the Synagogue but out of it – is built around the Torah. The law was given to Moses from God Most High, a sacred and central part of their being a chosen people set apart and loved by God. So yeah, they got mad when Paul started attacking it, saying that Jesus had nullified the law. In an effort to make his audience more likely to accept Jesus as the Messiah, Paul had to tread very carefully: showing his respect for the law (because he did respect it), and slowly building a case around said law that exposes how Jesus is its ultimate fulfillment.
I hope that helps clarify this chapter, and indeed the ones surrounding it, a little bit. But what I really want to talk about today is sin. The word “sin” appears nineteen times in this 25-verse chapter. It’s a loaded word. Of course it’s about our shortcomings, but it’s been made, over the centuries, to mean a nearly irrecoverable character flaw. Sin damns us to hell, sin makes us the evil, sin makes us the lowest of beasts.
Sin as Animal Instinct
And actually, I agree with that last analogy, the lowest of beasts. For what I think Paul was most describing here is our reptilian brains – our animal instincts. Paul just lacked the terminology that we have today. What pet owner hasn’t seen one dog “covet” another’s toy or treat? Greedy squirrels hoard so many acorns they literally cannot remember all of them (to our benefit, because then new oak trees grow). Don’t even get me started on the ecological havoc pigs can wreck: you could film lunar sequences in our pigs’ grow-out paddock, with its five-foot deep craters and being completely denuded of plant life. Animals steal, rape, and kill – and not just for food. Lions have been documented killing zebras and not eating the carcass, the same sort of behavior domestic cats exhibit when they sport-hunt songbirds. It even has an official name: surplus killing.
So, when Paul talks about the law teaching him what sin is, I think it is essentially this: learning that we have the capability for nobler actions than our first basic instincts. It may be natural to covet our neighbor’s big house, but we won’t let that covetousness build rancor in our hearts. We may be naturally greedy, but we will overcome that base greed by practicing sharing on large and small scales. We have more capacity than any animal (even pigs) to damage the planet, but we can start living lighter, both individually and collectively. We can recognize, and hopefully then curb our worst impulses, especially the three most harmful ones: stealing, raping and killing.
As I said in my first post about sin, the greatest sin is to act out of not-love. Animal instincts are all about protecting your own skin, hoarding resources for yourself. And that is not loving. Natural, yes, but not loving. God must know this about us, that we have these less-than-noble animal instincts. So would God really condemn us for them?
Grace is overcoming our baser instincts.
I don’t think so, but that doesn’t get us off the hook. I know my girls are going to fight, that doesn’t mean I just let it happen. I know they would only eat cookies if given the choice, but I make sure that that doesn’t happen, either. God wants us to do better, and will help us do so. We have been given the higher intelligence to reason this through, guides (such as the Bible) to help show us the way, and grace through Jesus for the mistakes we will make. Because we will make mistakes. But making mistakes is not an irredeemable character flaw, nor will it necessarily damn us to hell (a place I’m not sure actually exists, but that’s for another time and another post). God has given us so much grace, grace beyond the stain of any sin. All we need to do to be washed clean is turn our hearts towards Xyr. Listen for God’s message with open hearts and open minds: because those messages rarely come from a booming voice in the clouds, but most often from quiet and unexpected places. If we do that, we are already on the right path. Will we stumble and fall occasionally? Yes, after all, we’re only human (and humans are animals). But grace will always be ready to turn back and offer us a hand.
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Liked the idea of the naturalness of sin.
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Paul has for a long time now been the Biblical person who interested me most. Do I see myself in him,, and in what he writes about? Likely. What he has to say resonates strongly with me.
I enjoyed reading this essay. Thank you.
That’s so interesting, because I was never really crazy about him. But after reading Karen Armstrong’s book “St Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate,” I really found a new appreciation for Paul. Turns out most of the stuff I found problematic in Paul’s writings was probably not written by him, but by later followers or later editors. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading along!
[…] have been about the universal reconciliation I believe all of humanity can look forward to, and how sin is just another word for animal instinct. I want to head criticism off preemptively, because I can hear the argument now: “If […]