I am starting to wonder if I have a self-destructive personality. I think it is pretty safe to say that I am my own worst enemy. I marvel as I look back at my life and count how many times I have fallen – how many times I have hurt other people, even without knowing it. I am shocked at my self centeredness, even when it is unintentional. When the dust settles, I usually find myself alone, holding the smoking gun with no one else to blame but me. Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President said it best when he wrote, “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” At this rate, I’ll never sit again.
As I look around the cultural landscape, it appears I am not alone. As I read the paper or watch the news, it seems that each week a new celebrity (athlete, politician, musician, actor, etc) falls victim to poor choices and foolish decisions. In other words – a self-inflicted wound. If that is not bad enough, even “common” folk (teachers, investors, clergy, coaches, etc) disappoint the masses and end up behaving badly. You expect bad people (ya know, murders, rapists, thieves) to act badly. But what do we do when the “good” act bad?
Believe it or not, we have some empathy from an unlikely source, the Apostle Paul. Author of 13 books of the New Testament, Paul has two (2) impressive resumes; one very good, one very bad. Today he is remembered fondly for all his amazing Christian achievements. However, Paul had a dark side to him as well.
- PAUL’S BAD RESUME: Even by liberal modern-day standards, his bad resume is bad to the bone. The first time we see Paul mentioned in the Bible, his name is Saul and he is overseeing an execution. All executions would be hard to watch. This one is just plain disturbing. Saul is approving the murder of an innocent Church Deacon named Stephen. In fact, that murder “began a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.” (Acts 8:1). Immediately after the stoning of Stephen “Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.” (verse 3) With authority from the high priest, Saul was on the hunt to kill or capture any follower of Christ in his path.
- PAUL’S GOOD RESUME: We are told in Philippians 3:5-6 that Paul was “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” In other words, Paul’s spiritual resume was stellar. He was born into heritage and raised right. He was educated under the leading Rabbi of his day and had made it to the top rung of the social & religious ladder, a Pharisee. He was even circumcised on the right day. Saul was powerful and impressive and he knew it.
How could someone look so “good” on the outside and yet capable of such evil on the inside? How could someone be a leader in the church AND a leader of a massacre – at the same time? Such is the power of Church without God. Such is the character of those who play the game of religion. This is what happens when God is in your head, but not in your heart. When you merely read your Bible but don’t do what it says.
We hear stories in the news of priests & teachers & coaches & ministers doing things they know they shouldn’t do. In the limelight, they look fantastic. In the public’s eye, they seem incapable of such deeds. And yet behind closed doors, the only thing darker than their deeds is their heart. How can it be? How is that behavior even possible? When they fall – we are quick to join the masses and pounce. “Can you believe it?”, we condescendingly ask each other at the water cooler. “What a hypocrite!”, we judge from our moral arm-chair.
Granted, their deeds are terrible and they ought to face the consequences of such behavior. There is a part of me that would like to write the rest of this article focused on “them”. I have found it quite easy to find and magnify the errors in others. As Jesus warned, it is easy to miss the log in my eye while I’m looking at the speck in others (Matthew 7:3). While I would prefer to focus on “them”, the truth is – the them is me. And if you’re honest, “them” is probably you too. We may not have done what “they” have done, but we sometimes find ourselves on Santa’s naughty list more times than we care to admit. Have you ever struggled with the duality of your nature? One day you’re Dr. Jekyll. The next day you’re Mr. Hyde. Have you ever wondered why you do some of the bad things you have done – especially when it’s not at all what you really want to do? Paul understood this struggle and he didn’t blame it on hormones or chemical imbalance or his mood that day. No, there is something much more sinister at work. In his letter to the Romans (chapter 7), Paul is painfully honest about the inner conflict of his two natures:
“For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate… For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (15, 19-25)
Finally! Someone who gets me! Someone who is willing to be honest about what’s really going on in his heart. Like Paul, I played the religious game for a while and I lost. I too have a pretty impressive religious resume. I also have a moral rap sheet that is downright embarrassing. Some days, I have my spiritual “A” game on. The next day, I’m failing every spiritual test thrown at me. Yesterday was one of those days. I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t sleep with anyone. I didn’t rob any banks or drive any get-away cars. I didn’t even “do” anything. That was the problem. I had an opportunity to do the right thing and instead, I froze. I did nothing. As a result, it cost me a dear friendship. Why did I do that? I still have no idea. Like Paul, apparently “evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. The willing is present in my flesh, but the doing of good is not.” (Romans 7:21, 18)
Today, one friend short, I am painfully reminded (again) of my personal inadequacies and sinful actions… or inactions. Today, I am reminded – like Paul – that there is a battle of two natures warring against each other in my heart: What I should do vs. what I want to do. Yesterday, I stood at an intersection with a choice between what I should do and what I wanted to do. I chose my wants and paid a huge price.
Even as a Christian, Paul wrestled with his sin nature. How did Paul handle this struggle between his “inner man” and “members of his body?” How did this great Apostle deal with the duality of his nature, the angel on his one shoulder and the devil on the other?
Through Christ alone.
I’m reminded of the song by the Christian hip-hop band, D.C. Talk, called “In the Light”. The lyrics sum up my problem and my solution.
“I keep trying to find a life on my own, apart from You.
I am the king of excuses, I’ve got one for every selfish thing I do.”
The disease of self runs through my blood. It’s a cancer fatal to my soul. Every attempt on my behalf has failed to bring this sickness under control.
What’s going on inside of me? I despise my own behavior.
This only serves to confirm my suspicions that I’m still a man in need of a Savior.”
Yesterday I lost a friend. Today I gained another reminder. I’m still a man in need of a Savior… from myself and my many sins.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke