“Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:12-20 (ESV)
“I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
I sometimes wonder about the specifics of Paul’s experience. What sins was he consciously struggling with when he wrote that? Did he give himself over to fantasies of revenge and murder against those who constantly tried to kill him? Did he struggle with lust a bit more than he let on in 1 Cor. 7? (The early Church did believe he later married, and not without reason). Did he struggle with the drink? Did greed consume his heart? Did he just have a problem with following up on commitments he had made? Or was he unforgiving of those who broke their commitments to him? Was he given to frustration with congregation members, baptized believers that just failed?
This whole time Paul sort of speaks about sin in the abstract. But it isn’t really an abstraction he is talking about so much as a person with power, a personal being that reigns over our hearts, and puts us to death with the law. Here he avoids talking about any particular sin in which the problem of sin is made manifest in our lives. Whatever it is he is struggling with personally is rather immaterial. He knows, as any pastor worth his salt comes to know rather quickly, that the struggle is going to change based on individuals, societies and cultures, and the zeitgeist within which we live. It simply doesn’t matter what sin Paul was in conscious struggle with when he wrote this. Because his sin isn’t your sin, and it is your sin that matters.
What does matter is that Paul uses the present tense through out here. He speaks of something occurring in him even as he speaks, and something he assumes is true of the Christians he is writing to. They struggle too. They agree with the law. They know what is right and what is wrong. They know what they are to do and what they are not to do. And they struggle. They simply do not do it. Perhaps they know that quarrels about the law are fruitless, and they go to church and quarrel about the law. Perhaps the same way blogs, and social media are littered with the unprofitable, fruitless arguments. Perhaps they know they are to love their enemies, and even their masters, but struggle with thoughts of revenge in the wake of sexual abuse. (To study the dynamics of society in antiquity with the realization that most of Paul’s congregations would be made up of slaves and women, people who had little to no control whatsoever even over what they ate for breakfast is really an eye opening exercise.)
Paul doesn’t list the sins, and neither should we. It is a temptation, if you will it is a sin that we Christians probably struggle with more than any other sin in our lives as Christians. We want to say it is acceptable for a Christian to struggle against this sin here, but if they haven’t had victory over that sin there, then they aren’t really Christian. We see a brother fall victim to a particular sin and we are tempted to think they really can’t be Christian then. More so, it has the effect of telling them that they aren’t a Christian, that Christ doesn’t care for them, otherwise they wouldn’t be struggling with this sin. In reality it was just that sin for which Christ died.
So in the end, when I indulge the game and look through Paul’s letters to ascertain what sins it was he may have been struggling with, what in particular that thorn in his side was, I’m glad he doesn’t tell. And it isn’t that he was too embarrassed, or didn’t want anyone to know. Paul knew that Christ’s love is made perfect in weakness, he didn’t feel the need to present himself as strong, as if he had no sin and was able to overcome this or that sin. He didn’t confuse sanctification with senility either. He left it blank for you. He left it blank so that when you examine your life, and see some particular sin the devil wants to use to say you aren’t a Christian, that you would put that sin there in place of the generic “sin”. That you could write that sin in there and realize, even in the midst of failure to do what you know is right, that you are still a Christian, baptized in Christ, walking in the newness of life that comes with the forgiveness of sins. He left it blank for you, write the sin with which you struggle in there as if it was a Mad Lib, and then laugh at it. Laugh at it because it has no power over Christ who is your Lord, your life, your salvation. It has no power over Christ who is your sanctification.