Forming the Habit of Love
Many years ago now, my daughter-in-law and I spent a gorgeous spring day at Peddler’s Village up in Bucks County. We had taken young John, who was only about three years old at the time, along with us. He was a real trooper, eating his lunch well and letting Chris and me take our time as we meandered through shop after shop that, with few exceptions, were filled with things he should not touch. As we wandered around, I began to pick him up and hold him when we were in places with really fragile stuff. Time after time I’d see something catch his eye and his little hand begin to reach for it. Surprisingly often he checked himself before he touched whatever interested him. Once when he was looking at something and I sensed that he was about to reach for it, I said, “Remember to just look, John.” His earnest reply was, “Granny, I’m really trying!” By the way, his diligence and patience were eventually rewarded with an ice cream cone and a trip to the toy store.
Paul speaks eloquently of that internal tug between what we want to do and what we should do in that portion of his letter to the Romans we hear this morning. The problem, as his explanation tries to make clear, is that the inner conflicts you and I and all people are prone to feel aren’t as simple as just choosing between what’s right and what’s wrong. To try and explain what happens and what God has done, he uses words like ‘law’ and ‘slave’ and ‘flesh’ in ways that may be confusing to our ears.
For Paul, the law given to Moses, what we call the Ten Commandments, was God’s gift to the people to help them order their lives in ways that kept them in right relationship with God and with one another. He speaks of “the law weakened by the flesh” as a way of saying that the law has become ineffective, not because it’s inherently faulty, but because we human beings have distorted our understanding and practice of the gift of God’s law. And that part of us which misinterprets and looks for ways to skirt around the sometimes really hard work of loving God with heart, mind, body and soul and loving our neighbors at least as much as we love ourselves is the part of us that wants what we want…when we want it and how we want it…regardless of how it affects our divine and human relationships. The philosophers call this distorted mind-set hedonism. It’s what Paul would call the law of sin or the law of the flesh. This is a really important thing for us to understand because so often the “sin in the flesh” which Paul says God condemns, is interpreted to mean a condemnation of certain acts or behaviors. What it is, in fact, is the condemnation of an orientation, a way of thinking and being in our relationships with God and with one another that puts “me first.”
Paul tends to use the words slave and flesh interchangeably here, and when he talks about being a slave, he means being under compulsion. He means being forced to act one way or another. It’s important to realize that, although the dynamics may change from time to time and place to place, physical enslavement in all times and places is equally brutal in its dehumanizing effect on those bound by it. The point he’s trying to make is that to be enslaved to our own needs and desires, regardless of the cost, is to be a slave to sin. And that slavery of spirit, which is precisely what sin is, is just as dehumanizing and destructive as physical slavery. This enslavement of spirit is even more insidious than physical slavery because it’s an enslavement to self, not enslavement to someone else that we have to resist and free ourselves from. And that’s so much more difficult than throwing off the oppressor from outside. The old Pogo cartoon of long ago said it so well: We have met the enemy, and it is us. Each of us has the capacity to be our own worst enemy
So where are we left? We say we love God and want to be the kind of person God made us to be. If that wasn’t true at some level, we’d be somewhere else and doing something else this morning. And yet, just as Paul laments, when it comes right down to it, we tend to make our choices and live our lives with an eye to pleasing ourselves not God.
What’s easy to miss in all this is what a very positive passage of scripture this is. Paul defines the human condition, but he goes on to exult in the fact that God has addressed that condition in a definitive and life-altering way in Christ Jesus. Jesus, the Jewish carpenter, lived the same set of temptations to put himself first that you and I and all human beings live. And until you and I accept the fact that Jesus was just as free as we are to make bad choices and to blow off the commandments to love God with all his heart, mind, body and soul and his neighbors at least as much as he loved himself, we will never, and I do mean never, really understand the source of Paul’s exultation, his exuberant joy. If Jesus could do it, then by the power available from and through him, we can do it, too. We only have to give up the notion that we can do it by ourselves, by our own power.
You and I are invited by God to choose this goal: to love him with all that we are and all that we have and to love one another…the same way. This is the first and essential step, and it’s also a step which most of us have to take over and over and over again. The way we do that seems to me much like the way my then three-year-old grandson conducted himself at Peddler’s Village on that gorgeous spring day so many years ago. One temptation at a time, young John monitored himself and mostly resisted doing what had been forbidden. When he failed, he took our reminders in good spirit. Unlike you and me, he didn’t waste his energy fretting about his failure. He just picked up where he left off. You and I could do the same, you know. I really don’t think we’re called to immediate and flawless perfection by God. Rather, his desire is for us to model our obedience after that of Jesus, choosing love, one decision at a time, day in and day out, until the habit of love is formed in us.