Posted by James Cary, 2 Mar 2020
James Cary considers the next of the beatitudes, the blessing for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7:14-19, 24-25a
What is your worst habit? Why do you do it and why can’t you stop?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
We know two things about the self-help industry. The first is that it’s very profitable. Every January, the bookshops are stacked high with countless titles offering you a slimmer body, great productivity, or a happier life. The tone mostly flatters and assures you that you’re special, you’re worth it, and you deserve to be a better you. And that you can be.
The second thing we know is that self-help books don’t really work. If they did, we could help ourselves and stop buying self-help books. We would only need to buy one and everything would be fixed. We’d be better people and continue to improve.
People who go on diets tend to try lots of diets, because the evidence suggests that most of them don’t work in the long term. Business-types who want to be more productive buy multiple books because not one single book helps them to be as productive as they’d hoped to be. Some say you should answer all emails immediately. Others that you should only answer email for 20 minutes a day at 5.00am after you’ve been for a run.
The problem is this: We like the idea of ‘the new you’. But no matter where you go, what you do, or what book you read, you are still the old you. It would be wonderful to say that new life in Christ makes you healthy, wealthy, and wise, but that is never promised to the measure that we might like.
Spirit-filled Christians (not that there’s any other kind) hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus says that to strive and strain for godliness and holiness is a blessed thing. It is the struggle. Our media, both mainstream and social, love to rage against the machine, and blame the system. To them, the problem is bad politics, deceitful or corrupt science, or hateful philosophies. But we know that the main problems in the world are greed, pride, and lust which rage in all our hearts and minds.
In Romans 7, we see how our two natures are at war in the life of the apostle Paul. Read those words again, and don’t get too hung up on what he means by law. Read it more like a poem, a Psalm of David. Paul cries out that he knows what he should do. He wants to do it. But he can’t! And the very thing that he does, he is the very thing that he hates. Gah! The pain and regret leap off the page. It’s the kind of rage we might scream when running around the house looking for keys (like I do every other day). The inevitability and rage is coupled with despair that we seem to be in an escapable loop.
If the apostle Paul, who was able to cheerfully withstand persecution and chains for the sake of the gospel, feels this kind of disappointment with his own godliness, we shouldn’t be surprised when we experience this too.
Not only is Paul frustrated by his sins of commission, but his sins of omission. In verse 18, he expresses his desire to do what is good, but full of regret that he cannot do that thing. Verse 24 is a fitting climax to this struggle: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Freedom from despair
Many of us feel that struggle. We feel powerless to control our sinful nature. We go to bed feeling we’ve done so few of things we set out to do that day. The things we wanted to avoid we’ve lapsed into. Again. But Paul’s question in verse 24 is not rhetorical, as it would be in a secular book. Nor is it a cry of despair. Who will rescue me?
The answer to our frustration is not to lower our goals, or decrease expectations. It is praise to God. Our own spiritual performance is not the most important thing in the world. We are delivered from our self-loathing, impatience, and pride by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross: Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
We need to make peace with this life-long struggle, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. We need to think less of ourselves, and more of Christ who has saved us from the penalty for sin, and its ultimate power, but not its alluring presence. Not yet. That is in the world to come, where we will be filled with the things we hunger for.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus is reassuring us that our current frustrations and disappointment will end. We will be filled. In fact, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to accept and engage in the battle, even though it continues until Christ returns in glory.
Questions for Reflection
1. What do you do that really bothers you and why does it bother you? What effect does that have on the people around you?
2. What sin is behind that frustration?
3. Have you repented of that sin? Have you asked for God’s help with that sin? Reflect on how Jesus has already saved you from that sin.
Lord God in Heaven,
who did not spare his Son, for the sake of our sin,
who sent him to the cross, to take away our iniquities,
who raised him up to the heavenly realms where he now reigns in glory,
and who sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts:
grant us, we pray, humility in our struggles to live aright,
A desire to repent for our transgressions,
and the grace to receive forgiveness time after time,
until Christ returns, when pain, regret, fear and frustration will be no more,
and we will see the true majesty of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
In whose name we pray,
James Cary is a comedy writer for the BBC, author, podcaster, and lay member of General Synod for the Church of England.
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