I’m a huge fan of cop/crime TV shows like Law and Order, Bones, Ironside and Covert Affairs. All these shows have heroes who do amazing, brave things to save lives and uphold justice. But usually each character also has personal issues- they’ve got to occasionally get drunk, or sleep with someone, or flip out and beat someone up for no reason. That’s human nature of course. But where’s the hero who does brave things, saves lives, upholds justice, has huge compassion for hurting people, and also lives a pure life?
Paul wrote to the Romans about the history of self-liberation through numbing yourself that led to the culture he lived in- Rome. And the Romans were wild, but they were pretty much as wild as any culture that gets power. There is an emptiness that comes from liberating ourselves through numbing ourselves… It’s a fact. It’s not just that God is an angry judge waiting to punish our failures. It’s also that the natural world is set up in such a way that self-destructive or other-destructive behavior has consequences. In Romans 1, Paul is telling the history of a word that rubs us the wrong way- “sin”.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:18-25;29-32)
Before I was a follower of Jesus- I was a drug addict, and I used to feel that I had to sin somehow before I went to bed everyday, just to get to sleep. So I can relate to this passage, because I lived it. The reason why I was hooked on sin is because inside my soul was basically empty, and I had to keep myself numb on a daily basis because I didn’t want to come face to face with myself… I was trying to get free through drugs, and sometimes other stuff.
We live in a culture that says we’re really free when we’re having fun- when we’re high, when we have a bunch of money and stuff, when we’re drunk, and when we’re doing wild sexual stuff.
We’re basically trying to be God when we do that, because when we let those things run our lives, we’re acting as if we can escape the consequences of them. We know better, because we see how these behaviors affect others, but we tend to do them anyways because they feel good for the moment. For a second they may make us numb to reality. But when we’re caught up in the wrong emphases, and make the wrong things “little gods”, we end up destroying things that matter- like relationships, personal responsibilities, and choices that enrich and fulfill our lives.
I hope now you’re saying; “Yeah Ben, what about religious jerks though?” Paul covers that too so it’s time to flip to the other side of the problem, which is actually no different than “sin proper”, because religious pride is just as bad as heroin addiction and prostitution in the eyes of a perfect, loving God.
When we look on TV, movies and the internet for a “Christian”, what we usually find is a self-righteous, judgmental, arrogant goodie-two shoes that is socially awkward, unfriendly and ignorant. I’m thirty-two years old, so I can’t help but think of the Simpsons‘ Ned Flanders. Ned was the typical “evangelical” in the eyes of pop culture. He was judgmental, plastic, happy-go lucky, clean-cut, seemed to have it all together, and was constantly trying to convert the working class hero Homer Simpson. It’s important to say that Ned’s attempts to convert Homer were always obnoxious and aimed at behavior-modification, and not pointing lovingly and humbly to a God of amazing love, truth and grace.
In the Bible, Paul addressed people like this too- those who make up the mainstream of “Christians” in America. These were people that were trying to liberate themselves by being self-righteous and moralistic. I think it’s almost helpful to replace the word “Jew” here with “religious person”, because the Jews of the time were the most prone to being religious and moralistic. It’s also helpful to replace the word “Gentile” with “irreligious persons”, because they were those outside the normal boundaries of God’s kids in the first century.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom. 2:17-24)
I’m guilty of this attitude that Paul speaks of all the time as a Christian in my heart. But I know better now not to open my mouth and spout out the crap that is in my heart before I ask for God’s help to weed out the garbage in there.
Remember, the term “Christian” wasn’t really a normal part of religious talk in the first century- so Paul’s really just talking to religious people- What Paul was basically saying is that if we are a religious person, we need to live up to all the standards that we hold others to. Here’s what we’ll find if we do that- we’ll realize how messed up and in need of help we are, and that we’re really no better than anyone, no matter how much “righteousness” we’ve attained.
And here’s another fact- if you’ve overcome some kind of bad behavior in your life for real, the last thing you’ll do is be condemning to someone who’s struggling with it. You’ll want to help them out of it, right?
So I’ve got to ask myself, am I sitting under all the stuff I preach about?
This is also a way to act like I’m God- as if I know better than Him. As if I’ve got it so together in my Christianity that I can tell others how messed up they are, but never have to look in the mirror!
So both numbing ourselves to get free and being self-righteous and religious to get free are intentionally or maybe unknowingly taking the place of God in trying to save ourselves…
Paul talks about this too by quoting the Old Testament:
We have charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,
10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom. 3:9b-18)
So whether you’re a crazy party-addict, greedy businessman, or self-righteous religious person- you’re doomed. Ok? See ya later!
Now it’d be crazy if I just left it at that, wouldn’t it? Churches are all to often guilty of that. Churches sometimes send a message of total condemnation and rule-keeping, with no hope for grace, forgiveness and love. The Bible doesn’t do that, and neither should we who call ourselves its’ adherents.
Here’s what Paul said way back in Romans 1 before he even started his rant:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16-17)
The gospel says that Jesus saved us…
In the Greek, the phrase “righteousness of God” can actually also mean “righteousness from God”. It’s a double meaning. It’s easy to read these words and think that Paul is saying that the gospel is pointing to the righteousness of God. In other words, it shows human beings how supremely screwed up they are, and shows how God is perfect, and if we live by faith, we’ll gruelingly learn to live perfectly too, to no complete satisfaction in this life, but we’ll at least skim the edge…
All of this is true. The gospel of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection does surely reveal how messed up we are, and points us in relationship to a holy, perfect God who demands total and complete obedience and allegiance to Him from His followers.
But we don’t accomplish this obedience in one fell swoop. It’s not possible. We fail constantly every minute, day, week, hour, month and year of our lives.
When we understand the secondary meaning “righteousness of God” also being “righteousness from God”, it changes everything.
Christ was a gift. God allowed Him to be sacrificed for us so that His perfection and flawless obedience to the Father, followed by an unjust, excruciating punishment of death, would take the place of our imperfect, flawed obedience to the Father, and our just punishment of death. When God looks down at the Christ-follower, He sees Jesus instead of that person. Me, Ben White, full of all my ridiculous, bizarre, ungodly thoughts… God sees Jesus’ perfection instead of my garbage. That is an insane gift friends. Do you really understand it? Do you really know it?
So for those of us entrapped in irreligion and self-destruction, as well as those of us sucked into the vortex of self-righteous religion and pious pride- the gift of possible freedom is the same: Rest in what Christ has done, and live out of that peace and assurance.