Friday, March 20, 2009

Holy Despair

A Lenten meditation by The Rev. Matt Kennedy

Romans 8:1-4 (from the daily lectionary for Sunday March 19th, 2006)

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1)

One of my favorite radio preachers often reminds his listeners that when you see a “therefore” in the bible you always need to ask yourself, “what is the therefore there for?” In this case, the “therefore” in Romans 8:1 refers to Paul’s description of his own personal struggle with besetting sin in chapter 7. “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…” (Romans 7:19)

There are some who contend that the struggle he recounts in chapter 7 is an experience pulled from his pre-conversion memory; that Christians cannot and do not experience such failure and heartbreak.

While I’m sympathetic to the argument, I think the majority view, that Paul is describing his Christian experience, corresponds more with the surrounding chapters which describe the process of Christian sanctification, of being cleansed and purified by God while struggling personally against the old sin nature. It would be odd, in my opinion, to use a pre-conversion memory as an illustration here.

But that’s not the only reason I think so. My own Christian experience both personally and as a pastor tells me that moral falls and failures are, unfortunately, a normative part of the believer’s life. I don’t necessarily mean egregious, notorious falls. I mean the daily private personal ones; the falls and failures nobody sees but God—those impulsive and ingrained habits of thought word, and sadly, deed, that daily darken the life of the believer.

Shouldn’t believers, new creations, be done with these?

Yes we should, but no we aren’t.

As I look back over my walk with Christ, I see a trail of divine victories. The most vile, vicious, and deadly behaviors that slowly devoured me before my conversion have been brought to heel. Christ has conquered.

And yet even as those have been nailed to the cross, I find myself clinging inwardly to their roots. And even as those roots are exposed and destroyed by the Spirit’s refining fire, deeper and stronger roots come to light.

I am brought to despair.

As the Spirit daily illumines the deeper recesses of my heart, I see myself as I am and cannot stand the sight.

But this despair is common. The true contemplation of God’s glory, said Calvin, brings man to a truthful contemplation of himself. It is the resulting recognition of utter personal unworthiness that leads nonbelievers to salvation and believers to repentance.

It is this holy despair that leads Paul to fall at Christ’s pierced feet and cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who can rescue me from this body of death?”

And it is those same pierced feet that evoke the answer, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Holy despair leads Paul again and again to the grace of God and the power of his Spirit and the foot of his cross.

And it is the cross that overshadows the first passages of Romans 8.

“There is now,” says Paul, “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. ” (Romans 8:1-4)

Sin is condemned in sinful man through the sin offering of Christ’s own body and blood on the cross. And because of that offering and sacrifice, those who believe, those who come to the point of holy despair, have access to a Power deeper, stronger, and more ancient than the rotted roots of sin entwined about our souls.

Surrendering our roots to that Power is the struggle that consumes our present life. But thanks be to God, it is a temporary struggle against a defeated foe.

Thanks be to God that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post brought me to tears, because it is so true, and something I needed to read this evening. It's so hard at times, with fear and uncertainly all around, and so easy to give in to it. I'm so grateful to God, for the grace He's given to you, Fr. Matt, and your inspirational words.

God bless you.