When my last little patient started talking, one of his first words was Mama. Unfortunately, he used Mama to refer not only to his mother but to me, his nurse from the time he was 5 months old. At first it was amusing but even when he started using different names for his sister and her friends, who were originally all Mimi to him, he persisted in calling me Mama. Eventually I started to correct him. “I'm not Mama; I'm Chris.” “Mama,” he would reply. “No, Chris,” I would say. “Mama,” he would reassert. “Chris,” I would insist. “Mama!” he would say even more emphatically. It would become a game, our own personal “Who's On First?” comedy routine. But eventually he made the distinction between the different adults who cared for him and started calling me “ 'Ris.” Close enough.
It's a big milestone when kids learn the distinctions between things. Before he disentangled his mother's and my identities, he learned very early that, though both were furry residents of his home, the dogs and the cats were two different kinds of animals. In fact, a lot of children's books start off by teaching them the names of a wide range of animals, some of which they would only encounter at a zoo or in a documentary. I only wish we did as well in teaching them other distinctions in life.
We tend to fall into breaking everything intellectual down into two basic categories: A and non-A. People are either liberal or conservative, religious or progressive, atheist or anti-science. These are largely false dichotomies based on lumping everyone into one or two airtight compartments. But not everyone fits within our neatly drawn lines. Not even biologically.
When I was working on the Psych floor back in the late 1970s we had a teenage girl who was depressed because she felt she was a boy. Nor was this just a whim. She had been born with ambiguous genitalia and, as was common back then, the doctor looked at the newborn, made a decision as to which sex the baby most resembled and surgically made it a girl. But this was before DNA testing. As it turned out, internally, she was much more male than female. When puberty kicked in, and with it her male hormones, she really felt more like a teenage boy than a teenage girl. I don't know what the final outcome was but I felt sorry for her. Society (and her doctor) put her in one category; she identified with another. And while the staff called her an hermaphrodite, the proper medical term of the day, I don't recall anyone thinking she might belong to a third category: what today we call transgendered. She was seen as just a poor mixed up kid.
We have to make distinctions in order to communicate or even to think. You don't want a surgeon asking the nurse during an operation to pass him “the thingy.” Even saying “the pointed thingy” wouldn't help much. Everything has a name and even things falling into the same category are distinguished. There are 40 or more different scalpel blades and about 10 types of handles. A surgeon will specify which she wants passed to her at any given point in the procedure. Of course, a surgical nurse knows each.
But, oddly enough when it comes to ideas, we like to make the categories simple, and binary if possible. And this makes for fuzzy thinking and imprecise communication.
In our passage from Romans 8 Paul is trying to make a subtle distinction. We think we know what he is saying: that there is flesh and there is spirit and they are opposites. But that is a gross oversimplication. Part of the problem is this is a difficult passage to translate and part of this is that Paul is using common words in uncommon ways because he is communicating something new and revolutionary. Perhaps the words he needed weren't invented yet.
To set the context, we need to know that throughout his letter to the church in Rome Paul has been discussing the problems with God's law. For one thing, it can't make people good. Yes, if followed, it can change behavior but it can't change the nature of a person. We all know people who follow rules, not because they like them, but because they have to. It may be they simply want to keep their job or not get arrested or not look bad to others. But these are external reasons and so their observation of any law, even God's, is superficial. And you can see that because they get very good at doing just enough to fulfill the requirements of the rule and not one thing more. They may even violate the spirit of the law in how they do it. The person at a government department may give you the form you need but not help you understand or fill it out. That's not their job. Only a good and empathetic person would go that far when not required to do so.
So laws can't change people, not at the deepest level. I am always surprised when the religious right doesn't seem to understand this. They think that if we put the Ten Commandments in every classroom and every court house and government building, people will see them and be magically transformed into better people. As if a shooter upon entering a school would see the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and go “D'oh! I keep forgetting that one!” People rarely sin because they don't know something is wrong. They do so despite knowing it's wrong. They will find some justification for what they want to do. Such as in the outrageous video in which a spree killer said he was shooting up his college town because he's a decent guy who can't get girls. Perhaps the women he desired sensed that he was an unstable person who might react violently if he didn't get what he wanted. Whatever his problem was, it wasn't that he didn't know the Ten Commandments.
Secondly Paul says that we couldn't even obey God's law if we wanted to. At least not totally. We all screw up somewhere, no matter how hard we try. For example, though he didn't believe in Christ's divinity and resurrection, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a Christian in that he followed Jesus' teachings. And he was in many ways a very admirable man. But if we look at him closely, we see him falling short of Jesus' teachings in many ways. A vocal opponent of slavery, he owned 600 slaves over the course of his life, both buying and selling them. That's hypocrisy, not one of Jesus' favorite things. The majority of scholars, based on DNA tests, believe Jefferson fathered children by a slave who was the half-sister of his dead wife. Sex outside marriage, incest and just the problem of how consensual is a relationship between slave and master makes this troubling. And this from a man who specifically pared Christianity down to the morals of Jesus.
Why do we fail? As I said, Paul says the problem involves the flesh and the Spirit. Unfortunately for centuries people have erroneously thought they knew what he is saying, namely that our flesh is evil and that spirit is good. This pernicious idea, in the guise of Gnosticism, was rejected by the church as heresy. And yet this false dichotomy has insinuated itself into a lot of attitudes found in the church, like the idea that all bodily appetites need to be suppressed or that God is only interested in our souls and not the rest of us. So before we fall into a simplistic interpretation of these two terms, let's look at what the most misunderstood one-“flesh”-means in different contexts.
Sometimes when Paul uses the word “flesh” (sarx in Greek) he means that literally, such as when he is talking about physical circumcision. But when he writes about things “according to the flesh” he is talking about things seen from a strictly human perspective or mindset. And other times, such as in this passage from Romans 8, when Paul is talking about “flesh” he means human nature, unaided by God, left to its own devices. This distinction is important because a lot of people, including some Christians, think Paul is referring only, or primarily, to sexual sins. But the term is more inclusive.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual sins, impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, quarrels, jealousies, rages, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like...” [Emphasis mine] As you can see, a lot of what he is talking about are non-material sins. Hatreds, quarrels, idolatry and their ilk don't arise from sexual or bodily desires but from human nature when it is divorced from spiritual direction. “Flesh” here means unredeemed human nature.
Paul contrasts “flesh” in this sense with “Spirit.” And by this Paul doesn't mean what people today mean when they talk about “spirituality.” It is not simply any kind of belief system or the contemplation of non-material realitites. By “Spirit” Paul means a person: the Spirit of God who lives in us and who enables us to embody Christ in this life. So Paul is juxtaposing 2 ways of life: being directed by mere human nature or by God's Spirit.
But how can nature be bad? It is very popular to equate what is natural with what is healthy. But that ignores the fact that a lot of what happens in nature is anything but. We see in various animal species cannibalism, infanticide, incest, rape, and even war. I wish I could say all of these are condemned by all human societies but that's not true. Not everything that arises from our nature is good. And the usual solution is to make laws against bad behaviors no matter how natural they are.
And most people will obey those laws. But not all. And as Paul has pointed out laws don't actually make people good. Prohibiting murder doesn't make murderers into model citizens. It just makes them outlaws after they commit the crime. Or else people don't technically break the laws but they game them. We know this is part of human nature because kids very early learn how to not violate the letter of their parent's rules while violating the heck out of the spirit of those rules. Tell your child to stop touching his sister and he will wriggle his fingers within centimeters of her face, technically observing your rule. In fact, human nature is so perverse that sometimes prohibiting an activity makes people more curious about that activity. Tell your kids not to look in the upstairs closet and they'll break in there faster than Bluebeard's wife. All of this is also true of God's law.
So with all the ways people can abuse God's law, what use is it? God's law is good at pointing out what is and is not healthy behavior. No law, as we've shown, can make you obey it. So its function is descriptive, not prescriptive. It's a diagnostic tool. It's important to know that for humans a healthy temperature is 98.6, that a healthy resting pulse runs between 60 and 90, and that a healthy blood pressure shouldn't be higher than 120 over 80. These let you know whether someone has a fever or hypothermia, tachycardia or bradycardia, hypotension or hypertension. But to treat those conditions you need more than a thermometer and a blood pressure cuff. You need to get the heart of the problem.
The law tells us what's wrong with human nature but it cannot by itself cure us. For that we need something else. We need the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who was in Christ. We need to let go of the reins of our life and turn them over to the Spirit. We need to let him transform us from people who are led by our human nature to people who are led by the Spirit.
After all, letting our human nature run our lives hasn't worked out so well. The hatreds, quarrels and divisions Paul described are universal in human societies. We act like rival packs of animals, zealously guarding our territories, suspicious of strangers, prisoners of our fear of others. We let the urgings of our human nature ruin personal lives and break up families. No one is immune: rich or poor, rural or urban, western hemisphere or eastern, northern hemisphere or southern, brown, pink, yellow or red. So maybe it's time to let Jesus take the wheel.
But we fear that. If we let the Spirit take control of our lives, what are we likely to do? Paul described the results of letting the Spirit take over our lives: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.” It is the antithesis of letting our lower nature rule our lives. Paul says there is no law against these things. There's no law that can compel them either.
You can't pass a law requiring people to be kind or to be humble or to be patient. And any lawyer would tell you that if you did it would be too vague and therefore unenforceable. Yet the world needs more people who are peaceful and patient and kind and faithful and humble. How can we get them? Only by believers consciously being the body of Christ and doing so by embodying his Spirit.
Jesus taught. So should we. Jesus healed. So should we. Jesus fed the hungry. So should we. Jesus forgave the repentant. So should we. Jesus preached good news to the poor. So should we. Jesus spoke the truth to power. So should we. Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. So should we. Jesus went beyond the demands of the law. So should we. Jesus stood up to evil regardless of consequences. So should we.
C.S. Lewis said that the purpose of Christianity is to become “little Christs.” He also said that becoming Christlike is more like painting a portrait than like following rules. The important thing about a portrait is that it should be immediately recognizable. It should also capture the spirit of the person. Too often the picture of Jesus which we present to others is rigid, lifeless, rote and predictable. No one will respond to that. We need to capture his Spirit. Or maybe that's the problem: we still want to be in control. So maybe what we need is to do is let him capture us. We need to surrender to God's Spirit and let him decide how to sculpt and shape our lives so that we are recognizable as the body of Christ, bringing his love and grace to the world of people for whom he died, people who can live again, new, more faithful, more hopeful, more loving lives through his Spirit.