You want to do the right thing, but you just don’t do it. You know you shouldn’t do the wrong thing, but you do it anyway. “Why am I like this?”, you ask yourself, wondering how your life can have so many ups and downs. “Am I a hypocrite?”, you ask yourself. “Am I a failure?” “Who am I?”
That’s ambivalence. My dictionary defines ambivalence as, “The existence of mutually conflicting feelings or thoughts, such as love and hate together, about some person, object or idea.”
Paul was a Jewish rabbi, steeped in the teachings of the Torah which was known as “the Law”. He was trained to look at sins in what we would consider a “legal” way, which declared a sinner guilty and demanded a price be paid for that guilt. In Romans 7:14-25 we read what can only be described as ambivalence about his innocence or guilt before the God of the universe.
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
I am confident in saying that there isn’t a Christian alive, or one who ever lived, who hasn’t faced this conflict between our internal and external lives. So often, even though we know what’s right, and want to do what’s right, we do what’s wrong. Then we feel guilty and ashamed. Our “religion”, if you can call it that, becomes one of alternating back and forth, between sinning and repenting.
1 John 1:8-2:1 confirms this fact, and reminds us that in Christ our struggle against sin does not condemn us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
This ambivalence was a reality check for Paul. In his spirit he loved the LORD, but in his flesh he could not help but live life in such a way that led him to break God’s laws. In John 12:47-48 Jesus says, “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.”
Paul knew that the old Mosaic law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Matthew 5:17 records that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” A lot rides on how we understand that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, fulfills the “law” of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Fulfilling the law doesn’t mean Jesus comes down to make sure every sin is punished. The law still needs to be upheld, in the sense that right is still right and wrong is still wrong. But Jesus paid the price for all sins by his crucifixion. All that remains is for sinners to receive him in faith.
Now elsewhere (John 14:15), Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But, returning to Paul’s ambivalence, when I sin I’m not keeping the commandments of Jesus; I’m not loving Jesus; I’m violating the very law he has fulfilled. What then? Have I rejected Christ and separated myself from God? Have I lost my salvation? Do my sins condemn me? And am I now to be judged?
The positive message of 1 John 2:1 and 3 is, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, …And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”
But the following verses seem to have negative implications: “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (verses 4-6)
How do we reconcile the fact that we unquestionably sin, despite the fact that we have been born again through the love of Christ, who tells us to go and sin no more? And most importantly, does the fact that we sin disprove or disallow our standing as children of God and members in the body of Christ?
When Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48), did he mean if you didn’t behave perfectly you would no longer be allowed to remain in him as a born-again child of God? In that regard, is believing in Jesus any different from Old Testament Judaism, in which every sin required a sacrifice, day by day and year by year?
Paul, in his legal, Hebraic way of thinking, wrote in Romans 8:1-11:
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
And this is what Christianity is: a spiritual relationship with the Spirit of God, not a religion of rules that when followed make you better than anyone else, not a religion that justifies pointing your finger at the faults of others, or even condemning yourself when you fall.
When the world calls us haters, remember that it is sin we hate, not because we feel superior to it, but because God hated sin first. The greater truth is that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).
When they call us “holier than thou”, remember that holy simply means “set aside”. God has set us aside for his purposes, not our own. And he declares us holy, not because we’ve earned it, but because God ordained it through Christ (2 Timothy 1:9).
When they call us hypocrites, remember that everyone, from time to time, is an actor wearing a mask. LORD, help us to be aware of ourselves. Help us to take off our masks and be real.
When they call us fools, remember the word of God when it tells us, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). And we are in good company, for even the apostles were considered fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:10).
And when people hate you, remember what he said in places like Luke 6:22, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” and John 15:18, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”
Being a Christian doesn’t mean we are holy or perfect. It means God calls us to be holy and perfect. As often as we fail to measure up to that calling, we need to simply confess it to the LORD, pick ourselves up, and start again. 1 John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
As the old bumper-stickers used to say, “Christians aren’t perfect. They’re forgiven.” That is how we should be living out our faith, neither considering ourselves “holier than thou” nor taking advantage of cheap grace by making excuses for our sinful habits.
Paul disabused us of that notion in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” And in verse 6 he explains, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
Galatians 2:20 explains it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Isn’t this the very thing Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”? (Luke 9:23)
When we sin, it is the old self. That’s the self we need to deny. It isn’t what defines us. Paul told the Ephesians (4:22-24), “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
That is our spiritual journey, one of learning to put off the old self and put on the new, one of learning to walk in the light, as children of light, letting the blood of Jesus wash away our sins. And that is something we are to learn to do together, in fellowship, in the Spirit, according to 1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
If you, as a Christian, struggle with sin, you aren’t alone. That’s the nature of our spiritual journey. When we first are born again, we are mere babes in Christ. But gradually we grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18). Our sanctification is a process. And while we are making daily choices to do the right thing, God is at work, molding us as only he can. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
So, as Dr. Laura used to say, “Now go do the right thing.” Admittedly, that isn’t always going to be easy. But don’t let ambivalence get you down. The God we serve is mightier than that.