Living the LIe
Living the Lie by Rev. L. John Gable
February 4, 2018
I have gotten very positive response to our study of Romans thus far, and I appreciate that, but as you might remember me saying, we will be touching on some tough topics and have to do some hard sledding together. Well, we hit one of those rough patches in our lesson this morning and, be forewarned, there are more to come, so hang on and hang in there.
Recall, Paul’s intention in writing this letter is to lay out, as clearly as possible, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation, the being restored in to a right relationship with God, by faith in Him. Now in order for that message to be rightly heard we must first come to the realization that we are not in a right relationship with God, nor will we ever be simply by our own means and methods. Put another way, we will never know we need to be “found” until we first become aware that we are “lost.”
Some would argue, and I tend to agree with them, that if we tell people the Good News they will respond to it without having to be told the “bad news”. I bias toward thinking that if we show people the better way of living in right relationship with God and others they will recognize their need and abandon their lesser or broken way of living. In short, I resist telling people they are sinners because I figure they already know that about themselves.
Paul, on the other hand, does not take that approach. He takes the posture that one can’t really hear the Good News until they have first heard the “bad news” about themselves. So, in our passage this morning he tells us “If we think we are doing just fine as we are, we’re not; in truth, we are living a lie! Not just some of us, ALL of us!”
In verse 18 we read, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” This is the sole reason Paul is compelled to share the Gospel, as he will say later in this letter, “Because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans3:23). Not just some of us, ALL of us! He goes on to say that the fault is ours, not God’s. God has shown us and told us what is good and right, “so we are without excuse.” We have no one to blame but ourselves. “We have not honored God as God or given thanks to Him”, but instead have “become futile in our thinking and our senseless minds have become darkened….Claiming to be wise, we have become fools…because we have exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator!”
This is a strong indictment Paul is giving us, not just some of us, all of us. He is holding a mirror up to our faces and asking us to identify and come to grips with our own sinfulness, not anyone else’s. If after reading these 15 verses we are not convinced of our own sinfulness and need for repentance, then we are not really being honest with ourselves, much less with God; that is, we are living the lie! But remember, the end goal in all of this is not in order for us to feel badly about ourselves, but rather that, in the recognition of our brokenness, we might come to the realization of our need for a Savior!
There is a curious phrase Paul uses in this short passage and he uses three times, “God gave them up” or some translations read “God gave them over”. He is not saying that God “gives up” on us, no, never that; but that God “gives us up” to our waywardness. God’s response to our sinful behavior is not fire and brimstone or a slap on the wrist, but “permissiveness”. He simply lets us go our own way. God honors our free will enough that He lets us make “bad” decisions. So, what Paul is saying is “the punishment of sin is sin.” God delivers us over to our own desires and punishes us by letting us control our own destinies! And then in the remainder of this passage he gives evidence that there are consequences of our bad decision-making. Those “bad” decisions damage and cause disorder in all of the other relationships of our lives.
So this then is Paul’s strategy as he begins to lay out the foundation of the Gospel message for his readers in Rome then, but what are we supposed to do with this kind of teaching today? One option is to avoid it all together and never preach or teach on it, which I wouldn’t mind doing but don’t really see that as being an option since we are studying our way straight through the book. The other option is to focus or even fixate on it and use it to convince ourselves of other people’s sins. That kind of proof-texting in order to argue our point also lacks integrity. So, it seems to me, the best thing to do is to study the text together, seeking and praying for God’s wisdom and compassion, even as we feel His conviction.
Let me emphasize the importance of doing this “together” because when I study these kinds of verses on my own, or only with those with whom I agree, I invariably find myself agreeing with myself and my like-feathered friends. So we are best to study passages like these “together”, with brothers and sisters we know and trust to be faithfully seeking to follow Jesus, and perhaps are struggling to do so, even as we are. In that context we can actually hold the mirror of Scripture up to our own faces, recognizing and submitting to its authority in our lives, and honestly confessing where we fall short. It is hard to do that kind of honest reflection on my own, because I will always give myself “a pass.”
So, when we actually study Scripture in this way, with others, two principles come in to play. First, is a phrase you have heard me use often, “The One who unites us is greater than anything that seeks to divide us.” There are issues, particularly one issue in this passage, the issue of human sexuality, that has become a litmus test issue among Christians to the point where the Body has been divided; brothers and sisters, upon hearing that the other holds a position different than the one they hold, will throw up their hands and say, “Well, I guess that means we can’t worship, fellowship, serve together any longer.” Shame on us when we allow that to happen. The One who unites us is greater than anything that seeks to divide us…unless we allow it too!
The second principle that comes in to play here is one of the core principles of Presbyterianism, “persons of good character and principle may differ.” This is such an important principle as we face conflicting or potentially divisive issues of our faith. We cannot allow ourselves to call in to question the integrity or conviction of another’s faith simply because we disagree on certain issues. Rather we need to stay together as we seek the truth together.
So let’s look at what Paul says here. Beginning in verse 18 he begins listing behaviors which are outside God’s intended design for us; these are behaviors that reflect the fundamental brokenness of lives, the behaviors to which God has “given us up”, and in so doing, we have damaged and destroyed all of the relationships in our lives: with God, with others, with ourselves and with the creation, as we outlined last week. And as we continue to practice these behaviors we start deceiving ourselves into thinking that they must be OK. That is, we delude ourselves and start living the lie. Consider for yourself some behavior that when you first tried doing it you felt some guilt or shame or remorse, but the longer you’ve been at it you feel that way no longer. We become desensitized and so make excuse and accommodation for our own sinful behavior, and just because God doesn’t zap us every time we do it we start thinking it must be OK. But if we are honest with ourselves we will also admit that that behavior has also done some damage to some aspect of some other relationship in our lives. This is what Paul means when he writes, “God gave them up”. The punishment for sin is sin.
Perhaps you’ve heard the little poem:
“Vice is a monster of such dreadful mean,
that to be hated needs but to be seen.
But seen too often, familiar with her face,
first we endure, then pity, then finally embrace.”
So, what do we do as Christians with teachings such as these which name the lie, particularly since so many of these behaviors have become part of our culture and of our own lives? Do we ignore these passages as outdated or double down on them?
Here’s how I wrestle with them and I’ll emphasize the word “wrestle” because if I’m not really wrestling with these teachings then I’m not really taking them seriously.
I start with the premise that Scripture is the authority in my life and the clearest guide we are given to Godly living. Scripture will speak a truth to me that no one else can or will, so I have to listen carefully, and take seriously, its teaching. With that understanding, I also believe in the principle of allowing Scripture to speak to Scripture; no one passage, just like no one sermon, is able to say all there is to say on any given topic, so I want Scripture to be in dialogue with itself, and sometimes I even find that one passage of Scripture seems to be in tension with another.
Take for example the two great commandments: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”. I take “Love God” to mean I am to desire to follow and obey the teachings of a just and holy God. I am to study Scripture and do my best to apply its truths to the way I live my life, so for that reason, I can’t knowingly condone any behavior which Scripture condemns. I can’t willingly continue in a behavior Scripture tells me is wrong simply because I happen to like doing it. Love of God demands more of me than that.
The second great command is to “love neighbor and do unto them as you would have them do unto you”. That teaching also sets clear guidelines as to how I am to treat others…lovingly.
But what happens when the demands of those two commands come in to conflict with one another? Out of our love of God we find ourselves becoming critical or judgmental of our neighbors or out of our love for our neighbors we begin to casually disregard what God has clearly told us is right or wrong? How can I hold fast to the clear commands of a just and holy God when dealing with people I know and love and deeply care about who are engaged in practices which Scripture says are “out of bounds” without becoming judgmental or unloving? Do you hear the dilemma?
So this is how I apply these principles to these thorny issues. First, I am not going to allow any issue, no matter how seemingly important or essential it may be, to separate me from another member of the Body of Christ, much less from the Body of Christ the Church.
Second, even in the midst of my strongest disagreement with another over an issue of the faith or the practice of the faith I am not going to allow myself to judge the integrity, much less the validity, of their faith. No matter how wrong or misinformed or even disobedient I think they may be, and my guess is they are thinking the same about me, I am going to hold fast to the principle that “persons of good faith and character may differ”, so together we need to seek the truth.
Third, I am going to prayerfully commit myself to obeying the clear teachings of Scripture as I understand them. That is, I must be willing to examine my own life as carefully as possible and not give myself a pass for any of the sins of behavior or attitude that I have simply come to accept about myself. I think it is very telling that Paul gives a long list of behaviors here. This list is intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive, casting a wide net. I may not be guilty of one of these sins, but invariably I am of another. Their sin may not be my sin, but mine is in there somewhere.
And finally, I will commit to treating those with whom I disagree with as much dignity and respect and love as I possibly can, as I would hope they will do with me. In a few weeks we will listen to Paul say, “Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us” (Romans 8:34). That we can leave to Him, for He alone is sufficient for the task.
So am I saying we are to uncritically condone other’s behaviors? Not anymore than we are to condone our own behavior, but I am saying we “must be careful not to look at the speck in our neighbor’s eye without noticing the log in our own” (Matt 7:3) In our judging of others we may end up condemning ourselves with a judgment harder still.
I will confess that I wrestle with these issues, as I know you do. I will even confess that at the end of the day or at the end of my days I may find out that I am wrong on some of the positions I have taken. About that I do not know, but what I do believe is this: on that day I don’t think God will ask me if I got the right answer, but He will ask me if I was loving?” I appreciate the words of William Barclay when he writes, “More people have been brought in to the church by the kindness of real Christian love than by all the theological arguments in the world, and more people have been driven from the church by the hardness and ugliness of so-called Christianity than by all the doubts in the world.” So, to that end, I default to this: “When in doubt do the loving thing in the loving way.”
I don’t believe Paul’s intention here is to call certain people out on their sinful behavior. Rather he is holding up a mirror, so the question is, do we see ourselves in it? He is making it very clear that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness”, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, that all of us are living the lie, which means that all of us need a Savior!
And about that we will continue to talk in the weeks to come.