When I do what I don’t want to do

March 7, 2006 at 10:58 pm Leave a comment

I had no intention of getting cheesecake, honest. In fact, I refused three times in a row. I knew eating dessert would make me feel like a bloated pig for the rest of the evening.

Mom kept pressuring. “Come on. It’s Saturday night. Don’t be a party pooper.”

I shook my head. Mom raised her eyebrows and continued staring at me, conveying her belief that my refusal was not my final answer.

I glanced toward the display case that housed the cheesecake. I wanted to say no, but I also knew how much I loved cheesecake. The temptation to give in was a bit too strong.

“Oh, whatever,” I mumbled to myself. “She’s right—I love cheesecake, and it is the weekend, after all.”

So I relented. And two hours later, when I was indeed feeling like an indulgent slob and a slave of my appetite, I tried to figure out what in the world possessed me to accept Mom’s offer. I knew beforehand that I would regret eating the cheesecake, yet I bought the lie, like a sucker, that dessert would actually be satisfying.

Why? Why did I do that?

Doing what I don’t want to do

Paul apparently had a weakness similar to mine, for he expresses his frustration in like terms: “I don’t understand myself at all,�? he laments in his letter to the Romans, “for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15 NLT).

Paul isn’t specific about the circumstances surrounding his frustration, but it’s clear that he, like me, finds himself doing the opposite of what he wants to do.

In attempting to account for his contradictory behavior, Paul suggests that there are two different controllers—two “laws,” he calls them—operating within him.

“I love God’s law with all my heart,” he explains. “But there is another law at work within me that is at war with my mind” (Romans 7:22-23a). God’s law, then, is the law of Paul’s mind, and represents his will and desire to do right. But the law of sin “wins the fight” (vs. 23) and reduces him to slavery to sin.

A matter of belief

Without actually disagreeing with Paul, I would like to suggest that the problem he and I share is not as much that we can’t do the right thing, but that we are not totally convinced the right thing is the best thing. The problem is not a matter of power, but a matter of belief.

Let me explain by means of an illustration.

A few months ago, my mom introduced to me the concept of an “information box.” We all have such a box, and it’s based on the content of this box that we make all of our decisions.

Were this information box filled solely with truth, we would have no problem. The difficulty is that our information boxes are populated with both truth and lies.

One of the truths in my box is that eating cheesecake will make me feel mildly sick (or is that guilty?), and that I would feel better if I stuck with something healthy. The corresponding lie is that the same cheesecake will taste great and make me feel good.

Considering that I have both pieces of information in my information box, how is it that I choose to eat the cheesecake?

It is purely a matter of belief. Whichever piece of information I truly believe is the one I act on.

While I might have heard the voice in my head telling me cheesecake would not make me happy—and while I might even have acknowledged that voice as right, some part of me still lent credibility to the lie that it would make me feel good. And since I wasn’t persuaded of the truth, I acted on the lie.

In other words, my actions will always flow from my beliefs. According to an author whose name I can no longer remember, “A man may not act on what he claims to believe, but he will always act on what he truly does believe.”

Perhaps, then, we should understand the two conflicting natures, or “laws,” that Paul describes as representing two different sets of ideas.

On the one hand, there is truth; on the other hand, lies. One part of Paul acknowledges that God’s ways are true and right; the other part of him remains attached to the lies. When push comes to shove in the war of ideas, Paul, like Eve before him, repeatedly winds up believing the serpent’s lie.

Righteousness by faith–literally

In this light, consider the concept of righteousness by faith. “A man is justified by faith,” claims Paul, “apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28 NASB).

In evangelical circles, this is usually interpreted as meaning that God imputes righteousness to an individual when he or she exercises faith. In other words, God “deposits” Christ’s righteousness in a sinner’s “account,” and He counts the sinner righteous in spite of his sins.

But this understanding describes a process that is artificial, at best—God gives us a righteousness not our own, or else accounts to us a righteousness which in fact we don’t possess.

While there is probably some truth in this understanding, there is perhaps another, more accurate way of understanding the concept.

If our bondage to sin is a problem of belief, then the solution, presumably, comes as we reject the lies and accept the truth.

This, in fact, is exactly what the Bible tells us: “You will know the truth,” said Christ, “and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32 NLT). With this statement, Jesus ascribes our bondage in sin not to a lack of power, but to a lack of intimacy with the truth. The implication is that as soon as we accept the truth, we are freed.

Righteousness, then, comes literally through belief—not in the sense that God imputes or imparts righteousness to a sinner who is not actually righteous, but in the sense that the devil and his lies cease to have any power over us as soon as we believe the truth. When we break our attachment to the devil’s lies, we no longer have any practical capacity for sin. In that moment, we are righteous—and free indeed.

Now, if only I can remember that the next time I’m confronted with a cheesecake.

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Feelings necessary? Battling for relevance

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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