Catching Ourselves in the Act

7-9-17   Scripture:  Romans 7:15-25a

Theme:  What we don’t want to know about ourselves is often not faced, until it is forced into our awareness, or leads us to places we don’t want to go.  But there is another option – to face our flaws in the full knowledge of grace.  A different type of freedom results, freedom from self-oppression, and freedom to new living with God as both our guide and enabler.  Slavery to God leads to the only real freedom within faith. 

Have you ever done this?  (take a selfie).  Do you know what this is called?  Yes – this is what is called “taking a selfie.”  It is basically using the technological advances of our modern times to take photographs of ourselves, perhaps with others, and immediately post them to all sorts of media portals, like Facebook, Instagram, websites, commentary forums, and text messaging.  It used to be that cameras had this material called film inside of them; you’d take around 24 to 36 pictures on a roll of film, send it to a laboratory to have the film developed, and see what your pictures looked like three to seven days after you took them.  Not so today – we can see what we look like almost immediately with this thing called the selfie.  And, as fast as you can press a button, you can take as many pictures as you like.  Wherever you are, whoever you are with, you can whip out your phone and take a picture of yourself.

My trouble is – no matter how often I take a picture of myself, no matter how many poses, I can’t seem to get rid of my flaws.  And selfies can really make them stand out, for the main reason that selfies are always close-ups of ourselves, taken at arm’s length away.  Flaws stand out at such close distances.

I have a scar on my cheek from when I slammed my face into the back side of the driver’s seat when I was a child and there was no seat-belt law.  I have scars on my face from chicken pox and acne – they come out in ever picture.  My nose is a bit crooked (now, be honest – you’ve noticed that?) from having been broken once in a basketball game.  I have a mole on the side of my head that is usually hidden under my longer hair, but, alas, with this new shorter haircut, it really stands out.  One of my eyes tends to squint more than the other.  You know, by taking a look at these selfies, I realize just how flawed my appearance can be, which makes me think of one thing – boy, do I need photoshop!

This makes me also think of a truism that I believe Paul is bringing out in our scripture lesson today, and it is this:  The closer we look at ourselves, and the more often we look at ourselves, the more our flaws tend to stand out.

Paul is not talking about selfies, of course, nor is he concerned about our outside appearance; he is talking about the inner dispositions of our hearts and minds, our tendency to be flawed of character and spirit.  Paul says “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…..when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand….wretched man that I am!”

How about you?

Have you ever not understood your own actions?

Have you ever wanted to do something, but didn’t do it?

Have you ever not wanted to do something, but wound up doing it anyway?

Have you ever avoided doing the right thing?

Have you ever chosen to do the wrong thing?

If you could take a selfie of your soul, all close up and filled with multi-pixeled clarity, what would you see?  What flaws would stand out most?  Would you see any flaws at all?  What would you see?

Now, if you’re like me, this is very depressing, for I find myself answering too many of the questions like these with a “yes.”  I’ve not understood why I did certain things; there have been times when I’ve avoided doing the right thing; there have been times when I’ve chosen to do the wrong thing.  But only once, a long-long time ago, in a galaxy far-far away, when I was ignorant, young, temptable, weak, fragile, and confused……no, as I look at the selfie of my soul, I realize there is a constancy of temptation to neglect what is right, and do what is wrong; even if on the scale of significance my transgressions in these areas are small, they are still transgressions.

How about you?

If Paul is speaking about the reality that all of us are flawed in such ways, then this doesn’t sound like very good news.  Preoccupation with our flaws easily leads to depression and self-loathing – not places we want to go.  But avoiding the imperfections of our souls leads to self-delusion, arrogance, and superiority-complex issues, which, as we’ve seen in our media coverage all too often, from politics to entertainment, from consumerism to terrorism – when people get too full of themselves, things get ugly fast.

But for Paul, this is not bad news, but important news, reality news, news about ourselves that we do not need to avoid, ignore, or defend – for it is only in the acknowledgement of our flaws that anything can be done about them.  Avoiding what is wrong with ourselves tends to have that wrongness grow.

Someone experiences a pain in their side.  They don’t want to slow down, don’t want to worry about it, they dismiss it as indigestion.  The pain gradually increases; so does the avoidance.  Until that day when the doctor says, “I wish you would have come in months ago; now, the cancer is very advanced, and there is little we can do.”  This is what happened to my grandmother.

A friend makes an offensive comment.  For the sake of civility, it is tolerated once – but it happens again, and again, and again.  Again it is tolerated, or excused, or dismissed as blowing steam.  Until that day when the friend goes too far, and the insult sticks in a permanent way, and the relationship ends in bitterness and hatred.  This is what happened to one of my friendships in high school.

A prejudicial remark from a political figure goes unchallenged, dismissed as rhetoric and simply the poisonous atmosphere of Washington.  Similar remarks follow, filed away as only talk, interpreted either in favor of or against the party line, but no serious repercussions follow.  Until that prejudice acts out, in targeting certain individuals who are members of the wrong faith, in discriminating against certain individuals who have the wrong past, or in shooting someone who’s the wrong color.  These are the kinds of things that are happening in our country today.

If such things are not faced, if they are tolerated or dismissed too readily, whether they happen inside ourselves or in others, they lead to greater darkness.  But if they are faced, with a sense of a better way, a more hopeful outcome, a greater integrity through justice, a more loving attitude, all can be positively transformed.  There is great power in the unfiltered assessment of our lives.  Facing our flaws can set us free for their effective redress; by naming, even owning our flaws, they can be worked on, countered, and transformed into better things, into better life.  And God not only models, but enables, this process in Jesus.

I’ve told this before, but it’s such a perfect example of how I think God wants us to understand his place in our lives.  It was a time when my children were small; I was in the living room of our parsonage, and our daughter Emily, all of around five or six years old, had gone around the corner into the kitchen.  After awhile,

she came around the corner, heading for her room; I called her over to me.  “Emily,” I said, “what were you doing in the kitchen?”  She answered, “Nothing.”  I asked her, “Were you looking for something to eat?” She answered, “No.”  I asked her “did you eat anything from the kitchen?”  “No.” she answered.  “You wouldn’t have found any candy in there, would you?”  “No, I didn’t.”  She answered.  This went on for awhile, until I finally couldn’t help it – I took her to a mirror to show here the ring of melted chocolate she had around her mouth.  When she saw it, she was stunned – perhaps not so much by seeing the chocolate, or realizing she had been caught, but perhaps more by my reaction, which was to laugh!  We had a chat then about being honest, and about not eating unhealthily, and she was sent to her room for awhile to think about things – but for both her and me, it is now a fond memory – and a good lesson learned.

Eric Hoffer said that “Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.”  What we do not want to know about ourselves may be the kinds of things that we’ve never been able to work on, to face, to transform or compensate for or rework into new possibilities due to our desire to keep them hidden, to avoid their surfacing at all.

But if it is real, looking at what we don’t want to know grounds us in truth, establishes us in clarity, and sets us on a journey of faith – for it is only faith that can carry us through the things we feel we can’t face, by reminding us that we never need face those things alone.  God never abandons the flawed; in fact, the greater the flaws, the closer God draws, seeking a way into the brokenness.  It is only those who honestly face their own flaws who realize most clearly their need for a gracious, forgiving, and transforming God – and discover most powerfully that, in spite of ourselves, God is always there.  “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Amen.