Anticipating some skepticism, however, he goes on to chapter seven. What about the fact that, even after one has become a Christian, there seem to be these nagging destructive habits that don't go away? I mean, in the previous chapter he makes it sound like if a person is a Christian he won't sin any more: “shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid! How shall we who are dead to sin live any longer in it” (6:1,2). But our experience tells us that we do sin after exercising the saving faith necessary to become one of God's children. What then?
I've had many conversations over the years, both as a pastor and a counselor, with Christians for whom this was more than a curiosity. It was a “deal breaker.” So beset with stubborn sin habits were they, and so defeated in their experience, that they wondered if the Bible was really true. The sermons and teachings they've had over the years don't line up with the reality of their own lives. I think of a guy named Clifford (not his real name). He had an explosive problem with anger. It was a rage that came over him and turned this otherwise gentle giant into a raging wild man: unpredictable, unglued and scary to those around him. There was no question that he was a sincere and devout follower of Jesus Christ. He wasn't inclined to shift blame or responsibility for his actions on others (at least, after his volcanic eruptions).
He and his wife came to me for counsel one evening. Together we found comfort in Paul's description of his own post-conversion sin struggles in Romans 7:
15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
I know there are many discussions about Paul's original intent in this passage. Was he describing his condition currently or before he became a Christian? I'm not going to rehearse the debate here. Suffice to say I believe Paul is exposing the ongoing battle within the Christian. And he does so by some a curious maneuver we would today call “psychological dissociation.” He says, “If I do what I do not want to do...it is no longer I myself who do it but it is sin living in me.”
The term dissociation is used by many therapists to describe a fragmented identity and sense of reality. The extreme form of dissociation is a “split personality”--Jekyll and Hyde. Back in the last century there was a popular fascination with this phenomenon. For example, you may have seen the 1975 Hollywood thriller Sybil in which a young woman named Sybil Dorsett had thirteen distinct selves or personalities. This kind of “split personality” is now technically diagnosed as “dissociative identity disorder” or DID. In the movie (supposedly based on a true story),
Vanessa plays the piano and helps Sybil pursue a romantic relationship with Richard
- Vickie 18 years old and speaks French, a very strong and mature personality and knows about all the other personalities , though Sybil does not
- Peggy 9 years old talks like a little girl, often appears while crying hysterically due to Sybil's fears
- Marsha wants to kill Sybil
- Mary is Sybil's memory of her grandmother; speaks, walks and acts like a grandmother
- Nancy who kept waiting for the end of the world and was afraid of Armageddon
- Ruthie is 6 years old and was raped with a button hook by her mother
The goal of a therapist dealing with such complex fragmentation is to unite them and establish a more cohesive self. So, what in the world is the Apostle Paul doing by seemingly urging dissociation? If we view ourselves as having multiple selves (“no longer I who sin but sin that dwells in me”) aren't we moving in the wrong direction?
First of all, I would say it's probably a misuse of this text to argue for dissociative identity disorder! Paul didn't have Sybil in mind when he wrote this. On the other hand, I'm not totally convinced that modern therapists have a leg up on knowing what is best to produce in a DID client. It isn't enough to say they are trying to unite the various dissociated elements of personality in one. Shouldn't they also scrutinize which one they want to come out on top?
Okay,enough of the rabbit trail here. Let's get back to Paul's strategy in Romans 7. Clearly, he believes it's important to somehow distinguish or separate our identity from the sin that dwells within us. Why? I think Paul understands that as long as we get the two confused we'll never get around to hating the sin. We'll just hate ourselves. You know, we're supposed to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” But what do we usually do? We love the sin and hate the sinner. In order to truly hate the sin we need to view it as an alien, intruding force; an enemy combatant. That requires a form of dissociation.
When I was dealing with Clifford, I tried to help him to see his anger as something outside of himself. My goal wasn't to give him an excuse for blame shifting or irresponsibility rather to help him manage it. We learned together to picture the anger as a freight train, steaming toward him at full throttle. Usually, he didn't realize the train was upon him until it had already run him down. But we tried to develop some strategies to see it coming—like the early warning signs that it was in the distance.
You've heard trains in the distance I'm sure. Years ago one my boys used to take the Amtrak from Chicago to our local station. I won't say anything bad about Amtrak schedules (okay, I will) but they were notoriously late—sometimes two or three hours. We would often stand alongside the tracks just tuning our ears to any distant sound that might be his train. Another person waiting once told us some specific things to watch and listen for, in addition to the distinctive air horn. For example, there was the sound of crossing signals going off all over town. Visually, there was a certain signal light that would change colors when the track was being prepared for their arrival. One of the last things we learned to wait for was the sound of another train that had to pass through before his commuter train arrived.
The point is, the more attuned to the sights and sounds of the train the more we could anticipate his progress. I think there is a useful analogy here for dealing with sin. When Clifford began to watch for the early warning signals of anger, he was better equipped to handle the impact when it finally hit him. In his case, he learned that before a big blowup he would often get wrapped up in a pattern of frustration, failure and discouragement—often with mechanical things. Defeat in this area would translate into angry explosions toward his family. The technical term for this is displaced aggression.
Perhaps you've heard of the theological term “alien righteousness.” It is attributed to Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, who came to terms in his own life with the truth that humanity can do nothing to merit God's favor. Because of our total inability we need a work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. And the righteousness (merit) that is produced in us as a result of Christ's work is something from outside of us not something we generate within ourselves. That's why Luther called it an alien righteousness.
I'm suggesting here that Paul is espousing a comparable truth when it comes to sin and wickedness: that for the Christian, there is an “alien wickedness” in addition to an “alien righteousness.” And this battle of two polar opposites within—light and darkness—explains to a tee why we feel so conflicted and embattled. Where the modern therapist misses the mark in dealing with dissociation is trying to reunite the various identities. What should occur is driving the alien identities out!
How can this be done? How can guys like Clifford not only “hear the train a'coming, rolling round the bend” even though “they ain't seen the sunshine since who knows when...” (sorry, a little Johnny Cash there!)
Paul doesn't leave us at a dead end in Romans 7. Let me conclude by finishing his argument:
Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The prospects for someone like Clifford are dire. I won't tell you that as a result of my counseling sessions he never struggled with the freight train of anger again. But I will tell you this: to the extent he truly recognized his own helplessness (“What a wretched man I am!”) and to the extent he came to the end of his own coping resources (“who will rescue me?”) he was able to, at least a few times I knew about, end up in victory when he said with Paul: “Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.” For in those moments (and sadly, he didn't experience them all the time), he was able to see the train coming, look up and see the alien wickedness for what it was. Because of his own helplessness he was able to then step back and let someone else stop the train on his behalf. I'm not talking about Clark Kent here! The real “man of steel” was Jesus Christ. And if we let him fight our battles for us, we will be able to give thanks to God for the victory that is ours through him.