The Law and the Spirit

You perhaps recall, in the early part of this year, a rather sad tale about a young man called Steve Fonyo. Fonyo suffers from cancer, and has gone to great lengths to raise funds for cancer research. However, he has also a problem with alcohol, which has repeatedly got him in trouble with the law. After many court appearances where he was treated with leniency, he was eventually sentenced to six months in jail, and the Edmonton Journal carried a series of articles that he wrote about his experiences.

After some time in the Remand Centre, he was sent on an alcohol treatment course, and learned as strongly as the Government could teach him what a foolish and dangerous course he was on. His articles showed how deeply he was committed to a new and drink-free life. He completed his course, and was released on parole.

The next thing that we heard was that, within forty eight hours of getting out of jail, Fonyo had started drinking again, had got into a fight, had broken a window at a local restaurant, and was back ‘inside’ to finish the rest of his sentence, with parole revoked.

It’s a sad story. It reminds me of another case reported by psychologist Viktor Frankl: a most eloquent letter from a drug addict telling of all the dangers of drugs, and vowing to swear off these for ever. Forty minutes later, the writer was dead—of a drug overdose.

Perhaps we think that this sort of behaviour does not happen in the Christian community. If so, we should read again that passage from Romans 7 that was our reading three weeks ago. What sort of things is St. Paul saying?

“I do not understand my own actions.”
“I do not do the thing I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
“Wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?”

A real conflict was going on. On the one side, Paul’s intellect, coupled with his ‘Inmost self’ which delighted in God’s law. On the other, the Law and the Flesh, which so often gained the victory. I am sure that Steve Fonyo would recognize the feeling of powerlessness that Paul is talking about. Perhaps many of us have had the same feelings, too.

Remember, though, that the person speaking is not just someone off the street. He is one of the most highly respected saints of the Christian church. What courage it must have taken for him to reveal this weaker side of his nature! And, of course, the story does not end with Paul’s defeat, so graphically described above, but with the secret he shares with us on how to achieve victory.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the classic outline of the Good News of Jesus Christ. It starts by telling of man’s failure to live up to his potential—the Jew has failed to keep God’s law: the non-Jew has not lived up to his own standards of morality, whatever those may be. “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The answer God gives is threefold. The first step is forgiveness through Christ’s cross—God’s love is strong enough to forgive all man’s sins. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

The second step is being ‘born again’ into a new, spiritual life, with our past sinful nature behind us, through the resurrection of Christ. Through that new life, we are “dead unto sin, and alive unto God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11)

Far too many people stop at this point, thinking that this being ‘born again’ to a new life makes them bulletproof against sin, the flesh and the devil from that point onwards. They have not realized that there is a third step to be taken before we live the victorious life. That is, to live by the Spirit, and not by the Law.

The problem we run into is one that was best described to me some years ago by a psychologist that I had dealings with in connection with a very difficult matrimonial dispute. What she said to me was this: “The unconscious mind (which thinks in images, not words) cannot visualize the word ‘no’.” So, for instance, when we decide in our conscious mind that we will never touch another drink, a picture is registered in our unconscious mind—“Touch another drink”. If we say to ourselves “No more cigarettes,” our unconscious mind pictures “More cigarettes”. If we say to ourselves “No more glazed doughnuts from the refrigerator,” that part of our mind sets up a powerful picture of “More glazed doughnuts from the refrigerator.” Then the moment our conscious mind relaxes, we find ourselves hypnotized into carrying out an unconscious command we never intended, and ‘doing the very things we hate.’ The more we set laws for ourselves that say ‘no’ to ourselves, the more we set ourselves up for an uncontrollable outburst of the very conduct we have forbidden.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the Law. It tells us to do a great many right things. But the way it tells us—through a series of “Thou shalt not’s”—is a psychological disaster.

If you read the Gospel story, you will see that Jesus solves this problem by going beyond the letter of the Law to the spirit behind the Law. Consider how he deals with the question of the Sabbath. This is a law that “on the Seventh day thou shalt do no manner of work.” It was designed to give man rest and recreation for the health of his body and spirit. Obviously, to heal a person on the Sabbath is to implement the whole intent of the Sabbath. Yet the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath by his healing miracles, and tried to stop him. It reminds one of the joke about hospitals—that they are places where they wake you up in the middle of the night to give you a sleeping pill. Understand the Spirit of the Law, and we can go beyond the Law and fulfill its Maker’s intentions. Stay with the Law as a bunch of “Thou shalt not’s”, and the Law is made into an ass, and we into asses with it!

When Jesus is approached by a young man wanting to know the secret of eternal life, he first almost teases him, by reciting a whole series of “Thou shalt not’s” from the Ten Commandments. Both parties know that that is not enough. Only after that realization does Jesus give the positive command to the young man, to sell what he has, to give to the poor, and to follow him. Similarly, when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment of the Law, he does not go to the “Thou shalt not’s” of the Ten Commandments, but phrases God’s will in a positive way—to love God, love one’s neighbour, love one’s self. Our inner conflict comes to an end.

In the same way, we will find our struggles to control our drinking, our smoking or our eating much more successful, if we tell ourselves that we love having a clear head, or that we love the feel of fresh air in our lungs and a fresh taste in our mouth, or the feeling of health that comes with a sensible diet. Our unconscious minds can visualize such things, and obediently enjoy making them a reality.

So Paul’s last secret is to be governed, not by the Law, but by God’s spirit behind the Law—a positive force for good in our lives that is more than just a formula. Do this, and we will find that the Holy Spirit is a power and a person who, as we see in our reading today, takes a deep, prayerful and personal interest in each one of us. The spirit calls us, justifies us, glorifies us, and makes us into the image of Christ himself, so that Christ may be “the firstborn within a large family” (Romans 8:26-30). It is a future so marvellous for us that we can hardly believe it.

For some of you, what I have said may be covering old ground, and not very important. For others, it can be a secret you never knew before, and the most important thing I have spoken about in the nine months I have been with you. Augustine summed up the message in the words “Love, and do what you will.” I do hope that at some time, that message gets through to the Fonyos of this world, agonizing in their self-imposed prisons. I hope, too, that it will be of help to any of you who may be struggling with the same kind of imprisonment.

– Text of a sermon delivered in July 1993
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