In the Grip of Sin
Romans 7.14 I don't do what I would like to do, but
instead I do what I hate.
A mail flyer I received recently
proclaims that in Reading, England, an event of "massive fasting and
prayer that will rend the heavens and change the nation" will take place
in July, 2002.
Calls to fasting and prayer go back
thousands of years - at least to the early days of Judaism. We know (Acts
14.3) that the first Christians fasted. The practice continues to this
I wonder why.
seems from the Gospels that not fasting was one thing amongst
others which distinguished Jesus and his followers from John the Baptiser
and the Pharisees (Mark 2.18).
Christians attribute to fasting the power to change anything, including an
The answer lies, I think, with the
way Paul thought and taught about the nature of human beings.
One source describes the tradition of fasting as "A penitential practice
designed to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening the attractions of
Another says that fasting "is a training in Christian discipline,
and specifically against the sin of gluttony."
approach derives directly from Paul. We know that he thought sin comes
down to us as a sort of spiritual virus from the rebellion of Adam: "Sin
came into the world through one man ..." (Romans 5.12). A consequence of
the sin-virus, thinks Paul, is a corruption of will. "Even though the
desire to do good is in me, I am not able to do it," he writes. "What an
unhappy man I am ... Who will rescue me from this flesh that is taking me
When the diagnosis is that bad, we
can be forgiven for getting depressed about ourselves.
Now let's look again at fasting. As far as I can make out, Paul thinks
human nature ("the flesh") is at odds with things spiritual. He writes, "A
person becomes the enemy of God when he is controlled by his human nature"
(Romans 8.7). On the one hand is corrupt "flesh" and on the other holy
"spirit" - two forces at war within us all. If he's right, one can be
forgiven for thinking that fasting and other ascetic disciplines might
help tame our wayward and sinful passions.
I wonder if the
enthusiastic Christians who will fast and pray to change the English
nation think along similar lines. If so they are very much in tune with
the Church over many centuries. Christians thought that holiness requires
our natural self to be subdued, put in its place, chastened, denied,
I am disturbed by what lies behind Paul's self-disgust. He
seems to conclude that we are inherently evil, that our "human nature
serves the law of sin" (Romans 7.25).
Everything we know today about
human beings indicates that this is false. This is not to say that Paul
should be condemned for being wrong. It's doubtful that he could have
understood sin any other way.
Nevertheless, which of us today can credit
that a new-born child is in any way evil? We know that genetics doesn't
work like that. Who can blame a six-year-old in Northern Ireland who says
she hates Protestants? We know that children absorb social prejudice as a
sponge absorbs water. They can't be blamed for a natural process. Our
natures are given. We can't choose how we start life off.
I recall (like us all, I suppose) incidents in my childhood life which
distressed my parents - when I played truant or pegged a friend's foot
with my new sheath-knife, for example. I became aware of new parental laws
I had to obey or upset the the big people. But I was not yet to make a
free, adult choice between sacrificial love and self-centred indifference.
I recall a period (rather than a fixed point in time) when I gradually
became aware that "I am me". At the end of it I was conscious of being
adult. Only then, I think, could I truly sin.
In other words, sin is a
state of being which we choose as adults, usually over a long period
through a gradual process. That's what it is to be in the grip of sin. It
is not possession by a sin-virus inherited from our parents and society.
If a nation is in the grip of sin, no amount of prayer and fasting will
loosen that grip. Only citizens who turn away from unloving lives can
bring an entire nation to God. If you or I are in the grip of sin, then
punishing or denying bodily needs will achieve nothing. Only turning to
sacrificial love will do.
Or, as Paul puts it, "There is no condemnation
now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus" (Romans 8.1).