Last time, I shared a bit about my personal journey to understand what it means to remain in Jesus, and my coming to understand that when Jesus said “if you obey my commands,” he was not talking about obeying all that he taught which is recorded in the Bible (or even obeying the Bible itself) but rather obeying His voice. In fact, it is only by hearing and obeying God’s voice that we can ever move into the deeper abundant life Jesus promised.
This point is developed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, beginning in chapter seven. Having declared that we as children of God are free from sin (“how can we who have died to sin live in it any longer?”), he proceeds to discuss the impossibility of the human heart to obey God, not in the sense of obeying His voice but by being good enough, what Paul refers to as “The Law.” There is a principle at work in us, he explains, that prevents us from doing the right thing even if we want to. He describes it this way:
“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.”
Paul refers to this principle as the “law of sin and death.” Some teachers have debated whether Paul in this passage is describing his pre- or post-conversion state, but the answer is much simpler than that. It is both. For the law of sin and death was not done away with when we became Christians. It is very much alive and active, just as Paul describes.
What has changed — and what makes us different since our conversion — is the introduction of a new law, the law of the Spirit of life, which in Paul’s own words “sets us free from the law of sin and death.” We are therefore able to overcome sin and its consequences, but only through the Spirit.
An illustration might be helpful to get a picture of what the New Testament is describing here. The law of sin and death is like any law in the cosmos, even a natural law such as gravity. Imagine then a world in which humanity lives in a toxic atmosphere that is slowly killing them. Just above ground-level, however, exist air that is clean and pure and actually has healing properties. The problem is that no one can reach it: It is too high. Now imagine a rescue squad appearing above dropping ropes attached to hot air balloons, allowing for escape. So long as one grabs onto the rope, they begin their ascent into safety. But if they do not, they are no better off than before the rescue squad arrived.
The Christian life is like that. The law of sin and death, like gravity, is still at work, weighing upon us daily. The difference is the presence of the law of the Spirit of life, like the ropes, able to lift us up into safety, allowing us to function as we were intended. But it is only through the Spirit — the grabbing of the rope if you will — this is possible.
So what does this mean to us here on earth? For the Christian, it means that even now, if we set out to obey Jesus by any other means than intimate connection with His Spirit, we will fail. It will be as if we have not met Him in the first place. Even, I might add, if we are trying to do the right thing. Even (and especially) if we are trying to please God by being a better person. Connection to the Spirit of God is our only lifeline.
It perhaps goes without saying that this truth has one obvious consequence, and that is, it is quite possible to be a bona-fide Christian and yet be powerless over sin, even though the Bible says we have died to it.
Further, it is also quite possible to be a good person, even a Christian, but miss out on much of the abundant life and blessing God intended, not because we are not trying, but simply because we are following the wrong play book. The fact is, many of us are trying really hard to please God, and yet we feel farther from Him than we ever have. Or, obeying God has become so impossibly difficult, that we have just given up.
Our concept of what God requires of us is often far more burdensome than what He is, in truth, requiring. This is why Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
If obeying God feels like a goal you could not possibly reach or a burden you cannot possibly bear, there is a better way. It is time to free ourselves from every burden but one: Learning to listen to His Voice, and obeying what he has to say. If you grab hold of that rope, I assure you, it won’t be long till you are floating above your circumstances, defying gravity itself, even the burdens of your own heart.