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A Higher Power

Charles Gourgey, Ph.D.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39

God’s Will as “Law”

The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous tells the story of a man called the “Backslider,” who worked in a machine shop during World War I. After the war he married, had a child, and got a job in an industrial plant. He received a promotion and life looked promising.

But 1929 arrived and the economic crisis cost him his job. Anger and fear pushed him to drink to intoxication lasting for days. He did find a good job in another company, but something had already gone wrong inside him. Invitations to social drinking led to binges and absences from work. His boss confronted him and warned him there would be consequences. It did no good. Once again he found himself jobless.

Leaving his office job behind, he returned to being a mechanic working for hourly wages. But hating himself for having wasted so many years accomplishing nothing, he fell back into his binges. He lost much time from work and even required periodic hospitalization. The hospital chaplains tried to help, but he had no use for any of their God talk. Watching his family deteriorate because of his behavior, consumed with self-loathing, he tried to kill himself. He nearly succeeded.

As he was recovering, he met a physician who also had an alcoholic past. The physician used this man’s own beliefs to help him. You believe in God, don’t you? he asked. Does your God really make a difference to you, or is that God just a remote abstraction?

Then the physician said something pivotal. God’s law, he said, is a “Law of Love.” The resentment that leads to alcohol indulgence comes from consciously or unconsciously disobeying that law. If you understand this, the physician told him, then practicing that Law of Love will be the start of your liberation.

The man began to do this, associating with new friends who supported him. He practiced God’s law of love, making amends where he could. He even won his old job back. But he became complacent and overconfident. He started missing meetings and neglecting his spiritual practice, which he felt he no longer needed. He lost his humility. A seemingly innocent glass of beer led to escalating indiscretions and in time he found himself back inside his darkness, once again putting his job and his life in jeopardy. But the pain drove him to return to his prayer life and his group of friends, who welcomed him like the Prodigal Son. He discovered he must practice his new faith every day, and not let one day pass without turning for guidance to his Higher Power.

The Alcoholics Anonymous approach has many critics. Some people are not comfortable with all these references to God. But speaking of God in this healing process need not lock us into outworn theological categories. The story of the Backslider comes from the first edition of the Big Book, which appeared over 70 years ago. Its language is understandably very traditional. But when the author of this chapter speaks about doing his own will rather than God’s will, we need not think of it as two separate beings in contest with each other. How we understand this process is determined by how we understand God’s will.

The will of God is just one of many issues that two thousand years of theology have hopelessly complicated. The English theologian Leslie Weatherhead even posits three distinct wills of God, as if one will alone would lead to insoluble contradictions. If we see God as a person like ourselves but without a body, an almost irresistible temptation, then such logical problems do arise. But if we understand God as Essential and Absolute Goodness, then God’s will need not be an inscrutable conundrum. God’s will must be that goodness prevail and that we conform to God’s image by committing our own lives to the realization of goodness. And the highest form of goodness is love.

The phrase “Law of Love” is instructive. What the Twelve Steps of AA really amount to is putting love into practice. These steps begin with love for oneself, and it is indeed tough love. One admits - accepts - one’s state of powerlessness; one does not judge it or condemn it. Then one makes an honest moral self-inventory: an often painful exercise to be sure, yet also a practice in self-acceptance. One recognizes the harm one has done to others and strives to make amends. This involves not merely the simple act of making an apology but a transformation of the way one sees the other people in one’s life, becoming aware of them, feeling for them, seeing them with compassion. In taking these steps one’s soul is transformed. It is transformed by non-self-interested love.

A Sense of Futility

Juxtaposing the words “law” and “love” takes us to some very interesting places. When it comes to the Bible, of course the main stop is Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There Paul also talks about law and about love. What Paul has to say is mysterious, often confusing, yet also a source of profound insight.

First it is necessary to understand exactly what Paul means by “law.” In the New Testament, “law” is often understood to mean Jewish religious practice. Paul is known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, famous for his stand that Gentiles should not be forced to adopt the Jewish laws and rituals to be admitted into the covenant community. Paul speaks of Jews having the law and Gentiles not having it. He also refers to the “written code” containing standards for behavior. So indeed it might seem that by “law” Paul means the statutes of the Jewish religion.

But “law” must not be understood only in this sense. Here is just one passage from Romans that shows the inadequacy of the traditional view that by “law” Paul means only the Mosaic law, and that by “justification by faith” Paul means that Christian faith makes “works” of that law unnecessary:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them. (Romans 2: 13-15)

Here Paul says that one is made righteous (“justified”) not by merely hearing the law but by doing it! Gentiles do not “possess the law” - that is to say, its written expression embodied in the Torah - and yet they may, through proper instinct, do what the law requires. Surely this does not mean that these righteous Gentiles, who have never heard of Torah, instinctively observe the Jewish holidays and sacrifices and circumcise themselves! No, it means that someone who is spiritually evolved, whether Jew or Gentile, fulfills the purpose of the law, which is to live in accordance with the goodness that is God’s nature.

“What the law requires is written on their hearts”: the law’s intent is to bring us closer to God, and its requirement is that we conform to God’s essential goodness. Judaism developed a set of guidelines, which it calls Torah, intended to help us fulfill this requirement. Therefore the law of religion is a symbolic representation of the law of God. The word “law” itself is a misnomer: torah literally means “teaching” or “guidance” or “setting one straight.” The “law” of God is not synonymous with Jewish law. It is something deeper; it is God’s actual will, which the “laws” of Torah were intended to represent and make humanly accessible. Religious law is only a symbolic approximation of divine law, not a substitute for it. That is why the prophets could attack religious law once it became separated from divine law and lost its symbolic function.

And so when Paul talks about “law” in Romans, one must always keep these two senses of “law” in mind. The “law” of Judaism is of value to the extent that it brings us closer to the “law” of God; that is, helps us to live in conformity with God’s goodness. Paul does ask whether religious law can ever be sufficient for this purpose. But he is also asking a much deeper question: can awareness of God’s real law, an awareness the law of religion brings to us, liberate us? Or does it actually condemn us with the knowledge of a standard to which most of us fall dreadfully short, a standard of which we were blissfully ignorant before we knew about the “law”?

And so Paul reaches the critical point of his discussion, contained in the controversial and well-trod seventh chapter:

What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. (Romans 7:7-8)

Of all the commandments Paul might have chosen, he focuses most strikingly on the only one that concerns desire rather than action. Paul makes the astute observation that if we were not educated in the “law” (or right and wrong), we might not think anything amiss of desiring what is not ours. But once we realize that covetousness leads us away from love and is thus not pleasing to God, we see how far short of God’s goodness we fall. It is much more difficult to control our desires than our actions. So we are left helpless, aware of the gulf between ourselves and the goodness of God, knowing that the commandment alone will not enable us to bridge that gulf.

Paul continues (v. 12): “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” This phrasing is not redundant: “law” and “commandment” are not synonymous. The “law” here is the law of God, the underlying existence of goodness that supports the universe and gives it structure. The “commandment” is the law of religion, the written approximation of that law, meant to capture its essence and help us live by it. Both are holy; both are meant to draw us to the eternal. “For we know that the law is spiritual” (v. 14); God’s law (or will) wants us to conform to the divine image in which we were created, and the law’s written expression is supposed to help get us there.

But does it? Paul continues:

I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 8:14-16)

One might think of the Backslider here, who kept undermining himself, who kept falling back into his self-destructive habits in spite of all his intentions to improve. Or perhaps we can think of our own experiences of falling short of our best intentions and repeating our mistakes regardless of our strong wishes to do better. Simply knowing what we should be does not make us better; it makes us aware of the great distance between that ideal and what we really are.

Paul continues to phrase the discussion in terms of “law”:

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 8:19-23)

Note Paul talking explicitly about the “law of God.” Clearly this means more than Jewish ceremonial law. It is the law that draws us away from “evil” and towards the “good.” Opposing this law is another “law” within the human self, the egotism and desire that thwart our intentions towards goodness. It makes no sense to construe Paul opposing this “law of sin” to the laws of circumcision, Sabbath, and wearing phylacteries. No, in this passage he is opposing the “law” (innate tendency) of egotism to the “law” (will) of God. It is not circumcision in which Paul “delights,” but God’s goodness.

Therefore Paul is asking a question with which we all struggle, whether Jew or Gentile: What can give us the power to keep from defeating ourselves? “Wretched man that I am!” exclaims Paul (v. 24), “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” “Body” does not mean just the physical body, but the human finite and mortal self, which leads us repeatedly into error despite our highest aspirations.

But Did Paul Really Mean It?

In this section we digress to consider a dissenting yet very influential opinion. I would like to spend some time with Krister Stendahl’s book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) because its point of view is so different, and because it has carried so much weight. This section will be rather long and may not interest readers not inclined towards biblical scholarship. Those who do have a scholarly background hopefully will appreciate it. Others may wish to skip to the next section, which they may do without losing continuity.

Stendahl believes that Paul’s words have been over-interpreted. He does not see Paul confronting any sort of crisis of conscience or inner conflict: Paul’s words, as powerful as they may sound, have nothing to do with the individual spiritual struggle. Rather, Paul’s main and virtually only concern is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant community, and that is really what his words are all about.

Here is Stendahl’s reasoning:

It is first of all clear that Paul suffered no personal crisis of conscience, since elsewhere (Romans 7:22, Philippians 3:6, 1 Corinthians 4:4, and 2 Corinthians 5:11) he considers himself “blameless under the law” and seems to have no problem at all complying with the law’s demands. As we read through Paul’s letters we get the impression that Paul actually thought quite well of himself, indeed was often given to boasting, and did not suffer from what today we would call an “introspective conscience.” If we receive a different impression on reading Romans, it is because we have been conditioned to view the text through the lens of the tortured self-whippings of Augustine and Luther, who looked to Paul’s words for solace and salvation. But Paul actually had a very different agenda.

Stendahl takes the word “law” in Paul to refer throughout to the law of Moses, the specific statutes of Judaism, and not to any abstract or general principle. Paul is therefore not concerned in Romans about the relationship of the individual to God’s will, but rather what the arrival of the Messiah Jesus means for the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant community, as well as their own relationship (or lack of one) to the law of Moses. If the Messiah came to save the whole world, including Gentiles, then the question of the relevance of Jewish law for Gentiles becomes pertinent.

It is in this sense that Stendahl understands the Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith,” which he believes has been given far too much importance in Lutheran and post-Lutheran interpretations of Paul. When Paul says that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” he simply means that no Gentile need accept Jewish law in order to enter the covenant community; faith in Christ alone is sufficient. This, he asserts, has nothing whatsoever to do with how one is to be saved from the futility of human existence, or the ravages of a plagued conscience. Why then use a word like “justification” to describe it? According to Stendahl, Paul’s use of this word has its background in the Hebrew Bible, specifically Judges 5:11, which speaks of the “righteous acts of the Lord” (KJV; NRSV renders the phrase less literally as “triumphs of the Lord”). It is through these “righteous acts” that God identifies a people as God’s own and vindicates them. This is what it means to be “justified” - identified as a member of God’s people.

Here we have the chief reason for Paul's emphasis on the terms, justification and righteousness. This emphasis presupposes a faith in which the church knows itself as belonging to God, knows its enemies to be God's enemies. There is a certain arrogance to this but it is at the heart of covenant faith. And in such a setting, that term righteousness/justification (tsedaqah, dikaiosune) once again took on its whole glorious meaning. (Stendahl p. 34)

Returning to Romans 7, Stendahl sees in that chapter not self-examination, no not at all, but more self-vindication. Stendahl sees the opposite of what most of us might sense when we read Paul’s words: he sees Paul once again justifying himself, elevating himself, finding himself worthy and blameless. Here are the phrases he extracts from Paul to show this:

“So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12).

“Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin” (Romans 7:13).

“Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Romans 7:16-17, Stendahl’s emphasis [p. 27]).

“For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self” (Romans 7:22, Stendahl’s emphasis [p. 27]).

“I serve the law of God” (Romans 7:25).

From this Stendahl concludes that Paul actually defends the law, calling it “good” and “holy,” that Paul is convinced his own resolve to do good is firm, and that anything wrong he does is not his own doing or that of his ego but comes from “sin that dwells within me.” It is sin, not Paul, that deserves all the blame. “Thus Paul does not feel responsible for sin; he is on the side of God!” (Stendahl pp. 27-28).

The argument is one of acquittal of the ego, not utter contrition. Such a line of thought would be impossible if Paul’s intention were to describe man’s predicament....

We should not read a trembling introspective conscience into a text which is so anxious to put the blame on Sin, and that in such a way that not only the law but the will and mind of man are declared good and are found to be on the side of God. (Stendahl p. 93,94).

To sum up, Stendahl makes very little of Romans 1-8, seeing these chapters as a tacked-on “preface” to the real meat of the letter, Romans 9-11. In those later chapters Paul deals directly with the question of Jews and Gentiles in the new messianic community. In the preliminary chapters Paul argues only that since faith, not the Mosaic law, is the criterion by which God recognizes those who belong to that community, Gentiles and Jews are accepted equally. That’s it. There is nothing in those chapters about the ache of a troubled conscience, the futility of human existence, or salvation from guilt and self-defeat. Paul was simply not concerned about those issues.

Stendahl’s view has had tremendous influence, and it is quite possible that most contemporary scholars of Paul agree with him. But does this view really do justice to Paul, or does it trivialize him?

Stendahl’s analysis, while extremely well organized, may yet leave the thoughtful reader feeling that something is wrong. There is too much that Stendahl leaves out, and these omissions add up to distortion. Here is one. Immediately after accusing others of quoting Paul out of context, Stendahl selectively quotes Romans 7:22 purporting to show Paul justifying himself: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self...” (p. 27). Stendahl leaves out what immediately follows: “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:23). What could Paul possibly mean by this, and what on earth does it have to do with including Gentiles in the covenant community? Stendahl never addresses these questions. Far from sounding complacent, Paul does sound in 7:23 like he is at war with himself. Why be so dramatic, if all that Paul is talking about is the law of Moses with its Sabbaths, festivals, and circumcisions, which he claims he has fulfilled perfectly?

Stendahl does try to cover this territory, considering at the very end of his exposition the verse “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want to do is what I do” (Romans 7:19). He dispenses of this apparent inner conflict by reducing it to “the rather trivial observation that every man knows that there is a difference between what he ought to do and what he does” (p. 93). What really impresses Stendahl is the part of v. 20 that he italicizes: “Now if I do what I do not want, then it is not I who do it, but the sin which dwells in me.” (He emphasized the same part of this verse back on p. 27.) Stendahl sees Paul proclaiming his innocence here, showing he is actually not conflicted but rather sure of his own commitment.

But does this really make sense? Is the answer to Paul’s outcry in 7:23, that “a different law” is “taking me captive,” simply to proclaim his own innocence (”It is not I who do it”)? Is Paul expressing no more than a trite observation that we don’t always do what we should?

Let’s look again at the verses Stendahl cites to support his assertion that Paul is actually justifying rather than examining himself. The subject at hand is the Letter to the Romans. What Paul may have said in Philippians or elsewhere was at different times to different audiences, and for a different purpose. It is not inconceivable that even a boastful and arrogant person - or especially such a person - may have moments when that veneer cracks and he really does take a good look at himself and the weakness for which his boasting tries to compensate.

We have already revisited Romans 7:22. Here again are the other verses Stendahl cites to prove that Paul had no inner conflicts and was rather quite confident about himself:

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. (Romans 7:12)

Here Stendahl sees Paul’s purpose as defending the goodness of the law, showing that he is on the side of the law. Such an interpretation does not go nearly far enough. It fails to take into account what comes immediately before:

I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Romans 7:9-11)

Yes, Paul recognizes that the law is good, and that is the problem! There are standards of goodness to which one must aspire, and here at least Paul recognizes that he sometimes falls short. “For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me”: this is mighty strong language to express the “trivial observation” that we don’t always do what we ought! No, Paul clearly appears to be saying something more urgent. He sometimes finds himself at odds with the very standard of goodness he upholds. We do not need to infer an “introspective conscience” in a modern psychoanalytic sense to believe that someone from Paul’s time might well be aware of falling short of God’s will and might lament that fact. Here is the Psalmist expressing a similar sentiment many generations earlier:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. (Psalm 51:1-4)

Surely the Psalmist is also on the side of the law. If he were not, he would not care that he sins! Yet he is profoundly distressed at how sinful he can be - not because he opposes the law, but precisely because he is for it. Therefore, we need not posit a modern “introspective conscience” to understand the anguish one can feel when contemplating how far short one falls from the goodness of God.

Now the next verse:

Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good. (Romans 7:13)

Here Stendahl actually sees Paul exonerating himself by blaming his shortcoming on “sin” working within him, rather than blaming it on himself. Likewise here:

Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is not I who do it, but sin which dwells within me. (Romans 7:16-17)

Stendahl interprets: “Thus Paul does not feel responsible for sin; he is on the side of God!” (Stendahl pp. 27-28). But immediately we read:

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:18-19)

The last thing this sounds like is a man who is satisfied with himself. But Stendahl downplays all of this, stressing instead the following verse:

Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:20)

This verse is an echo of v.17 quoted earlier, and again Stendahl ironically sees it as self-vindication. At this point Stendahl characterizes Paul’s attitude as “acquittal of the ego” and not “contrition” (p. 93), in spite of all that has gone before.

We have already discussed verses 21-23. Next we hear Paul’s final outburst:

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)

How does this impassioned cry fit with an image of Paul as complacent and self-justifying? We never find out, because the fit simply is not there. Stendahl quotes this verse, but does not comment on it. The closest he comes to touching on its content is the following:

At no point in his main correspondence do we find an intimation that Paul had any kind of bad conscience in relation to this weakness. He never said, “I am weak, I am wretched; humanity is weak; weak and sinful is my existence.” (Stendahl p. 44)

What??? Paul never said “I am wretched”? True, the context for this passage from Stendahl is a discussion of 2 Corinthians, not Romans. But Stendahl thought it perfectly legitimate to quote Philippians and 1 and 2 Corinthians in guiding his interpretation of Romans. How then can he simply deny that Paul ever said “I am wretched,” which Paul clearly says in Romans 7:24?

Finally we come to another verse Stendahl selectively emphasizes to support his vision of Paul:

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:25)

This is NRSV; Stendahl prefers “serve the law of God” and the Greek may be rendered either way. Stendahl gives primary importance to the first clause, seeing Paul once again proclaiming his good service to the law. He downplays the second clause, at one point omitting it entirely, and at another interpreting “law of sin” as simply a weakened law that leads to death like a medicine that is good but too strong for the patient’s organism to withstand. The assumption is that “law” in both “law of God” and “law of sin” refer to the same thing, an assumption not borne out by the text. In v. 25 Paul places the “law of sin” in opposition to the “law of God,” and clearly one cannot be just an altered or weakened form of the other. The “law of sin” cannot be the “law [of God], weakened by the flesh” (Romans 8:3) as Stendahl (p. 92) stipulates. The law of God, whose human approximation is the Mosaic law, attempts to save but is insufficient; it is “weakened by the flesh,” which is another way of saying it is defeated (temporarily) by human nature. The law of sin, on the other hand, aims only to destroy.

Thus when Paul says that when he does evil “it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me,” Paul is not boasting of his own goodness and allegiance to God’s law, but expressing his feelings of powerless before his frail human nature. Paul wants to do good but cannot; he is defeated by impulses that “dwell in his members.” That is not pride; that is not a boast. It is an expression of futility. There is simply no other way to understand it that does justice to the entire text.

One very serious omission in Stendahl is his failure to deal with the first half of Romans 7, and specifically Paul’s choice of the commandment “You shall not covet” as the prime example of an obstacle to spiritual progress. This choice is significant, 1) because it is the one commandment that concerns desire rather than behavior, something at times beyond our best efforts to control, and 2) it is binding on both Jews and Gentiles. This particular commandment does not involve ritual or ceremony or any other requirement of the “law” to which Paul believes Gentiles need not subscribe. It does not belong exclusively to the Jewish religion but has universal ethical implications. The consequences of covetousness can be just as severe whether it is a Jew or a Gentile who covets. Therefore Paul’s purpose in Romans cannot be merely to excuse the Gentiles from the Mosaic law. If that had been the case, Paul would have picked as his example something like Sabbath or circumcision. Instead, he chose a commandment whose violation has the same effect no matter who the violator may be, Jew or Gentile. In other words, Paul is addressing a problem of universal significance. And we have already seen in the previous section that by “law” Paul means much, much more than just the laws of Judaism.

The foregoing should be sufficient to demonstrate that Stendahl is in error in maintaining that the first eight chapters of Romans have no bearing on the spiritual struggle, inner conflict, and sense of futility we experience as human beings, instead only dealing with Paul’s mission to include the Gentiles in the covenant community without requiring their adherance to Jewish law. Stendahl’s intentions are understandable, to the extent that his aim is to correct the excesses of Lutheran and post-Lutheran anti-Jewish interpretations. Stendahl rightly critiques Luther’s notion of “second use of the law” by which Luther means crushing all personal sense of righteousness so to make us feel our “desperate need for a savior” (p. 87). This line of thinking has led to very destructive notions such as the “total depravity” of the human race, that no human being is capable of producing actions of any merit, and that all people deserve to be damned. It has produced a grotesque doctrine of “justification by faith” according to which only the acceptance of certain beliefs can save us from well-deserved everlasting torture, and acts of goodness count for nothing. Stendahl stands as a corrective to Augustinian, Lutheran, and Calvinist excesses. However, he goes too far in the opposite direction, trivializing Paul’s message and robbing it of its power.

I remember when I first read Stendahl. It was years ago. I was teaching Romans in a Bible class. My students were hooked on the narrative in those first several chapters of Romans. Paul’s letter really spoke to them. Then I read Stendahl and decided to teach Romans the “right” way. I told my students that we must understand Paul in his own context, which means he really was not addressing any universal spiritual issues (such as the issues they themselves were facing) but trying to find a way to bring Gentiles and Jews into one messianic community. One of my students got fed up. She said the class no longer had any meaning for her, and she dropped out. I realize now that she was right, and her leaving my class taught me an important lesson.

I believe that Stendahl’s work has had a deleterious effect on our understanding of Paul, the more so because of how influential it became. Scholars treat it as seminal. (For example, upon reading the books of N.T. Wright I can hear Stendahl’s phrases reverberating through them.) But it has robbed Paul of a relevance that he deserves.

So what was Paul actually thinking when he wrote those words? Did he have universal problems in mind, or was he, as Stendahl and others believe, consciously concerned only about his mission to the Gentiles? I believe Paul was concerned about both. Nevertheless, the question is too limiting. The words of gifted spiritual writers are timeless, and if these writers really are inspired by the Holy Spirit they may not - and I would even say usually do not - consciously grasp all the implications of what they write.

It may be impossible to get into the mind of any author, to discern what thoughts were in the person’s mind at the time of writing. This is most true of someone like Paul, an extremely complex thinker and writer. Commentators on Paul have presented many conflicting renderings, each one claiming to represent the “real” Paul. It may be impossible for anyone to construct a definitive interpretation of Paul, but any attempt to interpret him at all must do justice to his words. Stendahl is as selective as he accuses his opponents of being; hence his “minimalist” interpretation of Paul.

I do not know what Paul was thinking when he composed this letter. I have only his words before me, juxtaposed (in the Gospels) with the life story of the teacher who inspired him. I cannot claim that what follows reflects Paul’s conscious thought process; that is unknowable. My only hope is to propose a rendering of Paul’s meaning that both honors his words and respects the greatness that many have perceived in him.

Reconciliation: The Higher Power

I work as a patient representative in a nursing home. One of my residents, Jane, had resided in the home for a year. She came to the home because she was suffering from depression, became suicidal, and slit her wrists. It took her months to recover.

Jane asked for my help because her new roommate, an aggressive woman with a personality disorder, was refusing to turn her television down at night. She had it going at all hours, and refused to wear a headphone. Jane could not sleep with all the noise, and looked completely worn out when I visited her. I interceded with the nursing staff, trying to get them to enforce a reasonable standard of nighttime quiet, but weeks of effort only resulted in half-measures that the roommate became adept in thwarting.

I still had not given up - I never do. But one day I got some news that led me to believe the fight was over. Jane was approved for discharge. They found an apartment for her, and it would take just a little more time to get it ready.

When I heard the news, I went to see Jane with a sense of anticipation. I felt happy thinking of how Jane must have greeted the news. She would no longer be confined to this place, would no longer have to live in a ward of four people and have to deal with contentious roommates who don’t let her sleep at night. She would finally find relief.

So I was taken aback when I entered Jane’s room and saw the look on her face. This was not someone celebrating freedom and the start of a new life. She sat on her bed immobile, not focusing on anything, looking as if in a state of stuporous mourning.

I asked how she felt about the news that she was leaving.

“To tell the truth, it wasn’t so bad here. People treated me nice. I am going to miss the place.”

Of course that is natural, I told her, but on the other hand she would have her complete independence and a place of her own. And no noisy roommates! Once she adjusts to the stress that comes with any major change in life and finds her place in the community, wouldn’t all that seem worth it?

“No,” she said, “because my depression will come back. And the next time I decide to do something, I won’t tell anyone and no one will find me until it’s too late.”

Why would she expect that leaving the home after such a lengthy stay, something other residents would envy her for, would drive her once again to try to kill herself? We spent a little time together reviewing her life. Jane had a son, and the early years of raising him were sweet. She worked hard to give him everything he needed, and they were close. Then he grew up, got married, and seemed to become somebody else. Just before she came to the nursing home Jane, struggling with depression, found herself in need and asked her son for some money. He yelled at her and has not spoken to her since. And this even though Jane had given him so much before. Jane tried to kill herself, and her stay in the home began.

“I have always given to others, been there for others,” she said. I could see it was not just words. Jane has a soft, kind demeanor, a keen sense of others, and a visible good will. She is the type of person who someone else in need would naturally come to trust. “You are concerned about me, aren’t you?” she said during a lull in our conversation. “You are trying to think of something to tell me.” I was struck by her sensitivity to my feelings and her awareness of others, a quality rare among the residents of that home, most of whom come from very troubled backgrounds.

“People do notice that about me,” she said. “They seem to have confidence in me; they tell me that I’m caring. But when they tell me I’m going to make it, somehow I can’t believe them.”

I did not want to give Jane empty reassurance. I knew that wouldn’t work with her. At the same time, I didn’t just want to leave her feeling hopeless. I didn’t know what to say, but heard the following words just come out of my mouth:

“Jane, I really believe that if you commit yourself to giving love, that love comes back and finds you. And I stake my life on it.”

Jane heard it. This led to a discussion of her spiritual life, and we spoke of the need for her to find connection and support in a church community once she leaves. We spoke of her gifts, and specifically her talents as a a visual artist, and what that could give to herself and others. We recognized that rebuilding herself to the point of becoming an active participant in a new community would take time and effort.

Depression is multi-layered. It is a physical, mental, and spiritual condition. Jane is already addressing the physical with medication, but that alone is not producing any change. She will need ongoing therapy to deal with her emotional issues, as well as nourishment for her soul. I plan to speak with her social worker to see what resources we can help put in place to support her when she leaves.

This conversation with Jane took place only yesterday. But as I write about it now, I think of how for so many years I was struck by the magnificence of Paul’s words in Romans chapter 8, yet did not know exactly what they meant. Paul’s words can and have been interpreted in so many ways, but academic studies of Romans always left me feeling that I still didn’t understand what Paul was saying. And that is odd, because while most attempts to explain Paul have only baffled me, the awe I always experience on reading this chapter is undeniable.

As I sit down to continue writing this article I think of the words I said to Jane almost in spite of myself: “If you commit yourself to giving love, that love comes back and finds you.” That, in a sentence, is what I believe to be the meaning of Romans 8. And if we fully grasp the implications of what this means, then awe is an entirely appropriate response. Because this is saying - Paul is saying - not merely that people who love tend to find more love, but that a Higher Power intercedes in our lives, responds to the genuine love we give, takes our lives over, and guides them.

Now back to Paul. How one understands the chapter will be determined by how one understands its pivotal first verse:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

Paul’s phrasing is significant: he does not say “for those who have faith in Christ,” or “for those who love Christ,” or any other phrase whose meaning might be more explicit or familiar than the words he does use. He says “for those who are in Christ.” The meaning of this phrase is not plain at all. Much has been made of this Pauline term, and Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox theology have all offered their interpretations. And that is exactly what they are: interpretations. There is no way to “prove” that any particular theology of “in Christ” reflects the “authentic” meaning of the term or what Paul actually thought. One cannot isolate this term and parse it in a vacuum. How one understands Paul’s use of “in Christ” is governed by how one understands the Christ event itself. The two cannot be separated.

Thus we may say that to be “in Christ” means to be one with that event, to embrace it completely, to be a fully committed disciple of Christ.

But what does this mean? Here is one way of putting it:

But what does it mean to do God’s will? The one who explained it best to all of us was Jesus....

How did Jesus explain the meaning of the Covenant? One day someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the greatest?” To which Jesus replied: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).

Thus the greatest commandment and the heart of the message is love. And so Jesus also says, speaking in the name of God: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

The answer is to love, but not just ordinary love. It is to love as God loves, without limit, the stranger as well as the members of one’s family or inner circle of friends. (Judeochristianity: The Meaning and Discovery of Faith, pp. 16-17)

Jesus’s greatest innovation was to teach the world a new kind of love, or at least a love never explicitly described before: what we have called elsewhere “non-self-interested love.” Thus to be “in Christ” means to commit oneself wholly and to the best of one’s finite ability to the realization, expression, and practice of non-self-interested love.

It is this commitment that, to use another of Paul’s key phrases, makes one a “new creation.” Mere belief in Jesus will not do it. Not even acknowledging Jesus as Lord will do it. Jesus said so himself:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

We have already explained - no, it was Jesus who explained, as we have just seen - what it means to do God’s will. “The answer is to love, but not just ordinary love. It is to love as God loves.”

So taking into account not only Paul’s own words but the significance of Jesus’s life and teaching that lies behind them, one may consider the present interpretation of being “in Christ” as valid as any other.

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:2)

There is that word “law” again. We have already considered the “law of sin” as the tendency toward egotism that is part of human nature. Opposed to that is another law: “God’s law is a Law of Love,” the physician told the Backslider. Call it that, or call it the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ,” the law by which Christ calls us to live our lives: it means there is something, a counterforce to our strong tendencies to put self above sense, which even overcomes our self-destructiveness. Something in which we can place our hope, even when our lives seem to be falling apart. Only this Law of Love, grounded in the spirit of God, is strong enough to overcome our selfish human inclinations. And because we are created “in God’s image” and so always have access to the law of God’s spirit, we are not the “totally depraved” and despicable creatures that some interpreters of Paul would have us believe we are.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:3-6)

Here Paul develops his initial statement in greater detail. In light of what has just been said we may roughly paraphrase the above as follows:

For God has done what the law of religion (particularly its moral statutes), undermined by our innate selfishness, could not do: God sent his chosen one to show us that, even in our limited human form, we can overcome and repudiate our sinful tendencies. We thus have the power to conform to what God’s law (and its human approximation, the law of religion) require of us, as love lifts us out of our egotism. For those who live under the control of the self cannot see beyond the self, but those who commit themselves to God’s love find this love no longer hidden from them. To live only for the self leads to emptiness and self-destruction, but centering our lives in God’s love makes even our suffering serve the fulfillment of our destiny and brings us reconciliation and peace.

Of course this is not exactly what Paul said, nor does it capture his whole meaning. Paul’s words are poetry rich in symbolism and cannot be translated into anything else. That is the nature of good spiritual writing. My more pedestrian paraphrase is not intended to substitute for the original, but only as one way of entering its spiritual meaning. It is an attempt to make this inspiring yet perplexing chapter of Paul a little more accessible, and to show, contra Stendahl and others, how it is more than merely a preface to the “real center of gravity in Romans” (Stendahl’s phrase [p. 28], referring to Romans 9-11).

For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law - indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8:7-9)

Again: as long as we are captives of our egotism, we rebel against the commandment; we cannot do what God wants; we cannot love. But that is not all we are. Once we genuinely commit ourselves to following and expressing non-self-interested love however flawed, we are not left alone: God’s spirit, whose nature is that very same love, really does come to us and changes what hapens to us. This is the bedrock foundation of faith. It is far more powerful than any doctrine or catechism. It is a principle upon which one can stake one’s life.

The entire chapter may be understood from this perspective. To be “in Christ,” or for Christ to be in us, means we are totally committed to God’s commandment given through Christ: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Making this commitment means we are “in Covenant,” bringing us the presence of a Higher Power or, as Paul calls it, God’s spirit:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

This is important. The path to faith is not simple. We don't just sign on to the Covenant and then find our lives without stress. The road towards genuine faith - not the shallow faith based upon untested, unquestioned received belief - requires a daily commitment to the search and the struggle. In today’s self-help culture we are tempted look for the quick solution, but in the Bible faith is not won easily. Jacob had to wrestle with his angel, Joseph spent a long time in prison, and it took even Jesus forty days to resist the devil’s temptation. The classic writers on faith used to speak of “spiritual warfare”; they appreciated the difficulties, temptations, and recurrent fears that so often threaten to impede our progress. Being in Covenant, knowing this Higher Power, does not mean we will not suffer. But we suffer as Christ suffered, who even felt at one point that God had abandoned him, yet ended knowing he had never lost God’s presence. Our suffering does not vanish, but is transformed in this same way.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:20-25)

These words recall a prophecy of Isaiah, which may have inspired Paul:

Yet as soon as Zion was in labor she delivered her children. Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the Lord; shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? says your God. (Isaiah 66:8-9)

In both places the pain of childbirth is used to symbolize the connection between suffering and hope. The pain of labor is not final; it is the necessary prelude to a new beginning. Here Paul is more explicit:

We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

We need not fear suffering, because if God’s love is in our hearts then God uses our suffering to build our character and shape our destiny. Without this transformed suffering we could never realize all of our capabilities or discover who we really are. The “Holy Spirit” - or Higher Power as we may come to know it - is given to us to make this connection possible.

Paul has more to say about this Higher Power:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

We are not called upon to be perfect, or even to know what we are doing. No human being can become a perfect expression of non-self-interested love. We are asked only to make the commitment - and then we receive help from beyond ourselves. Then everything that happens to us works towards this higher purpose; everything we suffer helps form our identity. This does not mean we would, or even should, prefer our suffering. But even if we would still rightly wish to avoid it, we will find it making us better, more aware, more compassionate people than we otherwise could have been - as long as we adhere to our basic commitment. On this point Paul could not be clearer: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”

Loving God is not an abstract exercise, nor is it a practice of piety that takes us out of the world. The best way to love God is to love God’s creation. This might seem impossible since people are often so unlovable! But making this commitment to love can be simpler than it appears. In Judeochristrianity: The Meaning and Discovery of Faith there is a detailed description of love as rooted in awareness. Resolving to become aware of everyone we meet, to see and respect each one’s individuality, is the simplest way to practice love - and to fulfill the Covenant. The deeper the awareness of the other that we realize, the more completely love can enter our hearts.

And if love dwells in our hearts, then so does God (1 John 4:16). If God abides in us, then nothing can take that away:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

These often-quoted words of Paul are timeless, and not limited historically to his attempt to missionize the Gentiles. These words have given hope to too many people in extreme situations to be so easily dismissed. Paul is going way beyond his initial purpose to make a bold and radical statement: that if we remain in Covenant through union with Christ (in devotion to the love Christ represented and taught), we will witness a Higher Power in our lives, making a real difference in the course of our destiny.

This insight provides an entrance to faith for those who have difficulty finding faith. The “Backslider” said it so well: “Taking love as the basic command I discovered that my faithful attempt to practice a law of love led me to clear myself of certain dishonesties.” He found salvation not simply in resolving not to drink, but in “practicing a Law of Love.” The problem may seem to have been alcohol, but the solution went far beyond eliminating alcohol from his life. And so it is with the redemption of suffering in any form it may take. We feel powerless at first, but then discover we are not the only power.

This is the starting point of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless” (First Step). This powerlessness is not a bad place to be. It creates an opening for something else to operate in our lives. The reality of that “something else” cannot be proven. I could tell other stories and give more case histories, but they cannot prove the connection between the “Law of Love” and the work of a Higher Power. That connection can only be lived. It is ultimately a matter of faith. But spiritually inspired words like those of Paul show us how this faith is possible.

The story of the Backslider is one of return: a return to one’s values and commitments after many lapses, and in the end a return to God. In Hebrew the word for repentance, teshuva, literally means “return.” In this idea of return there is hope that our repeated failings, no matter how many, need not divert our lives from their proper course or keep us from fulfilling our destiny. The act of return is an invitation to God’s love, in a way that sinless perfection cannot hope to reach:

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)

In the Talmud (Berakhot 34b) we find a similar teaching: Rabbi Abbahu said that not even a completely righteous person can stand in the place of a repentant sinner. I have heard some, like the Prodigal’s elder brother, object to this teaching: “the righteous ones have made the effort not to sin; why should they not get more credit?” But it was never a question of credit. “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47). Those who know what it is to be far from God have the greatest chances of experiencing the full depth of God’s love.

And more than that: they have access to a faith grounded in experience that no religious doctrine can hope to provide. Such faith is meant especially for those who know the pain of living without it, because only the pain of separation from God can open the heart wide enough to receive it.

August 2013