The Do-It-Yourself Life?
“What then are we to say about these things?” We’ve reached the climax of Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, and there is a fork in the road. There are two ways of life. The first is the “do-it-yourself” way of life, which according to Paul leads to nothing but death and should be given a decent burial. The second way is life in the Spirit. Will you welcome the Spirit of God to dwell in you? Will you embrace what the Spirit is doing in you? Will you be shaped by the Spirit of God within? Or not. Which will it be, the do-it-yourself life, or life in the Spirit? Paul thinks it’s the most important choice you’ll ever make. “So what do you think?”
Let me back up a bit. Let’s recap a little of what we’ve heard as we’ve worked our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and especially chapters 7 and 8 that we’ve read together this past month. In Chapter 7, Paul gives us this anguished account of his own experience trying to live the do-it-yourself life, or life in the flesh as some translations put it.
“I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate . . . wretched man that I am!”
The do-it-yourself life that Paul anguishes about here is the life in which we do our best, where we try to do what’s right, to be good, to improve ourselves, to live up to expectations, our own, our parents, the expectations of others and of our society. We try to comply with all these written and unwritten rules that keep us constantly striving and working harder. Sure, we might have some successes, but we can never win. We can never be smart enough, rich enough, thin enough, kind enough, fit enough, good enough to meet all those expectations. Often, we fail, and when we do, we keep it hidden if we can, and instead we continue to offer a beautifully curated Instagram image of ourselves to the world.
Paul isn’t talking in the abstract here, he’s speaking of his own life experience. Paul was a striver, always held to high expectations, sent to the good schools, a high achiever, educated in the law so that he could be a leader among his people, a Pharisee. He wanted nothing more than to keep God’s law. Paul was sincere, and yet, for all his efforts to keep God’s law, Paul ended up persecuting the followers of Jesus, putting good people to death because they were disciples of the one that God had sent to fulfill the law. Imagine the guilt and shame that Paul experienced when his eyes were opened.
“For if I know the law but can’t keep it … I obviously need help! I can will it but I can’t do it … I’ve tried everything but nothing helps.”
Not all of us have experienced the depth of Paul’s anguish. But as we talked about two weeks ago, this is something that we all deal with at some point in our lives. We live, for the most part, do-it-yourself lives. That’s what our society encourages. Independence, wilfulness, achievement, self-reliance, self-help, striving, competing, working harder. And yet, in our efforts to meet the written and unwritten codes that surround us, we have to deal with unmet expectations and negative judgements, with failing to live up to the standards we set for ourselves and others. All of us have to deal with shame. All of us have masks and defences that we use to deal with it.
Mostly, we respond by trying harder. By exercising our will power, by using our moral muscle, by redoubling our efforts. It’s exhausting, this do-it-yourself life that we try to live.
But Paul says to the Romans, there is another way. A better way. He calls it life in the Spirit. It is a way of life which welcomes God into our lives instead of simply trying harder. We welcome the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, to dwell in us. Instead of redoubling our efforts, we embrace what the Spirit is doing in us and we start to experience life on God’s terms rather than simply our own. We allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit, and, as Paul writes to the Romans, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
So what do you think? Are you ready to give the do-it-yourself life a decent burial and to have God himself take up residence in your life?
That would require a tremendous amount of trust, wouldn’t it? But as Paul tells the Romans, “those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them, living and breathing God.” Again, Paul is talking from personal experience. When the Spirit lives in us, she guides us, she helps us in our weakness, she even prays for us with sighs too deep for words when we don’t ourselves know what to say. Life in the Spirit, according to Paul is a great adventure, it’s open, it’s spacious, it’s freeing, it brings us peace. You begin to experience life on God’s terms, and God’s terms are good.
But it does mean shifting your focus from yourself to God, and that’s pretty hard on most of our egos. There are good reasons why we prefer the do-it-yourself life. Everyone else is doing it, it’s what’s expected of us, we’ll fall behind if we don’t keep at it. At least it feels like we’re in control, that we’re doing what we want, that we’re making progress - though I’m not sure that these things are always true, and sometimes the cost can be high.
To shift the focus to God, well what does that even mean? To welcome God’s Spirit into my life, into my very being, well what does that even mean? There are a few unknowns here. A lot of this comes down to trust.
Do you trust God? Do you believe that God wants the best for you, that in all things God is working for your good? Do you believe that God loves you, and wants you to grow into the person he created you to be? Do you believe that God will always be with you? Is there anything that could ever separate you from the love of God? Life is hard sometimes, there’s a lot of suffering. Can we trust God in the midst of all this?
Paul knows the questions. He’s lived them. He knows we have trust issues; he’s experienced them.
What then are we to say about these things?
Does God love us? Yes, as Paul puts it, God proves his love for us in that while we were still far off, Christ died for us.
Does God want the best for us? Absolutely! God is for us. And if God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
Is there anything that can ever separate us from the love of God? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Can we trust God? Yes.
This is Paul’s faith. It’s way of life each one of us needs to experience for themselves, supported in community. Choose life in the Spirit. Welcome the Spirit of God into your life. Embrace what the Spirit will do in you. Those who trust God will find God’s Spirit in them, already at work in them. They will live and breathe God in the depth of their very being, they will experience God’s love at work from the inside out.
And nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Homily Yr A P17, July 30 2023, Trinity
Reading: Romans 8.26-39
Image by Lola Audu