context

Context is everything.

“I never want to see you again” can be devastating if spoken to a person but fully understandable if spoken to a grey hair that has just been plucked from your head.

It is entirely appropriate to greet someone and say, “How are you?” when you meet them in the street but sitting in a doctor’s waiting room the same question can seem overly nosy and perhaps even unnecessary.

Thumping someone on their chest is entirely appropriate if you are attempting to give cardiac massage but can lead to a night in the police cells if that other person Is perfectly healthy.

Steaua Fans“Who are you?” is a very different question when chanted by a football crowd in the direction of the opposing fans to when you say it to a stranger in your house.

It’s also very true for the way we read the Bible. If you take a verse out of its context you can almost make it mean anything, and can certainly distort its meaning. I can still remember the adage from my days in the vicar factory: “a text without a context is a pretext.” it’s important to ask ourselves what is happening in the surrounding passages in order that we can more fully understand the passage we are considering.

In all of the above circumstances if we fail to take account of the context we may well get the wrong end of the stick. We can jump to conclusions, make assumptions and fill in any blanks in the background story in such a way that we completely misunderstand what is happening.

Hopefully you are all agreeing with me at this point because they think I’ve said anything particularly radical. So why is it that we often fail to take account of our own context? We can fail to recognise that we are too busy and wonder why our family seem a bit distant. We can ignore sin in our own life and happily dispense judgement about others (Jesus said something about planks and specks of dust didn’t he?). We can feel hurt and wronged by others and fail to recognise that we may well have caused hurt by our own failure.

At its worst this tendency has a hideous name which Jesus used for the religious leaders of his day: hypocrisy.

Have people ever said to you that they won’t go to church because churches are full of hypocrites? it’s a sobering thought. But following on from yesterday’s bloggage I think (or at least hope) but the reality is that the churches are full of people who fall short of God standards but are aware of that and are asking God to help them as they wrestle with that reality. We are people who are acutely aware of our need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Please God always help me to be aware of my own context so that I never end up being hypocritical.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A driver is pulled over by a policeman. The police man approaches the driver’s door.

“Is there a problem Officer?”, the driver asked.

The policeman says, “Sir, you were speeding. Can I see your licence please?”

The driver responds, “I’d give it to you but I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one?”

The man responds, “I lost it four times for drink driving.”

The policeman is shocked. “I see. Can I see your vehicle registration papers please?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

The policeman says, “Why not?”

“I stole this car.”

The officer says, “Stole it?”

The man says, “Yes, and I killed the owner.”

At this point the officer is getting irate. “You what!?”

“She’s in the boot if you want to see.”

The Officer looks at the man and slowly backs away to his car and calls for back up. Within minutes, five police cars show up, surrounding the car. A senior officer slowly approaches the car, clasping his half drawn gun.

The senior officer says “Sir, could you step out of your vehicle please!”

The man steps out of his vehicle. “Is there a problem sir?”

“One of my officers told me that you have stolen this car and murdered the owner.”

“Murdered the owner?”

The officer responds, “Yes, could you please open the boot of your car please?”

The man opens the boot, revealing nothing but an empty boot.

The officer says, “Is this your car sir?”

The man says “Yes,” and hands over the registration papers.

The officer, understandably, is quite stunned. “One of my officers claims that you do not have a driving licence.”

The man digs in his pocket revealing a wallet and hands it to the officer. The officer opens the wallet and examines the licence. He looks quite puzzled. “Thank you sir, one of my officers told me you didn’t have a licence, stole this car, and murdered the owner.”

The man replies, “I bet you he told you I was speeding, too!”

wrestlemania

Doesn’t it strike you as odd? In the midst of one of the most profound and exciting theological documents ever written we find an admission of failure by the author.

I am talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is a theological gold mine, with a rich seam of gold sprinkled with priceless jewels of truth about Jesus.

And then we find this:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!

Photo by ramzi hashisho, used by permission

It’s Romans chapter 7 (NIV). What was it that motivated Paul to write this very personal admission? If you read the preceding verses we see that Paul is talking about our new life in Christ. In that life we are no longer bound by the law (by which he means the codified rules and regulations of the Old Testament and the assorted regulations that had grown up around them) but we live in freedom because of Jesus. Paul is not denigrating the Old Testament law but he recognises that all it could do is bring an awareness that we have fallen short of the standards.

It seems to me that as he was dictating this letter he realised the truth that whilst we have freedom from the effects of sin in Christ and God’s Spirit is at work in us to transform us and make us more and more like Jesus, we are also prone to falling short of God standards (and the law reminds us of that). As a Christian leader, looked up to and perhaps even revered by many people, Paul was perhaps more acutely aware of his own weakness and failure. When people are put on pedestals one of the problems is that they are slightly further out of reach and imperfections and blemishes are less obvious.

Perhaps this is Paul’s attempt at ensuring that people did not put him on a pedestal and an attempt at showing everyone that even Paul struggled with sin in his life. He did not deserve to be put on a pedestal and certainly did not want to be.

If we are honest, especially those of us in Christian leadership, we all have the ability to present a shiny veneer to those around us that suggests we are sorted, close to perfection, super spiritual believers. And if we are really honest we will admit that these verses from Romans 7 resonate with us. All of us are prone to falling short of God standards. Some of us come up with new and original sins, others of us return to the same old sins.

So what’s the antidote? What are we to do about this? Well for one thing I am sure that Paul was not content with the status quo. You can see that in the last verse above where he declares himself to be a wretched man. Sin becomes more of a problem if we become used to it, are content with it, and it doesn’t bother us any more. Wrestling with sin is at least a step in the right direction because it shows that we do not like that aspect of our lives. This is not something we can do on our own, even though we wrestle. This is what Paul continues to say in the verses immediately following those I have quoted above:

Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NIV)

I think the chapter divisions in our Bibles sometimes mask the truth. if we are reading the Bible we can often stop at the end of a chapter that when Paul wrote the letter there were no chapter divisions and his train of thought did not stop at the end of what we call chapter 7. That’s what the therefore is there for. We cannot sort out our propensity to sin and feel condemned by the law on our own. But God has done something about it.

We need not feel condemnation if we are “in Christ Jesus” because he has sorted out the condemnation of sin (the law has been fulfilled, the sentence served, guilt is unnecessary) and he gives us his Spirit to help us to sin less. I believe that the Spirit joins us in our wrestling and helps us by nudging our conscience, reminding us of Scripture, helping us to think about what Jesus might do and so on. But whilst he can help us, he does not take control of us. We still have to make the choice and still act on that decision.

So let’s have a little Romans 7 honesty and recognise that we all wrestle with the sin in our lives, nobody should be put on a pedestal, and pray for one another that we will listen to and receive the help of God’s spirit each day in our wrestling.

Be blessed, be a blessing.