Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 16

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Deeper Into Romans

I got deeper in the book of Romans today, and I really like it. It's really an edifying read for me at this stage in my spiritual development.

The other day I wrote about the book of Acts, and how Paul came across (to my mind) in a bad light in that book. He seemed like, as I said, a "jerk." Romans has really lent some balance to my perception of Paul, and I see him now, first and foremost, as an amazing theologian. One of the best things about really studying Romans is that it's backed up and supported a lot of the theology I read and enjoy. It's clear that Paul was a big influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I can see his thumbprint on the ideas of C.S. Lewis, as well.

Now, I don't consider myself an expert on Romans in any way, shape, or form... but I do want to write today about three big themes that jump out at me from the book. I'll site specific scripture that seems to me to support those themes, and just write a little about what I get out of it. As always, input from anyone (Catholics, other Christians, and otherwise) is encouraged and anticipated.

The three themes that seem to me to be major threads in Romans are:

  • 01) The dangers of having a judgmental mentality

  • 02) The importance of ecumenical faith

  • 03) Basic tenets of the Christian lifestyle

  • I'm not suggesting for a moment that this is a complete or exhaustive analysis of the book of Romans. I don't think that having read the book twice qualifies me as an expert, and I really hope I don't come across like I think I know it all. Still, it is really amazing how complete and cohesive the book is when you read it as a whole. Growing up in church... and even as an adult... my actual time spent reading the Bible was pretty much limited to the passages we'd read at service on Sunday. Actually sitting down and reading the Bible like it were any other book seemed like a daunting concept to me, and I never really tried it. Now that I have, I realize how little I actually know about it. Anyway, let me get to those themes I mentioned:

    The Dangers of Having a Judgmental Mentality

    Since there were Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles living in Rome at the time of Paul's writing of this letter, he addresses it to both of them. At times, one section will be specifically aimed at Christian Jews, and other sections will be specifically aimed at Christian Gentiles. It seems to me, though that it's safe to dispense with those distinctions and presume that the book speaks to all Christians now. (But please take everything I say with a grain of salt. keep in mind that I'm just Joe Blow reading the Bible, here... I'm not a theologian or trained clergyman.) As I quote from Romans, I'm not going to try to differentiate between which passages are aimed at Christian Jews and which are aimed at Christian Gentiles. If you'll forgive the presumption, I'm going to assume that all of it is aimed at each of us... and me in specific.

    Romans 2:1-4
    ...You are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things. We know that the judgment of God on those who do such things is true. Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?

    This leaps out at me, and makes me keenly aware of the times when I've deemed someone to be a "bad Christian" because of attitudes or behavior that I thought was inappropriate. How many times have I, who profess Christ as my savior, engaged in behavior or had attitudes that I know Christ wouldn't condone? More than I can count. I love the last verse, and the mindset that it says we should have when we encounter the sin of another Christian. Remember that it is through God's grace that we are saved, and that each of us is unworthy of that grace. We must not discount the grace of God by deeming ourselves worthy to condemn those who God himself forgives.

    Romans 2:19-23
    ...if you are confident that you are a guide for the blind and a light for those in darkness, that you are a trainer of the foolish and teacher of the simple, because in the law you have the formulation of knowledge and truth, then you who teach another, are you failing to teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob temples? You who boast of the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?

    I read this as a clear and obvious call by Paul to self examination on the part of Christians. I don't think he's only addressing "teachers" in the obvious form, here. I think he's addressing all of us. If I call myself a Christian, I must remember that my behavior "teaches" non-Christians what a Christian is. It's a heavy responsibility, and not one I'm sure I'm up to... but, I think it's an indication that I should try live as though I am the only Christian that non-Christians will ever meet. That is not to say that I think I'm supposed to get on a soap-box. In fact, it's the opposite of that. If I am the only Christian that a given person ever meets, and I come off as a crass and obnoxious hypocrite, I'll do more harm than good. I think Paul wants the reader to look deep within himself and do one of those "fearless and searching moral inventories." That can really be uncomfortable. The cool thing about it, though, is that Paul does it himself, right here within the book of Romans. (I'll get to that later.)

    I don't think that the verses imply that we should excuse or accept sin where we find it, but it certainly implies to me that if I want to cast a judging eye, I better cast it on myself.

    Romans 3:19-20
    Now we know that what the law says is addressed to those under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world stand accountable to God, since no human being will be justified in his sight by observing the law; for through the law comes consciousness of sin.

    Again, it is not for me to memorize the Ten Commandments, nor the Golden Rule, nor any passage of scripture, and use it as a way to indict those around me. The worst way I could abuse the Bible is to scorn other sinners (of which I am one... big time!) by quoting scripture at them and getting high-and-mighty when I perceive their sin. I must remember that scripture is best used to seek out, understand, and try to destroy my own sin, not to drive a wedge between others and God. And I must remember that observing the law, in and of itself, doesn't make me righteous. I'm justified through the grace of Christ, not by any actions of my own.

    Romans 12:2-3
    Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. For by the grace given to me I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think, but to think soberly, each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned.

    Another verse that seems to encourage serious introspection and reflection, and to discourage being self-righteous. I like the use of the word "soberly" (that's the word used in the King James, the New International, and the New American versions), and what it implies. To me, "thinking soberly" means being totally honest with yourself, even if what you find within yourself isn't what you want to find. I know how hard that can be, trust me. It's a lot harder to really examine my own faults than it is to take note of the faults I see in those around me.

    The Importance of Ecumenical Faith

    These verses in Romans really got my attention when I first read them. I'm ashamed to say that the first thought in my head was "I should memorize these verses and use them as ammo against anyone who condemns me for converting to Catholicism!" Then, a careful examination of the stuff I quoted above made me feel foolish. I'm not supposed to use scripture as a weapon. If I want to get preachy with it, I better get preachy at myself. So, while I draw comfort from these verses with regard to my own choice of church, I realize that I have lessons to learn from them as well.

    This first passage I'm going to mention is a long one:

    Romans 14:1-8
    Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. One person believes that one may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. The one who eats must not despise the one who abstains, and the one who abstains must not pass judgment on the one who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on someone else's servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (For) one person considers one day more important than another, while another person considers all days alike. Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the Lord. Also whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while whoever abstains, abstains for the Lord and gives thanks to God. None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.

    A long passage, the heart of which, I think, is "Quit your nit-picking!" We do that a lot, as Christians. Look at all the divisions and separations among Christians. Churches split and break away from each other over the color of carpet and the size of a steeple. I especially like the verse that says " Who are you to pass judgment on someone else's servant? Before his own master he stands or falls." That's a great point. If I look down my nose at the members of Church X because I think that any one of their practices is wrong, or less than right, or not complete, or whatever... then I am appointing myself fit to judge someone else's servant. They aren't serving me, they're serving God in their own way. If something really is wrong with the way they worship or the things that they believe, that's between them and God. It ain't my business.

    Romans 14:13-19
    Then let us no longer judge one another, but rather resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; still, it is unclean for someone who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being hurt by what you eat, your conduct is no longer in accord with love. Do not because of your food destroy him for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be reviled. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy Spirit; whoever serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by others.

    This takes the "don't nit-pick" theme a little further, and uses food as a specific example. Apparently, diet was assigned a great deal more religious significance than it is by most of us these days. I think, though, that the point is the same, whether it's about food or music or clothing or just about any innocuous thing. If I know a Christian who thinks that "practice X" is unholy or anti-Christian, then I really should make an effort to avoid participating in "practice X" in their presence. Not because it is unholy, but because I shouldn't do anything that consciously causes rifts between myself and fellow Christians.

    As an example, I have a couple of tattoos. I enjoy them, especially my most recent one, which depicts an image from a C.S. Lewis book. I know, though, that some Christians think that it's wrong and sinful to get tattooed, and that they can site Biblical evidence that seems to support their belief. I don't share that belief, and I read those verses of the Bible differently, and I don't think that the Lord really cares about my harmless little tattoos. Still, if I'm going to be in the company of another Christian who thinks tattoos are sinful, I ought to go ahead and wear long pants and long sleeves to keep my tattoos hidden, so as not to offend them. It's better for me to make that small sacrifice than to let something that I see as trivial become a real wedge between me and another Christian. It's a small sacrifice to make... especially compared to the Sacrifice that's been made for me.

    Romans 15-1:4
    We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves; let each of us please our neighbor for the good, for building up. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, "The insults of those who insult you fall upon me." For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

    More of the same kind of thing. It's important to be tolerant and accepting of one and other in the brotherhood of Christianity... and the burden is especially on those of us who aren't troubled by things that trouble other Christians. It's better for me to do without something trivial, if a fellow Christian finds it offensive, than to rub it in his or her face and cause friction between us.

    My first reaction to this was "But why should I have to do without things I like just because somebody else has a hang-up about it?" Then I remembered what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him, come and die." And I remembered what Chesterton says: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it's been found difficult and left untried." Nobody ever said that being a Christian meant getting every trivial thing I want, or that I wouldn't have to make sacrifices along the way. Making sacrifices, in fact, is what it's all about. The trick, for me, is going to be learning to make those sacrifices with a loving heart, the way I'm supposed to. If I make those sacrifices bitterly, I may as well not make them at all.

    Romans 16:17-18
    I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who create dissensions and obstacles, in opposition to the teaching that you learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the innocent.

    I suppose there is a limit to the amount of condemnation we should tolerate from other Christians, and Paul seems to recognize this. It seems like there are those who share my faith, but who are just always negative and judgmental. (In fact, ever since I made it known publicly that I'm converting to Catholicism, they've been coming out of the woodwork!) Some people just seem to have personalities that cause them to always look for something bad to say. I think Paul is saying that it's better to just avoid them than to fight with them. I know a few people who I should limit my contact with to a simple wave and a smile. It's not always easy to do that, but it really is the best way, I think.

    Basic Tenets of the Christian Lifestyle

    This is the part of the book of Romans that reminds me the most of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. I think it clearly influenced Bonhoeffer's work. This is a long passage, but I think it's really beautiful:

    Romans 12:9-19
    Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute (you), bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

    What else is there for me to say to that? It's all there. Faith, hope, charity, love, humility, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, forbearance, reverence. I don't see how anyone, agnostic, gnostic, atheist, or otherwise, could argue with the lifestyle advocated there.

    Romans 13:8-10
    Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, (namely) "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

    I like how Paul puts it in a nutshell, there. If I remember Christ's commandment to love others as he loved us, I'll keep the other commandments without even having to think about them.

    Here are some other passages from Romans that got my attention.

    Paul's confession of his nature

    Romans 7:14-25
    What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if (I) do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin.

    Wow. The poor guy! It's obvious that he was aware of those elements of his nature that Luke writes about in the book of Acts, and was struggling to overcome them. I feel bad for having called him a "jerk" when I read those verses. I feel a real sympathy and admiration for Paul because of that confession. That passage makes it clear that there was more to him than just a guy up on a soap-box.

    Paul argues against moral relativism

    Romans 3:5-8
    But if our wickedness provides proof of God's righteousness, what can we say? Is God unjust, humanly speaking, to inflict his wrath? Of course not! For how else is God to judge the world? But if God's truth redounds to his glory through my falsehood, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say--as we are accused and as some claim we say--that we should do evil that good may come of it? Their penalty is what they deserve.

    Pretty cut and dry, I think.

    The existence of God is obvious

    Romans 1:20
    Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they (non-believers) have no excuse.

    If I had to pick a single favorite verse of Romans, that would be it. I'm hard pressed to really say why, it just hits home for me. I think it has something to do with the years when I was an agnostic, and justified my unbelief by saying that there was no proof of God. There's proof of God everywhere if you just look around.

    That's all I have to say about the book of Romans for now. I'm not sure what I'll read next, but I'm sure that, whatever it is, it will lead to more verbose posting. I'm considering picking up some theology again. The theological nature of the last few things I've read seems to validate the value of the theology I'd been reading, and to provide evidence that the stuff I've read is scripturally sound. As of right this second, though, for the first time in a few months, I have no idea what book I'll find in my hands tomorrow.

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