For anyone who anxiously studies the best way to do things, the New York Times ran a heartening article last fall on the best way to run. A highly scientific study concluded that there is no one best way to run. Myths of Running, October 15, 2012. Hallelujah. Just knowing that is liberating. We can take one anxiety off the check list of our brains when we run. We no longer have to worry about whether our heel, midfoot or frontfoot is striking first. Because I don’t know about you, but anytime I go running I’m constantly trying to outsmart myself. I’m trying to trick myself into going faster just a “little” longer; or in sprinting just to the “next bend”; or telling myself to at least try to pass that 100 year old woman who is walking faster than I can run….
But when we engage in those kind of mind games, how can there be two parts of our brain? It’s the kind of interesting dichotomy brought to life so well in The Inner Game of Tennis. We have an inner self who is condemning and judgmental and who makes the performer in us freeze up. And then we all have a self who can just let go, who performs far better. Fine. Great. Got it. But how do we use our “self” to let go of our “self”? We know there’s a jolly happy relaxed self who could beat Federer. But how do we use our jolly self to outsmart our inner Cruella deVille??
It seems paradoxical to just try harder. I mean, how are you supposed to “try harder” in order to get into the zone where we stop trying??
Here in this famous chapter of Romans 7, Saint Paul leaps straight into the heart of this paradox. His despairing cries about human nature suggest that trying harder only backfires. Here’s what he says about himself: “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Romans 7:15, and 18-19.
I love his honesty. Most people like to say they’re good. They like to say all you have to do is try hard to be a good person. They say that’s enough.
But I don’t think they believe it. Why else do so many people overdrink, overeat, procrastinate, pop anti-anxiety medication or focusing medication or anti-depression medication; hate their to-do lists, ignore their children, be rude to their parents, obsessively collect mailboxes or car tires or baptismal fonts? What is behind all the nonsensical crazy things we know other people do – and therefore have to admit, in our heart of hearts, that we must do also since it’s logically impossible that we’re the only person who doesn’t act a little crazy sometimes? Maybe we don’t thieve from the tills at work. But we all have our stuff, the things we want to do but just can’t seem to do. For Paul it was coveting. He says it’s as if there’s this dark power at work inside of him and the moment someone tells him what is right to do, the dark power tells him to do the opposite. He says there’s a war going on inside him, and he feels buffeted by it. More than that, he says he feels like a “slave” to the dark powers inside of him – as if no matter how hard he tries, “inevitably” he can’t make himself choose the lifegiving ways of, for instance, not coveting.
I think King Solomon put it best when he said the hearts of people are full of evil and there is “madness” in our hearts while we live. Ecc. 9:3 (NIV). What else but evil accounts for exploding bombs at the finish line of a marathon? Solomon’s words cut through the age old debate of whether evil people are crazy. He just says that evil IS “madness.” It’s “mad” to want to hurt others – of course it is – and yet we’ve all done it. Our mouths act like bombs sometimes, going off when we least expect it and maiming all within earshot. Or we might tell ourselves not to EVER worry again – whether because we are starting to trust God, or for the practical reason that we’ve figured out worry doesn’t help anything – and then we immediately find ourselves worrying over the dumbest things. “Stop worrying,” we order ourselves in frustration, only to realize that now we’re worried that we’re worried. Trying harder can just make us feel miserable.
It’s enough to make us cry, along with Saint Paul, o who can free us from all this?? Romans 7:24.
The answer is not to trick ourselves into obedience – like my friend who likes to imagine scary evil people running after him to make himself run faster. It’s not to say God or our mother or our neighbor will hate us if we don’t tow the line. Instead, Paul is talking about a way of living inside of the zone. It’s a zone of acceptance. It’s a place without condemnation. It’s a land of joy. When we accept the truth of Saint Paul’s riff on human nature – that evil and madness are within our hearts – we can give up. We can stop pretending to ourselves and others and instead surrender to God. That’s when we get to do what Paul calls “living in the Spirit.” We get to live in the land of grace. We live in the joy of God’s love, a joy based not on our performance but just on existing. It’s the joy of knowing we belong to Him because He made us.
The key to receiving all this is admitting we need it. Admitting our wayward nature opens the door for God to do the work. He did it on the cross. We don’t have to try harder. We let go, and God does the rest. God cannot work with us when we’re pretending we don’t need Him. A doctor can only heal someone who knows they’re sick. We have to be willing to swallow whatever medicine God gives us. And if we are finally willing to give up trying harder to be good, God comes in and fills us with His love instead. He paid the price for all those times even 100 year old women walk faster than we can try to sprint through life. We stop trying to be full of “good deeds” that fool nobody except maybe ourselves, and then only on a good day, and instead we ask for mercy.
Mercy is a beautiful thing. It looks weak but it’s strong. When we receive mercy – God’s undeserved love – it fills us with joy. It fills us with strength. It gives us boundless energy. We lose our anxiety. We can focus on the task at hand. We can live in the moment. Jesus is “the answer,” as Paul concludes here. Romans 7:25. He’s the answer to every problem, to every issue, to every time we try harder only to have it backfire.
Our response to mercy is to be thankful. Being thankful makes us feel like we’re running so fast we don’t even notice if anyone is passing us. It’s like going for a long run with our i-pods set on All Songs. No matter what comes next, it’s always a song we love. We don’t have to try harder. We can relax into it. After all, when we let go, God carries us. There is no paradox. It only seemed like one because we thought it was up to us. But when we surrender, God can finally take care of us the way he has always longed to. His love makes us move faster than any runner on earth because in His arms, we fly.
posted by Caroline Coleman on April 16, 2013 in A Chapter a Day