Don’t think of elephants. Or Britney Spears

‘Oops, I did it again.’ That was the title of a song by Britney Spears. You’ll be relieved that I won’t attempt a rendition, but the words are revealing. I think they’re a demonstration of how, 2000 years later St. Paul’s writing is totally relevant. So, Britney Spears:

I think I did it again. I made you believe
We’re more than just friends.
It might seem like a crush,
But it doesn’t mean
That I’m serious.
‘Cause to lose all my senses…
That is just so typically me.

She knows she has the power to make that chap fall for her. She knows it won’t lead anywhere. She knows it would be wrong to do so. Yet she can’t resist but do it again. It’s something deep down, in her nature.

Britney Spears was singing about flirtation. But the line ‘Oops, I did it again’ could sum up a common experience in all sorts of areas of life. If you prefer the Latin Classics to decade old teeny-pop then you might remember the poet Ovid’s version: ‘I see the better things and I approve them, but I follow the worse’.

It’s clear then that St. Paul describes a universal experience when he says in v. 15 ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’. Don’t we all know what it’s like to be faced with a decision, to know what the right thing is, and yet end up doing the wrong thing? To know that we shouldn’t gossip and yet colluding in the criticism of someone? Or wanting so much to conquer a bad habit and yet being unable to do so? It’s not as if we don’t know what’s right – we do, in V.16 ‘I agree that the law is good’, and yet sometimes we do not meet our own standards.

Paul has a real sense of anguish here. He longs to do right, but lets himself down. In V.22 and 23a ‘I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in the parts of my body another law at war with the law of my mind’.
It’s like hearing the baby cry at night and knowing in my mind that it’s my turn, but my body isn’t really awake yet and though I do want to go and deal with her, my bed is so warm and comfy. And I want to get up, and I want to want to, but laziness is so strong. As the saying goes: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Many Christians struggle with this. The big broad idea I mean. They get discouraged by their failings. They wonder: can I really be a true Christian if I can’t conquer my habits? How come it’s so difficult to be the person I want to be? Why do I keep on doing wrong? Does it mean I’m not really a Christian?

No it doesn’t. Actually, be encouraged by it. Because the very fact that you keep on with the struggle, and are concerned by it, proves that you are a Christian. Wrestling with sin, striving to do right is part of every Christian’s experience. And we can be comforted by the knowledge that even a great saint like St. Paul went through it too.

It may be more of a challenge at some stages in our journey than others. Sometimes our experience will be of victory. I’ve heard of people who’ve come to faith in Christ, and God has just taken away the desire for a particular thing that held them captive. There was a Chinese woman I read about who had an addiction to gambling, and she couldn’t shake it. When she committed herself to Jesus, God took away the addiction. She just didn’t want to gamble anymore. It held no attraction. So God can transform a desperate situation with his power.

Often though, he wants us to develop self-discipline and a daily trust in him. So he might not shield us from those temptations. Instead he says ‘keep trusting in me, keep coming back to me.’

It’s as if we’re caught between two worlds. As if there are two people under our skin battling for supremacy. One is a child of heaven, seeks God’s will, tries to put it into practice. That’s the new person, the one who’s been born again in Christ. This one seeks fulfilment and wholeness in God’s way. It looks forward to God’s perfect world.

But we also still inhabit our fallen human bodies. We are still, in this life, creatures living in an imperfect world. Old habits die hard. The expectations of society influence us, pressures within and without. So it’s almost like a war within, a split personality, an inconsistency. Paul recognises that it won’t be part of him for ever, but while he lives in a world which is not perfect, he cannot be perfect either. That will be case until we leave this world and go to be with Jesus, where we will be whole and healed.

What does this mean practically for us? Well, I’ve spoken about how we need not be discouraged when we fall short. Instead, we can rejoice in God’s forgiveness, pick ourselves up and try again. Don’t be disheartened by your struggle against sin. Know that God holds you, he forgives you, and the struggle is a sign that you belong to him.

And a practical tip: keep on fighting evil, but don’t focus on it. If I say to you ‘Don’t think about elephants’, what are you thinking of? In the same way, if you put a lot of energy into avoiding a sin, then you’re always being tempted. You know the advice if you’re trying to give up smoking and you get a craving? Don’t think about resisting the craving, rather go and do something else. Same with evil. Don’t obsess. Instead be positive. Don’t focus so much on avoiding evil, as on doing good. Then your mind will be facing towards the positive things.

So we shouldn’t be discouraged. If we apply that principle to ourselves, then we ought to apply it to others too. Other Christians will be struggling with temptations and their flaws. So we can’t expect churches to be perfect communities. Churches in this world cannot be places where everyone is sincere all the time, or where individuals never go off on one.

I know people get disillusioned because Christians don’t always live up to their calling. But the church is a regiment of the walking wounded, and we must be patient and forgiving with one another – as well as having the trust and confidence to confront problems with truth and love.

Coming towards the end, there is hope that in Christ this situation will be overcome. In the next chapter, Romans 8, the Apostle Paul describes how the Holy Spirit gives us strength and perseverance. People who have struggled for years with a particular temptation can overcome it. We just have to keep on going.

And finally, one day, Christ will release us. As Paul writes in v. 24 and 25. ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’. He speaks of God’s new creation – the new heaven and the new earth in the life hereafter. One day we shall be free. When we die, we shall die to sin. If we are in Christ, evil will no longer have any power over us. All that will be in the past, and we’ll have new bodies and a perfect future. We’ll no longer be torn in different ways but able to live God’s way completely. We’ll no longer be snappy, or embarrassed by our failings, or feel that we’ve let ourselves down again. Instead one day we shall know the truth, approve the good things, and do them.

So never let the struggle get you down. Don’t focus on the evil but on the good. Never give up. But look to your future with God and persevere.

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