Habits and Patterns and Bents, Oh My!

In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them.
He Reigns
Everything That Has Breath

Romans 7:15-25a
© Stacey Steck

I’ll bet you never knew that the road to the new Jerusalem, that place with the streets of gold, is really the yellow brick road that leads to the Emerald City. That’s the journey we’re on, isn’t it? To get to the end of the road and meet the man behind the curtain? But it’s an uncertain journey, isn’t it? Filled with all manner of obstacles, great peril of all kinds, danger lurking just off the path. Maybe you remember the song that Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man sang. “Lions and Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!” Those three characters were on the way through the dark woods when the noises they heard coming from the trees began to spook them. And their imaginations overwhelm them and they begin to conjure up visions of fearsome beasts, and they sing that famous line, “Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” and what should pop out in front of them but a lion! Yes, it was the Cowardly Lion who was no threat at all, and who joined them on their merry way so that they could get their rewards, and Dorothy could click her heels together three times and arrive back at home, sweet home.

Well, the Apostle Paul had his own way of describing the dangers of the Christian journey toward eternal life. Although the shorthand for those dangers is sin, the way he talks about the risks of the journey in this seventh chapter of Romans sound more like something that should come from The Book of Romans: The Musical! Habits and Patterns and Bents, Oh My! Habits and Patterns and Bents, Oh My! Habits, and Patterns, and Bents, Oh My! No, the risks to our journey of faith are not wild animals but bad habits, ingrained patterns, and unconscious bents, those ways we go through life which make it so difficult for us to change, to be the people we want to be. Paul puts it so plainly: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We know what we are supposed to do, but we just can’t stop doing the opposite! And most of the time, it’s those pesky habits, and patterns and bents which keep us frustrated.

Paul is writing to people he’s never met in Rome, but people whom he knows are familiar with Jewish traditions about the Law of Moses. They are most likely not Jews, but that category we call God-fearers, Gentiles who were attracted to the high ethical standards of Judaism, and the love, grace, mercy, and justice of the God behind it. We see these characters mentioned several times in the New testament, most notably the Centurion Cornelius who first heard about Peter’s vision of the inclusion of all people in God’s vision for the world. These God-fearers were not born Jewish but adopted the lifestyle, and kept the commandments, but who were not circumcised. These were a group of people whom Paul always sought out as he would go to a new city, since it was the Gentiles to whom he was sent. So here he is now writing to those who had likely decided to follow Christ but who were maybe not quite so sure that Christ was the next logical step, especially when there may have been others telling them that they needed to fully become Jews in order to become Christians, as Paul addresses more directly in the book of Galatians. In any case, this part of the book of Romans is a key part of Paul’s case that God used Jesus Christ to keep the promise made to Abraham that God would ultimately bless the whole world, and not only Israel the chosen nation.

In what is an argument that is a little too complex to address fully on a Sunday morning, Paul is trying to show that the Law of Moses was part of the process to get that promise to Abraham delivered, but that Christ’s death and resurrection complete the job. The Law is great, Paul is saying, but it is not quite enough. The Law shows us what sin looks like, kind of like shining a flashlight under a bed. We have a pretty good idea that it’s kind of dusty down under there but until we put a flashlight to it, we never knew how dusty it really was. But of course, it’s not the flashlight’s fault that it is dusty under the bed. Dust is the real problem. And no matter how hard we try to clean up that dust, it always comes back! Dust never sleeps! Yes, sin is as pervasive as dust, or a virus. NT Wright, no slouch of a Biblical scholar, describes sin as “a power let loose in the world, a deceptive and corrosive parasite that has entwined the whole human race in its tentacles and is slowly choking it to death.” The law then, is like an electron microscope used to identify that virus, a discovery that leads to ways to avoid the symptoms of the disease we all live with. It is Christ, Paul is arguing, who kills the virus and makes us healthy, but we continue to act like we have the virus, including living out the symptoms.

It’s like our minds are not fully aware that our bodies are free from the contagion, so the mind tells the body to do all of the same things it always did with the disease. Hence, Paul’s famous words that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Habits and patterns and bents, oh my! We are living and wrestling, Paul says, with the legacy of sin, even though in Christ we have been freed from it.

And it’s a struggle, isn’t it? Ignorance is bliss, the old saying goes. When we don’t know it’s wrong to do something, we don’t have a problem doing it, except maybe for the consequences. But when we know something is wrong, and we still do it, that’s what creates the inner turmoil that Paul is describing. And it’s not just a matter of being troubled by a conscience that has let us know when we are doing wrong. Paul has the additional agony of knowing that Christ has accepted us unconditionally even if we continue to sin. “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

So here is our dilemma. We know that Christ has died to free us from sin, and we believe it, but we still sin on a pretty regular basis. In the chapters between now and August 23, when the Lectionary brings us to the lovely words of Chapter 12, Paul will go into more depth on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” But before we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds, we need to understand what is wrong with our minds in the first place. And that brings us back to the “habits and patterns and bents, oh my.” Why do we continue to do what know is wrong?

Well, Paul was a great theologian who probably would be fascinated by what we are learning about the human brain these days. The simple truth is that we learn sin, and it’s really hard to unlearn it. If there is any truth to the idea of original sin, it’s that we are bound by our brain’s inability to learn any other way than the way it learns. In a nutshell, here is how we learn. In the first place we observe. As babies, we observe that when we cry, someone comes to tend to us. It’s like magic. We can summon creatures to do our bidding. All we do is open our mouths and we get our needs met. And we observe that if we cry in a certain way, we get fed, and if we cry in a certain different way, we get our diaper changed. And of course, the learning process works both ways doesn’t it? The parents learn which cry is for food and which cry is for diaper. We aren’t born knowing that stuff. We learn it. And so every day for months and years, until we learn how to speak, we cry, and other people respond. We don’t think about what we do. Babies don’t say to themselves. I’m feeling hungry. I’d better use that hunger cry to get my needs met. Here we go! No, they have the inclination, the bent of hunger, and the habit of crying, which leads to the pattern of parental response. Habits and patterns and bents, oh my.

What is happening inside the brain is fascinating. All this learning is creating what are called neural pathways, information superhighways of electrical and chemical connections that make our brains more efficient so they can get on to learning more new stuff. These neural pathways are like shortcuts across the brain. Ever see a path worn across a field or a lawn? It’s usually not where the sidewalk or the road is. It’s where the people who walk there go on a regular basis because it’s the fastest, most direct route. And the grass never grows there because it’s been walked on so many times. Those pathways become familiar ruts over time. And it becomes very hard to take any other route from point A to point B. This is why it can be very hard for human beings to change things even when we want to. Because the brain isn’t really wired that way. The brain wants to make things as automatic as possible so it can be on the lookout for new threats. And so our ways of being become automatic, from the tilt of our head which attracts our mother’s attention, to the accents we use in our speech, to the bad habits we take to the golf course from practicing our swing the wrong way too many times. Yes, muscle memory has everything to do with why we can’t stop sinning.

And it is not enough to be aware of our inability to change. Just knowing we are doing something wrong doesn’t make it easy to do it right. In 1928, the experimental psychologist, Knight Dunlap, got tired of making the same handwriting mistake over and over again. He had this annoying habit of writing “the” for “the” which he had tried for years to correct, unsuccessfully. Dunlap’s breakthrough came when he decided to pursue the issue counterintuitively. He began to intentionally practice spelling the word the wrong way, again and again, and ultimately he successfully cured himself of the wrong spelling of the word instead of the right one. He went on to elaborate what he called his beta hypothesis that others put to the test with at least some degree of success. I’ve used this technique to help Lucia practice the piano and it frequently works. Sometimes you just have to trick the brain to get it out of those ruts, to disrupt those neural pathways. It’s a sermon for another day, but this is precisely the genius of Jesus, who so often counterintuitively challenged his followers to go and do otherwise.

The things we learn, the sins we learn, we usually don’t learn intentionally. Our sin is the result of a bent, an inclination toward getting our needs met, that becomes a habit or a pattern of behavior that just goes on and on. And so we say with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” That rescuing takes a couple of forms. The first is that life in the Spirit can help us create new neural pathways that get us out of our ruts of sin. We can learn new ways. We can have different internal dialogues. We can become less automatic and more thoughtful. We can make better choices. We can overcome biases we didn’t even know we had. God can do this. God does this. Ideally, that is why we gather together, and have Sunday School, to create the right kind of ruts. The Spirit gives us guidance and the Spirit gives us strength for that project.

But the other kind of rescue is the more existential kind, and that is remembering that Christ has already overcome our sin, and that even if we can’t get overcome all of our habits, and patterns and bents, oh my!, God still loves us. And maybe, just maybe, knowing that God loves us helps us learn that we are not bad people, but simply people who do bad things. And that’s a big difference. You see, if you think that you are a bad, unlovable person, you’ll act one way. But when you know you are loved, and that you are simply a good person who has a hard time overcoming doing bad things, you’ll act another way. Embracing God’s love helps us keep trying to be the people we want to be, and the people God wants us to be. This is the love that leads Paul to his grateful praise, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and the love that can lead us to new life. Amen.