WHY DOES GOD LET US STRUGGLE?
God’s Invitation to Grace ❧ Part 37
Romans 7:7-25 ❧ Pastor, Dr. John Denney
One of the questions every serious believer asks often sooner than later is: Why does God let me struggle? Why can’t I overcome my temper? Just about the time I think I’ve got it under control, I lose it. How come I can’t seem to break this bad habit? I want to quit, but I just can’t seem to bring myself to do it. Why do I struggle with my thoughts so much? Why don’t I have more self-control? What happened to the victory, peace, and joy I first trusted Christ? If I am a new person, why do I still struggle with my old self? I wonder if I am really a Christian. If God loves me, why does He let me struggle so much? Any of these questions hit close to home? The truth is all of us have struggles. We all hit speedbumps; we all experience setbacks from time to time. Even the Apostle Paul said: I am still not all I should be (Philippians 3:13, TLB).
Open with me to Romans 7. If you’re struggling in your walk with God this morning; if the very things you don’t want to do you find yourself doing and the things you want to do you find yourself not doing, then you need to hear this message. This passage has, in the words of one author, helped shed the graveclothes of death for thousands. Taking these nineteen verses to heart will save you a lot of heartache and confusion. Read Romans 7:7-25.
Paul has just finished telling us as believers we’re now dead to the Law (Rom. 7:1-6). Using marriage as an illustration, he says we were like a wife married to a husband who expected perfection 24/7/365. The husband was the Law. As a husband, the Law was always demanding, always correcting, always right. The wife, on the other hand, was never good enough, and she hated it. But the husband dies, and she marries another. Only this husband treats her with love, understanding, and grace. She is still the same person, but the difference is her motivation has changed. She is no longer afraid. She serves her new husband out of love and appreciation, not out of fear and guilt.
In the same way, Paul says that is what the Law was in our lives – always demanding, always correcting, always right. But now a death has taken place. We died and the Law no longer has jurisdiction over us. We died when we trusted Christ. We died with Him in His death (Rom. 6:3). Elsewhere Paul says, I have been crucified with Christ… (Gal. 2:20). We died to the Law. But now we live to Christ, our new husband of grace, understanding, and love. We now serve God in the newness of the Spirit (6:6), that is through God’s Holy Spirit of grace in us. Paul begins in verse 7 asking, What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! Paul says the Law is holy, righteous, and good(V.12).
A lot of us as believers are confused about our relationship to the Law. On the one hand, we died to the Law. We’re no longer under the Law but grace (6:14). On the other hand, Paul calls the Law holy, righteous and good. The confusion is cleared up when we realize the Law reflects God’s perfect character, His perfect standards. Since we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), our character should be like that of God’s. But it isn’t. Sin has destroyed our ability to live up to His perfect standards. Paul is going to show us God did not give the Law to remove our sin, but to reveal it. Like an X-ray machine, the Law looks deep inside of us and shows us what is wrong. This doesn’t make the X-ray machine bad. It’s good, it’s doing its job! The same is true with the Law. It’s good. It’s doing its job – revealing our sin.
But that is not Paul’s main point in this passage. On the one hand he wants to set the record straight about God’s Law so no on thinks Paul is saying it is bad. What Paul really wants to answer for us in this passage is that once I become a Christian and am now under grace, why do I still struggle with sin? The great apostle Paul bares his soul in this passage unlike any other.
Debate surrounds Paul’s words of inner conflict. Is he talking about before he was a believer, or after? His use of the first-person singular pronoun “I” some 29 times in this chapter makes it clear he is not talking about the past, but the present. Paul has written a painful autobiography of his own struggle with sin. Paul’s Painful Autobiography. This is not just Paul’s autobiography; this is everyone’s autobiography. He points out six areas of our struggle.
- I am guilty before God. What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7). Most people don’t need anyone to tell them they are guilty before God. They know it. Paul says, he knew it because of what God said in the tenth commandment: You shall not covet… (Ex. 20:17). It goes on to say you shall not crave your neighbor’s home, his wife, his servants, and so on. It comes down to an attitude that wants what you can’t have. This commandment was like an X-ray machine of God looking into his heart and showing him his guilt.
As a strict Pharisee, he could handle all of the other laws; don’t lie, cheat, steal, murder, etc…. because they all dealt with what you did on the outside – where everyone could see. But it was the tenth one that really was his downfall. It is the only commandment that deals with the heart, the inner desires. When we have wrong desires then we do the others – lie, cheat, steal, murder. Paul said: I didn’t know I had these wrong desires until God pointed them out. The moment I found out that I could not secretly be envious of my neighbor’s house, wife, status, etc… and not get away with it, the more wanted to do it. The commandment showed him the utter sinfulness of his sin.
This is what Paul means when he says in verse nine: I once was alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; (Romans 7:9). What Paul thought would bring freedom and life, in fact brought guilt and death. James 1:22-25 tells us the Law is a mirror that reveals the inner man.
- I am a slave to sin. For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin (Romans 7:14). More than simply being guilty before God, I realize I am a slave to sin; I’m trapped. Remember, Paul is not talking past-tense: Ten years ago I use to be a slave to sin. He’s talking about right now. I have a problem, he says. Every time I see a sign that says “Do not touch,” I have this inner urge to touch it! It’s crazy! When I see a door that says, “Do not enter,” I want to open it just to see what is on the other side!
Our problem, Paul says, is we have two natures. Our old nature we inherited from Adam. Our old nature loves to push the limits, cross the line, break the rules. But our new nature loves God and wants to please Him. It doesn’t want to lie, cheat, and steal. What surprises me is that as a believer I find myself still being tempted to do all the wrong things I use to do.
Have you ever noticed that right in the middle of the word “sin” is the letter “I”? Paul is saying that is what our problem is, we have an “I” problem. The old self still wants to take over. Our old self can be so consuming that all we see is our bondage to past behavior. All we see are our shortcomings, failures, problems, frustrations. Trying to live this new spiritual life in Christ has left me feeling frustrated and trapped. I feel like I’m in a loosing battle. I am a slave to sin.
- I don’t understand what I am doing. This whole battle has left me feeling really confused. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good (Romans 7:15-16). I don’t always understand what is going on inside of me. He says we have two major problems: 1) We can’t stop doing what we don’t want to do, and 2) We can’t do what we want to do! I can’t seem to stop doing the wrong things and I can’t seem to do the right things! I really don’t understand!
- I feel out of control. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want (Romans 7:17-19). I know I’m guilty of sin before God, I feel enslaved to it and can’t seem to get away from it. I don’t understand what is going on inside of me. I feel out of control. No matter how sincere my intentions are, I can’t seem to carry them out. I can’t change! I’m out of control! All this has left me feeling frustrated!
- I am frustrated. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members (Romans 7:21-23). What Paul is describing here is someone who has not fully realized they are dead to the Law. You are dead to the Law when you realize you can’t be justified by keeping it. Paul is describing that part of us that finds it so easy to revert to the flesh; to live by a list of rules to please God. One author put it this way: This is just like the law of gravity. It ties you down. You may flap all you want to in your flesh but you’ll never get off the ground in your own effort.
The problem with Romans 7 is self. The key words in this chapter are “I…me…my….myself…”. It’s all about three people: me, myself, and I. There is no mention of the Holy Spirit in this chapter. In other words, Romans 7 is all about the confusing, struggling, frustrated efforts of trying to live the Christian life in his or her own power.
The Christian life is a supernatural life, not a natural one. Our problem is that in our natural flesh we want to control everything. What we need to learn is that the Christian life is not a life of independence; we’ve already been doing that. The Christian life is a life of dependence. Jesus said, Without Me you can do nothing(John 15:5).
- I am helpless. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin (Romans 7:24-25). The word wretched in Greek literally means worn out from exhaustion, completely empty. It means having fought such an intense battle you’re absolutely out of energy. That’s the way many Christians are. They’re out of energy. They’re tired. They’ve been fighting the battle so long and they just can’t get victory. Paul cries out in agony. “God, I can’t change! I cannot change in my own power!” “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Paul is at his wits end. He’s at the end of his rope. He feels like giving up. His Olympian self-efforts to please God have left him worn out, depressed, exhausted. One of the greatest lessons God has taught me about Himself is that He knows exactly what we need and exactly when we’re ready to receive it. It seems that sometimes He allows us to flail and struggle. We cry out to Him but He doesn’t lift a finger to help us. God knows something we don’t always give Him credit for. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows when we are at the end of ourselves. He knows when we’re through looking for answers in ourselves.
It’s not an accident that those God uses the most are the ones who have come to the end of themselves. God knew Abraham wasn’t ready for the son He promised him until he was at the end of himself; when he was 100 years old…then God stepped in and gave him, and Sara their son Isaac. God waited until Joseph was hopelessly forgotten in the bottom of a rotting Egyptian prison before He raised him up to second in command. Psalm 105:18-21 They afflicted his feet with fetters, He himself was laid in irons; until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him. The king sent and released him, the ruler of peoples, and set him free. He made him lord of his house and ruler over all his possessions. God waited until Moses was 80 years old before He raised him up to deliver the nation of Israel from their Egyptian bondage. Vance Havner notes, God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfumeÖÖ it is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.
Why Does God Allow Let Us Struggle?
- To remind us to keep our eyes on Jesus. Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2, NLT). Paul has a problem with self in Romans 7. His eyes are not on Jesus, but himself.
How can we do that? Pursue knowing Jesus. Read His Word, reflect on it, pray, journal, fast; practice spiritual disciplines for the sake drawing closer to Jesus. Spiritual disciplines are not a means to make you holy, they are a means for knowing Christ… As the moon reflects the light of the sun, yet has no light of its own, so we begin to shine with God’s radiance as we live in proximity to His Son (Swindoll, p. 166). John Newton penned, I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, “By the grace of God I am what I am.
I find that’s when the struggle is the greatest and bleakest when I focus on me. In his book: “Your God is Too Safe: Rediscover the wonder of a God you cannot control” Mark Buchanan, writes: Self-composed wedding vows make me nervous. Usually they end up vague and mawkish, Gibranesque (bland, flavorless) inanities posing as profundities. Or they are hardnosed bargains and cutthroat contracts covered with a thin veneer of poetry. A couple I was going to marry insisted on writing their own vows. I asked that they let me review them. One phrase in particular stopped me cold: “I promise to be true to myself.” “Um,” I said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t want that in the vow.” “I’m pretty sure we do,” the man said. “Maybe you’re different from me,” I said, “There’s a part of me, I glad to say, that is joy-filled, generous, trusting, trustworthy. But there’s another part of me — maybe the larger part that’s slothful, lustful, greedy, miserly, apathetic. I could go on. Which part should I be true to?” It occurred to me then that to take traditional marriage vows is to pledge, in essence, that I won’t be true to myself. I will be true to another. I will be true to God. But in order to do that, I will often have to deny myself — deny my impulse to run, to retaliate, to sulk, to self-indulge, to self-destruct…. One way to describe the trouble we’re in is that too many of us for too long have lived by a promise, binding as a vow, to be true to ourselves. This is, he goes on to say, the myth of self-reliance. Being self-reliant, being true to ourselves, is at the root of our fallenness. We fell because we trusted ourselves. Then he concludes, We will never be saved until we come to the end of ourselves and fall upon the mercy of God. We must trust Him. We must be true to Him. Well said.
- To show us we are powerless to change ourselves. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (John 15:5, NAS). Your will is powerless to change your old nature. You cannot change your old nature by making New Year’s resolutions. Paul said: I desire to do what’s right but I can’t do it. The Law is unable to change you. You’ll never have any victory in your Christian life until you realize you can’t be a Christian on your own effort, your own power, in your own energy, your own flesh. Don Shelby writes: When we tell ourselves “I can never change,” or “That will never happen,” we presume too much and believe too little. In Jesus Christ God renders all of our final conclusions premature and all of our talk of determinism as simply bad faith. In Christ, God opens closed doors, brings resurrection, reveals possibilities, reclaims the lost,liberates the cursed and possessed, and changes the unchangeable. Our power to change comes from Christ in us; He does the changing, we do the trusting. Paul understood this when he said, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me(Philippians 4:13).
- To teach us to be people of grace. To teach us to be real with ourselves and others. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead(Philippians 3:13). Paul had not arrived and nor have we. Would you look to the person setting next to you and say, “You haven’t arrived.” None of us have. Justification means God has declared us righteous before Him, but our sanctification, the working out that righteousness, has only begun. John Newton penned,I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, “By the grace of God I am what I am.
Our natural tendency is to hide our inadequacies, our shortcomings. It takes a huge amount of energy trying to live a life making others believe we don’t have any problems – we have it all together. If Paul, the greatest Christian who ever lived, didn’t portray himself this way, then neither should we.
This didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me until my late teens and early twenties when I became serious about living the Christian life. As I grew closer to God, I felt like was walking into an intensely bright light that revealed all my imperfections, shortcomings, inadequacies. It didn’t take long before I was really struggling. I didn’t understand why my walk with Jesus was becoming harder, not easier. I reasoned that since I’d left my home, my family, my friends, everything just to go to Bible college; everything to pursue Jesus. I thought I’d given up so much that the Christian life would a cinch. I was wrong. I was still living a self-reliant life.
Then one day a man named Major Ian Thomas came and spoke at our chapel in Bible college. He was an elderly man easily in his late seventies or early eighties. I will never forget his thick British accent. He taught me the meaning of Paul’s words: Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:24-5). It’s a life of total reliance on the power of the Spirit, not my own.