Romans 8:5–9a, 12–16 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit… 12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
The details are sketchy, but it seems that one day Bowe Bergdahl up and walked away from his post in the war in Afghanistan. He just up and walked away. Disenchanted with the war and exhausted from the conflict, he tiredly just up and walked away. And when he did, he did far more damage to himself and to others than he could’ve ever imagined. He was caught by terrorists and held for five years. Meanwhile the U.S. military abiding by their long held policy of no man left behind went in after him. Some say that the massive search and rescue operation that we mounted for Bowe cost six American lives. And now probably more lives have been lost. Because here’s the problem. It wasn’t just American blood that was shed. It was enemy skin that was saved. The trade to get him back from the terrorists wasn’t a 1:1 trade. Several hardened members of the Taliban were released from Guantanamo Bay to fight us again, which as you can imagine has the distinct possibility of adding to Bergdahl’s death tally. Those are just some of the very real consequences of letting a terrorist win. Why do I tell you this? Because you bunk with one.
Helping us come to terms with that is apparently pretty high on the Apostle Paul’s to-do list. It’s why he gives us such a graphic description of this terrorist and even gives it a name. He calls it, “the flesh.” (v. 6) The flesh wants what it wants. And it does what it wants. And it only wants to do two things: it wants to do everything God says it shouldn’t do and it wants to not do everything God says to do. When it comes to God, it’s only a contrarian and according to Paul is his perfect enemy. It’s more perfectly opposed to God than ISIS is to the U.S. or Al Quaeda to New York. And it’s in you. The question is not whether or not it’s in you. It most certainly is. The question is whether or not it governs you. Paul says, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (v. 7) You can’t teach it. You can’t reform it. You can’t redirect it. You can’t send to some military school to beat some sense into it. You can’t even recondition it to make it function better. It’s absolutely impossible for, “those who are in the realm of the flesh… to please God.” (v. 8) Paul is basically saying, “You’d be better off trying to convert a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay to American values or trying to cuddle up to Osama Bin Laden with your Christianity. The flesh only has terror on its mind.” Your soul life is a personal cage match with a terrorist.
What’s interesting is Paul doesn’t spend any time describing what this looks like in our lives. Paul apparently thinks we’ll be able to work out ourselves how if we go to work in it for ourselves that our façade of niceness and our mask of service will blow its cover when it comes home. He thinks we’ll be able to forecast how the flesh won’t be able to fake it anymore and its wife – the minute she asks for something – will get an emotional sucker punch. Paul thinks we’ll see how its anger issues – it’s always ready to blow its top – come because deep down it’s scared. It’s scared it’s not going to get what it wants. Paul thinks we’ll see that it’s always ruining real sexuality. It’s in it to take, not give. And if its wife isn’t emotionally available – well – it’ll take from some videos instead. And it’s always medicating. It medicates the powerlessness it feels with gossip; it medicates the guilt it has with drink; and it medicates the affirmation it’s missing with the pursuit of some kind of Americanized version of success. Or it just plain wallows in its own darkness. It isolates itself when its depressed. It swims in its anxieties. It worries about its life and it gets bitter when it thinks stuff’s gone wrong. Paul thinks that all we need to know about this terrorist is that he’s always and only for himself.
What’s interesting about the flesh is that everybody – and I do mean everybody – is trying to get therapy for it. Everybody. Secular. Religious. Whatever. We’re all trying to get therapy. That’s why even psychologists need sessions and therapists need therapy. And by the way they do. The more honest ones will tell you that. You know what the trouble is? Even our best therapists – even our best psychologists aren’t sure what works. There was a bombshell article that came out this past fall in The New York Times. Maybe you saw it. The report basically said that talk therapy is far less effective than anybody’s ever thought before. When the statistics came out they shocked the whole counseling community. There was a Dr. Hofmann in the article that came out and said what everybody else was feeling about the findings. The doctor said, “There’s a sense of desperation out there because we need something new, and there’s very little on the horizon.” Why do I tell you this? Because I think you know just a bit what that feels like. The uncertainty you have with what God’s got going on in your life; the fears that brew; the lust that whirs; the way you’ll do anything for a pat on the back; the jealousy you have for those you have more; the disdain you have for those who have less. What I’m saying is that every single Christian has Bowe Bergdahl moments when you feel tired enough and conquered enough to just walk out to the terrorists.
And that’s why Paul deals with us the way he deals with us. Not with law, but with gospel. Not with a heavy does of more rules, but with a massive dose of gospel. I want you to make an observation. You ready? There isn’t a single command in this entire section. Not a single command. There’s no Paul here who hammers on your will saying, “Try harder. Fight more fiercely. Euthanize more quickly.” You know what you give people tired and conquered people. You have announcements. You have announcements to you and about you. Let me say it another way. Paul’s not trying to make you a better soldier. Paul’s trying to make you a better believer. And there is a specific gospel reality that he wants you to trust. “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit.” (v. 9) That’s so that Paul triples down on it later in the section. He says, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.” (v. 15) Let me tell you what that means. The key to living a victorious life when you’re in a cage match is to know you can tag in the Spirit.
And you know what he does when he gets in the ring? He displays absolutely no mercy. None. He kills. Paul in other letters he writes even calls it a crucifixion of the flesh. So he’s pretty serious about this. The Spirit rains down death. “By the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body.” (v. 13) And that’s a beautiful thing. In fact, I’d go so far as to call this the only kind of proper euthanasia. It’s actually the only kind of good death there really is. It’s the death of something so that you can really live. In fact, that’s part of Paul’s deal here. He says that we have no obligation to nourish the flesh or help it or keep it alive at all. And he’s right. I mean what’s that terrorist ever done for you or anybody else? Has he ever helped you have a better marriage? Hardly. Has he ever handed you a happier day? Never. Has he ever bestowed on you more confidence for the future? Not for a minute. He’s a miserable guy who makes everybody else miserable too. The only proper thing to do is to put that poor guy out of his misery.
And you can. Paul would have you know that. It’s like Paul already knows your objections, “But Paul, the flesh is still strong in me. I’m not sure I really have the Spirit. I don’t sense him.” And immediately Paul comes back and says, “Of course, you have the Spirit! How else do you think you came to believe that you have a Father in God?” Paul says it this way: “By him (the Spirit) we cry, “Abba, Father.” (v. 16) That’s no calm conversation. It’s not measured. It’s not low key. It’s not whispered. It’s shouted. It’s joyed. It’s cried. And it’s there. I know it’s there. Why else would you be here? Deep down in your soul, the Spirit cries in you, “Father.” And I think you already know what that means. Your God isn’t far off, distant, and hands off. Your God is here, near, personal, hands on, and yours. He’s your Father, your fighter, your protector, your provider, your strength, your joy, and your crown. He’s the God who will never let a single thing go wrong in your life. Not ever. He’s the watchful eye who’s got you in the palm of his hand. He’s your Father and that’s what fathers do.
So you have a Jesus who won you, a Spirit who lives in you, and a Father who watches over for you. You know what we call this? We call this doing psychology. You have to understand there’s a reason why Jesus calls the Spirit the Counselor. Because he counsels. And you have to understand that God understands we have a psyche. He’s the one who gave us one. And here God is doing psychology. He is not only telling you how your spirit functions within you. He’s also telling you how the Spirit functions within you. This is nothing less than psychology. Why do you tell you this? Because probably the biggest problem we’ve got is that we don’t really think the gospel is big enough to heal our souls and, therefore, we don’t think enough about the gospel. But what Paul is saying is that it is. What he’s pushing here are God’s psychological tools for hurting souls; therapy for your psyche; and healing for your spiritual wounds. The gospel isn’t just the forgiveness of sins. It is that. And primarily that, but it isn’t just that. That truth has a massive trickle down effect into every part of your psyche. It gives the gift of a whole new psychology. What’s left is for us to truly understand that and push it out in the parts of our soul that are tired or hurting.
You have a Jesus who won you, a Spirit who lives in you, and a Father who watches over you. You have a whole Trinitarian all-everything God who is pouring out his all-everything-ness on you. And what I’m saying is that getting overwhelmed by that, believing that, and seeing that in your life will meet every one of your very real psychological needs. Finally, isn’t that what heaven is? We finally realize how true the gospel is and our psychological needs have been met. In fact, I’d suggest to you that while we’re here the depression, lust, and anxiety the flesh always push shows us that there’s some aspect of the gospel that the Spirit has yet to push into us. Think about it. Need affirmation or more romance? What’s more life affirming for you or more romantic than watching God pursue you passionately and expensively with his Son? Want a sense of stability in your life or to not worry so much about finances? Understand better that you have a Father who happens to make planets spin and makes the entire treasury of the U.S. government look like a pittance.
And, yeah, I’m just getting started. There’s a reason that Paul says that when we walk with God’s psychology and with his Spirit that we will have a life of, “life and peace.” (v. 6) You don’t have to wear a façade of niceness to work. You’re not there seeking. You’re there having. You don’t come home frustrated and ticked off. You come home ready to love your wife. And those fear/anger issues? Gone. The world’s not spinning out of the control. God’s got the world right where he wants it and you in your proper orbit. And the marriage bed? Well, you get to be with the the most beautiful woman in the world – the woman who God gave you, the one you share a life with, the one who knows you and loves you. And that search for affirmation or power through gossip? No deal. I’ve been affirmed through the cross and rose up through the ranks when I noticed that God has his eye on me. And guilt? I don’t need a bottle. I just need Jesus’ blood. And what’s to be worried about? God will get it right. He’s my all-powerful Father. And why swim in those anxious thoughts? Jesus rose from the dead and seriously made everything all ok. What the Spirit gives you in the gospel is relief from the cage match.
Do you see what I’m saying? What I’m saying is that the gospel isn’t just some kind of church pep rally cheer. What I’m saying is that the gospel is big enough for our souls. You start with your justification and you let it trickle down from there. Martin Luther understood that way better than me when he said, “Where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life.” So let me just say this in closing. You’re no Bowe Bergdahl. You’re a person brought in and adopted through the work of the ultimate combatant, Jesus Christ. You’re a person who through the hearing of the gospel has received the Spirit and now you cry, “Abba, Father.” You cry. Not whisper. Not guess. Not hope against hope that it’s really true. You have a Jesus who won you, a Spirit who lives in you, and a Father who watches out for you. We call that truth the gospel, the ultimate counsel, the perfect therapy, God’s psychology and what it does is produce in you something so victorious that the only term that does it justice is this one: resurrection life. That’s the Spirit’s daily work in you. There’s no tiredly walking away from that. There’s only joyfully walking in that. Every day of your life. Amen.