(…continued) What about you? Have you always understood all of your own actions? Or do you perhaps sometimes say to yourself, “I wonder whatever made me do that?” or, “I wonder what got into me to say that?” Did you ever say anything stupid or mean or sinful or immoral or unkind, and then catch yourself saying, “Why on earth did I do or say that?” If so, you can relate to the words of Saint Paul, that champion of the faith and author of half of the books in the New Testament. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I do not even understand my own actions, for the good that I want to do I cannot do, but the very thing that I hate– that is what I do.” We know what is right and we know what is wrong, and yet we so often forget the right and do the wrong. “Wretched man that I am,” said Paul, “who can free me from this wretchedness?” We wonder sometimes why there is so much trouble in the world and in our own dealings with other people. Yes, the actions of other people are often hard to understand. But do you understand yourself any better?
So the Lord said through Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure, who can understand it?” Even if you think you understand yourself, you may very well be on the wrong track. Why? Because the heart is deceitful above all things. Oftentimes, the one you are best at fooling and deceiving is yourself. “All they ever do is complain,” he said to me one time, this cranky old man who everyone knew was the biggest complainer in the church. That is what Jesus was referring to when he talked about removing the log from our own eyes before we try to remove the speck from our neighbor’s. The heart is deceitful above all things, says Jeremiah.
In the first week of Psychology 101 class you learn about ‘rationalization,’ and how we are all experts at rationalizing away our faults and misdeeds. Another word for that could be giving oneself the ‘benefit of the doubt,’ that is, to come up with understanding and sympathetic reasons why we just couldn’t help doing the wrong thing. We learn to do that at a very young age. But the Christian virtue described in the catechism as “explaining your neighbor’s actions in the kindest way” is much more difficult.
So Paul asked how we could be freed from this wretchedness, and of course, he had an answer. But for the first part of the answer we have to go back to Jeremiah, and hear again what God said through him. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Right there is the first step in seeking help, admitting that we are beyond cure, and unable to help ourselves. That is how Alcoholics Anonymous starts out their 12 step program of recovery, and why they have been so successful with so many people. Their approach is very Biblical, beginning with admitting we are helpless, and then looking to God for forgiveness and help in forgiving.
No amount of testing screening therapy or training will guarantee against even the brightest and the best falling. Even the brightest and the best in the Bible, trained by the Lord himself, failed and fell on the night Jesus was betrayed– Judas by the betrayal, Peter by his denial, and the rest by their desertion. The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure, and the sooner we admit that and look to God alone for help, the better off we will be.
Then, after admitting our helplessness and confessing our sin, God is more than ready to forgive us in his love and by his freely given grace, won through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Of course, we can’t manage this on our own. That is why Jesus died on the cross. In looking to Jesus and believing in Jesus, we are not given therapy, but a new heart and a renewed mind. Even Jeremiah predicted as much, saying just a few chapters later, “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people… I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts… and all will know me… for I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”
So now, with that in mind, be careful out there, says the Bible. Be careful to obey all that you have been taught, says Moses, Joshua, Paul, Jesus, Peter, and all the rest. They all knew the power of sin and the danger of temptation, so they said be careful, for the heart is deceitful above all things. Look to Jesus, not only for forgiveness, but also for guidance and for the strength to endure temptation and resist the devil, for he continues to seek to ruin everything for you. We are forgiven sinners, but still sinners, and need to be careful to obey and not fall away.
I John 1:8-9 — If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Matthew 7:3 — (Jesus said), “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
Romans 7:19…24-25 — I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.