It Just Don't Add Up
a homily based on Romans 7:15-25
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall
Moms are the worlds greatest
theologians! Moms have shaped more theological notions about sin than this world dreams
of. Remember those top ten phrases, like "Why, __________, you know better than
that!" Or "Why, __________, (first name followed by middle and last name, means
that shes really peeved), "Im ashamed of you!" Or how about this
one? "You didnt learn to burp out loud at the table in this family!" My
moms personal theological favorite used to go like this, "Why, Tom, whatever
possessed you to do that?" To which I always wanted to add, "oh, a couple of
demons." Theological moms very quickly reveal the utter depravity of our lives.
But moms dont have a corner on theology. Theology can also come from the
toons on Saturday morningat least in the old days. I remember one cartoon in
particular about a cat, two mice, and bull dog. Two mice have discovered an entire room of
cheese and so they feast. Eat so much of the stuff that they bloat like balloons.
Theyre so sick, they want to end their misery. So they run toward the cat crying,
"eat us, eat us, Mr. Cat." And they jump into his mouth.
Well, this strange mouse behavior throws the cat off, so he suspects the mice are
poisoned and are trying to kill him. So when the bull dog happens upon this strange scene,
he demands that the cat eat the mice. But the cat shrieks and says to the dog, "beat
me up, beat me up, Mr. Dog." Now the dog is all confused by this behavior so he sits
down behind a calculator to try and figure this behavioral problem out.
"Lesseee," the dog mutters. "Mice dont wanna eat cheese,"
kachingk he pulls the lever. "And cat dont wanna eat mice," kachingk.
"But cat wants dog to beat cat up," kachingk, kachingk. The dog totals the data
and pulls the lever and then shouts in frustration, "it just dont add up!"
Moms and toons come to the same theological impasse: when it comes living our
best, keeping the rules, it just dont add up. Thats where we find Paul this
morning. Sitting behind his calculator, scratching his head and saying, "It just
doesnt add up." Let me put his actual words into a modern context for you. Paul
I dont understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I
dont do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I
am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. But I
cant help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things . .
. no matter which way I turn, I cant make myself do right. I want to, but I
cant. When I want to do good, I dont. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it
anyway . . . Oh, what a miserable person I am!
Seems like Paul is carrying on a conversation within himself; perhaps Paul the
Theologian and Paul the Christian Moralist is in conversation. The latter Paul, who is
sensitive to doing the right thing and avoiding the wrong things, discovers a problem. No
matter how many "I can do it" seminars he attends, no matter how many new leaves
hes turned over, no matter how many good intentions he sets out to accomplish, he
always seems to come up short. That alarms Paul the Moralistthe persona within each
of us who truly wants to do the right thingwhat we believe pleases God.
But knowing this frustration is not enough, so Paul the Theologian knocks on the door
of Paul the Christian Moralist and tells him that his problem has a name: sin. Thanks a
lot, Mr. Theologian. Duhhh. So now we have a name for the problem, the gap between wanting
to do the right thing and actually doing it. And hes right. Sin is what lurks around
at every cornerand especially at the intersection of good intentions and good deeds.
But the two Pauls are in agreement when he writes that within all of us, there is a civil
war going onthe law altruism which desires Gods will on earth as it is in
heaven, and this other law which makes fulfilling the first law virtually impossible.
And the conflict just doesnt end with Paul. Weve all experienced that kind
of battle, a battle that rages in our mind and breast. A man tries to explain why he took
a gun to school. A good kid cant figure out why he committed arson. A woman needs
help locating the source of a compulsive eating disorder; she knows its killing her and
quashing her self-esteem, but she just cant help herself.
A middle-schooler feels terrible after cheating on the final math exam. A smoker faces
surgery for whats left of his lungs, yet he cant resist the temptation to have
one last smoke before surgery. A teen from a good family sits in a circle with her parents
in a closed session among other kids trying to figure out what went wrong.
A store clerk still shakes from reacting with hurtful, hateful words to her supervisor.
Weve all experienced the gap between good intention s and powerlessness to carry
those intentions out.
For the Christian who really truly wants to do the right thing, who wants to live out
their faith, this passage is a tough one. It names our failure to accomplish the good that
This passage also irks the professionals. Must be Paul writing as a pre-Christian, some
conclude, otherwise what hope is there for us if someone like Paul cant get it
together? But maybe this is the experience of one who is entangled in an addiction. Sure
sounds like it. Or maybe this is the admission of failure from a frustrated Pharisee,
others guess. So the debate rages on about Romans 7. Some choose to cut it out of
Christian teaching altogetherthough it keeps creeping back into our Christian
The fact is, most of us see ourselves written in this mans frustrations. Who
among us hasnt experienced the gap between good intentions and obedient action? We
break covenant in the same breath that we promise to be faithful. Weve grabbed when
we shouldve shared, clutched when we should have given. We know, dont we deep
down in our souls, that Pauls confession is our confession: faith and obedience
dont always add up.
I cant one-upmanship the professionals. Who knows the state of mind or the
context out of which this confession in Romans 7 comes? But I can addcame up with
twenty-seven in my translation not to mention the reflexive pronouns that jump out at
every turn. Twenty-seven times the word "I" appears in these few paragraphs.
Thats autobiographical with a capital A!
Paul is describing a struggle between the I of good intentions and the I of
powerlessness. And "sin" weights the scale virtually every time on the side
failure. Thats the bad news. Egos and Is wont change Pauls or our
common experience. Takes something more.
Ever try to hold a weight at arms length? My son and I have this competition
every once in awhile. We hold a dumbbell at arms length to see who is the manliest.
So were facing each other, weights held shoulder high and straight out at arms
length. Doesnt take long before the quivering begins. Sometimes I win, but most
times I just cant hold the weights up any longer. And eventually they start the
slippery slide down to my sides. I have every intention of holding those weights up for
the duration. But eventually I discover another law at workthe law of gravity. I can
only defy that law for so long. Wretched weakling that I am, who shall deliver me from the
law of gravity? It takes a different kind of law to overrule the law of gravity.
A great description of discipleship is: "I fall down, I get up. I fall down, I get
up; I fall down, I get up." We try to serve Christ, and we fail and fail. We go on,
then fall again. Here comes Christto pick us up once more. Such is the way of
discipleship. It is not something we do in our own power; it is something we do with the
I think thats where Paul ended up, with a new discovery. "Thank God!"
he concludes. For what? For powerlessness? For failure? For the impossibility of living
the "full-intentioned life?" "No," Paul says, "thank God"
for a Someone. Jesus Christ is the new law that provides new possibilities for living and
doing and loving. In the power of the Spirit, God destroyed sins control over us
through Jesus. The battle wages within us every single day and in a thousand different
contexts, yet Paul names Jesus as the only way to close this gap between "doing the
good and not doing the wrong."
The bad news? The ego and the I cannot hope to change what cannot be changed, what
cannot be reformed, or transformed. Only God can save us. And God does . . . so that in
that moment when "I cant make myself do right," we can look beyond
ourselves to the Higher Power who is Jesus Christ, our Savior. He can save us again and
again and over and over.
"Whatever possessed you?" my mother used to ask me. Now I know the Possessor.
When we are aware of Gods claim on our lives and his saving action, we can rise in
the power of the Spirit to new life and pray as Ignatius once prayed,
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
all that I have and possess.
You have given all to me.
To You, O Lord, I return it.
All is Yours, dispose of it wholly
according to Your will.
Give me Your love and Your grace,
for this is sufficient for me.
Ignatius of Loyola