Romans 7:15-25

A True Reflection Of  Ourselves

July 9 2017

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is a German fairy tale first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. It was already a famous tale when the Disney animated film appeared in 1937 and it has been retold, adapted and revised many, many times. Everyone is familiar with the Evil Queen’s frequent consultation with a very special mirror, a magic mirror. The queen would stand at the mirror and asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest o f them all?” Well, we all know the rest of the story.

Mirrors can be used in many ways. There are conventional mirrors, fun house mirrors, side mirrors, rearview mirrors, pocket mirrors, visor mirrors so we can apply lipstick, rouge or mascara when stuck in traffic, and magnifying mirrors — better to trim your nose hairs or pluck your eyebrows. We find mirrors in dress shops, hotel rooms and restaurant bathrooms. We must like them, because we have so many of them. And, honestly, they do serve important purposes. Not having a rearview mirror or side mirrors mounted on a car is a safety issue. Not checking your appearance before you step out into the public could result in an embarrassing moment because, had you checked, you would have noticed the spaghetti noodle clinging to your collar.

In biblical days, however, mirrors were such imperfect devices that in 1 Corinthians 13:12 the apostle Paul commented, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly …”. That wording is from the NIV, but it or something similar to it is how most English Bible versions render the underlying Greek. But the Greek word translated “dimly” — or “darkly”  is ainigma, from which the English word “enigma” is derived. The Disciples’ Literal New Testament words this verse as, “For now we are seeing through a mirror, in an enigma …” The NRSV, in a footnote, allows that instead of “dimly,” the Greek could be translated as, “For now we see in a mirror, in a riddle.”But perhaps it’s J.B. Phillips in The New Testament in Modern English who best captures the sense of the Greek when he renders Paul’s comment as, “At present we are [people] looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror.”

You may think that we don’t have that problem today, since our mirrors are so much better than the primitive ones in the first century. But it’s likely you think that only because you’ve never seen your reflection in a True Mirror. The True Mirror is the patented name for a type of mirror that reflects what you truly look like to others — that is, not a reversed or “mirror” image, but an authentic view of yourself. Thus, if you place a novel in front of a True Mirror, you’ll be able to read the title just as if you were looking directly at the book; the letters will not be reversed. Likewise, if you hold your right hand in front of the mirror, it will appear as your right hand, not a left hand as it would in a traditional mirror.  This seeming wonder is accomplished by placing two mirrors at right angles,  an idea that was first patented in 1887, but which today’s inventors have improved by figuring how to make the distracting seam at the mirrors’ connection point undetectable.

Thus, if you’re looking at yourself in a True Mirror, the enigma of the reverse image is removed, and you’ll see yourself as you really are. This might not sound that revolutionary, since photographs and videos “also present “forward” images of us, but their static and non-eye-to-eye views tend not to carry the same level of impact. And the fact is, while some people are pleased with what they see in a True Mirror and view it as better connecting their intellectual and emotional selves, others don’t like it at all. One online report about True Mirrors says that what they see reflected causes some people to “freak out”. That may be hyperbole, but we get the point.

While Paul didn’t have access to mirrors of the quality we have today, in Romans 7 he defines himself, his true inner self, as an enigma:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

 Still, in the ensuing verses, he seems to describe a True Mirror view of himself, and ironically, it’s not of one image, but of two. One is the man he wants to be but isn’t and the other is the man he is  but doesn’t want to be. Or, as Faust declared in the old German legend, “Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast / And one is striving to forsake its brother.”

It might make you wonder that if the apostle Paul can be afflicted with this sort of problem, what chance do we have to be the person we want to be? Perhaps Paul is saying that this is what the Christian life is like. Paul seems to suggest a tension hetween  what God wants us to do and what we do which never gets resolved.

It’s a dialectic — that which seeks to resolve the conflict between opposing and , contradictory forces. Michael Ivens, a Jesuit priest who taught and wrote widely in the field of spirituality, noted that there are many people “who appear never to overcome the recurrent insurgence of their own underworld,” but who are nonetheless “deeply Christian.” He further said that “the failure in their lives seems to make a mockery of the promise that no one is tested beyond his [or her] strength.” In terms of dealing with such failures, Ivens said there are two ways, both of which are faithful. One is “the resignation in faith that reaches out again and again to the strength offered us in and through the very handicaps we are asked to bear” The other “is the attitude of intense hope that if we ask for complete healing, we shall not be refused.” He called the first the “spirituality of patience” and the second the “spirituality of power,” referring to Christ’s limitless power.

The spirituality of patience means that in faithfulness to Christ, you keep working to overcome what pulls you down, that which Paul calls “the sin that dwells within” him (v. 17), perhaps even getting therapy, along with the help provided by the church. This spirituality, said Ivens, encourages “such people to live without too much anxiety, to look to all that is positive in their lives, to believe themselves loved, to recognize that growth takes place precisely in apparent failure.” This approach promotes a gospel of healing over time, sometimes even a long period of time. This spirituality of patience is perhaps what Martin Luther meant by his comment, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” In context, that’s usually understood to mean not to go out and purposely commit sin, but rather to believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly despite the sin in our lives.

In contrast, the spirituality of power views the Christian’s relationship with Christ as therapeutic itself A faith connection with Christ is inherently healing, freeing you from the clutches of sin. It’s probably what Paul was getting at in the continuation of this discussion in the very next chapter of Romans: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8:2).

These two spiritualties meet in the idea to look to Christ as the ultimate healer. The first looks for that over the long haul; the second looks for it in a more dramatic way all at once. So when Paul asks rhetorically in today’s text, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24) he’s setting things up for the answer, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25).

We who know God must learn to find within the chaos and darkness inside ourselves the effects of this new life. Don’t resign yourself to  the failure part of the cycle and make no attempt to change. But, at the same time, realize that, as Ivens put it, “the bewildering undulations of everyday experience are not the ultimate truth about [ourselves].”

Recognizing what the healing ministry of Christ has already achieved in you, you can  learn to discern more clearly the ways in which the work of Christ is still going on in your life, and peacefully and patiently,  but wholeheartedly, yield to that work of Christ in you.

So what should you see reflected when we look into the True Mirror that is Christ himself? Not a riddle or an enigma, but yourself as you truly are: a new and continuing creations, a work of God in progress, a child of God who, despite your continuing conflict with sin, is loved and forgiven as you continue to strive to be the person God created you to be.  Amen.