Don’t think of a Hippopotamus

Monday, March 11, 2013 — Week of 4 Lent (Year One)

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 954)

Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) 89:19-52 (evening)

Jeremiah 16:10-21

Romans 7:1-12

John 6:1-15

I’ve never quiet understood some of Paul’s argument in this passage from Romans. He seems to imply that the law is a little bit like someone saying, “Don’t think of a hippopotamus.” By putting a name to sin, the law raises the sin to our consciousness.

Well, maybe so. There are some sins that we don’t seem to know are sins until we are taught. To a child, every toy is “Mine!” until we are taught to share. Paul says, “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'” (7:7b) But once you know, you are responsible.

Paul found living with the whole weight of that responsibility to be overwhelming. Having learned the law, he felt oppressed with the burden to be perfect. He carried perpetual anxiety over whether he was doing everything right. He found it made him self-absorbed. “Am I okay? Have I failed in any way?” He also found it made him aggressive and violent, participating in the pogroms to stamp out any who were violating his interpretation of what was wrong, even if they believed themselves to be in the right. Thus he persecuted the Christians.

Living like that became for him a living death. He talks about that in this passage. He doesn’t want to say that the law is bad or evil, the law was given to us by God. But there is something about knowing the law and naming it that convicted him of sin. When he knew the word “covet” and the commandment forbidding it, it seems he couldn’t be free of a sense of deadly guilt that he was in some way covetous. As hard as he tried, he never could shake the sense that in some way he had failed. He was oppressed with the realization that he could never live up to the full demands of perfection that the law revealed. He became trapped by the conviction that he was “sinful beyond measure.” (7:13)

He uses a marriage analogy. I used to be married to the law. (My late spouse was so demanding — expecting me to be perfect and nagging me to death because I wasn’t.) The law killed Paul. Or maybe the law died for him. Whichever, it was the complete death of the former intimate relationship between Paul and the law.

He was raised from death by Christ and now he lives “in Christ,” an intimate, complete relationship of freedom and love. Now he knows he is loved so much that he can never fail, because God’s love in Christ overcomes all sin, death and failure. With that burden off his chest he is free — free to be alive and to enjoy life; free to respond in love to whatever may come his way. No more keeping score. It’s all about love now.

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