When the Lord begins to answer the first of our three essential prayers, “Open the eyes of my heart so I can see,” and we begin to get a glimpse of the sin heretofore buried unrecognized deep within us, the result can initially be very shocking.
For example, several years ago I was preaching a typical Sunday morning sermon as I had done, practically weekly, for some 20 years. I concluded with a closing prayer, closed my Bible and was immediately aware (for the first time in 20 years of preaching!) of the following thoughts flooding my mind:
“Andrews, you had them on the edge of their seats. What a sermon! The depth of your understanding, the breadth of your exegesis, the brilliance of your insights was amazing!” Then I waited with anticipation for those in the congregation to come up to me and tell me what a wonderful sermon I had preached.
I can see now that the amazing thing was not that those thoughts were in my mind, but that I had been preaching for all those years completely unaware that they were, I am sure, in my mind each time I spoke.
I was appalled, and repented to the Lord for my unconscious, self-aggrandizing desire to seek glorify for myself. I knew that any gift I have and everything I know is from Him, and yet I was exposed as seeking the honor and recognition for myself that belongs only to Him. How could I do that after 40 years as an earnest Christian, all the while trumpeting regularly that “God alone is worthy of our praise and honor”? How could I sin so blatantly without even being aware of it?
That Sunday the hypocrisy in my heart was exposed, but I was sure that this revelation of my sin and my genuine, heart-felt repentance would correct the situation. However, the next week as I concluded the sermon, the very same thing occurred again, and then again the next week, and the next, and there was nothing I could do about it! The thoughts were always there. What could I do? I felt absolutely helpless.
This is exactly Paul’s attitude in Romans 7. The one who saw himself as “according to the law, blameless” in Philippians 3:6, has had his eyes opened in Romans 7. For the first time, He saw himself as a “wretched man,” unable to keep the law of God in his heart no matter how hard he tried, and he cried out for deliverance.
In Romans 7, Jesus had already answered prayers #1 and #2 in Paul’s life: “Open my eyes that I may see,” and “Be merciful to me a sinner.” He now saw himself clearly and embraced who he was—a wretched sinner, “the thoughts and intents of his heart only evil continually” (Genesis 6:4).
What did God then do with Paul? The same thing He did with me and with all to whom God is revealing the significance of the cross: “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25a). He further opened Paul’s eyes (and mine as well) to see that all that sin—all that inability to obey the law of God in his heart—has been taken care of fully and finally by Jesus Christ at the cross. All he must now do to walk in victory is to believe it!
“Aye, there’s the rub” as Hamlet said. How can a parent believe he is really forgiven when he has just blown it again and lost his temper and been harsh with his child for what seems like the fiftieth time? What if he has been irresponsible by failing to follow through on a promise, been inconsistent in his discipline, or been exposed as selfishly thinking primarily of his own comfort and convenience before his family’s well being?
At that crucial time, Essential Prayer #3 is invaluable, the prayer of the father of the demon possessed man in Mark 9:24. That prayer and its application for us today is: “I believe (that you died for all my sin, even this one, and they are all forgiven), but help my unbelief (because right now, in the face of another failure, that faith is really, really shaky!).”
However, God answered this prayer for Paul too, as we can see from Romans 7:25b: “So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” What seems to be almost a throwaway line at the end of Romans 7 is in fact a recognition by Paul of the unrelenting sin, now fully forgiven, that still remains in his sinful body and will remain until he gets his new, glorified one.
Listen to how Paul has come to grips with the fact of this persistent “thorn in the flesh.” Instead of removing it, Jesus told him that “My grace (My full forgiveness!) is sufficient for you” because “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (1 Corinthians 12:9). Paul now understood why he could literally “glory” (boast, rejoice) in his thorn. His besetting sin made the source of the spiritual power in his life unmistakable. It was Jesus Christ alone.
Incredible! How can I boast and rejoice in my persistent, unrelenting desire to have glory and honor for myself when I preach? Only when I believe, with all my heart, that God has totally forgiven me for it, is completely satisfied with me as His precious child in spite of it, and, as I walk in transparency about it, is actually bringing glory to Himself through it! Hallelujah!
Next week we will look at why, during serious crunch time in our lives, this kind of faith is so very difficult.