If I am “them” in Romans 1, there are many implications. Here, we look at how we fully relate to “them” in desperate plight. My neighbor’s bitter slavery is my bitter slavery. This reality meets us in our reactions of intimidation and hesitance when we meet a neighbor who is in especially overwhelming circumstances. Intimidation is a reaction common to us all, but what it expresses from the heart can be a wide range of gospel-defaming beliefs:There is nothing to offer them. They are too far gone. I can’t relate at all to this. I’m not equipped for this. The gospel is not equipped for this. God is too abstract to affect this tangible trial, especially because I have not directly been through this trial. My words seem empty. I want to challenge this. A person who knows themselves and knows the gospel, knows others quite deeply as well! My deepest problem is also their deepest problem. My deepest need is also their deepest need. This is true regardless of circumstances. Your ability to relate to your neighbor’s deepest need really boils down to how vividly and deeply you understand your own need, and I would say, how often you meditate on your own need as well.
Our shared Romans 1 desperation
Romans 1 is a masterful painting that captures each of us in vivid detail. I want to focus on five words that capture the range of Romans 1: (1) absence, (2) slavery, (3) intimacy, (4) selfish and (5) unnatural.
Notice how it all begins absence from God. Not only did we start with “not God,” but our plight in its entirety sounds like a broken record of “not God.” We begin by not acknowledging, not thanking, not desiring, not honoring or loving. It is as if He is divorced altogether from our minds and our longings. In your day-to-day, is God largely absent from your thoughts? Do you engage Him or forget Him? Then yes, we share the same plight! But notice how our deteriorated condition in Romans 1 is so clearly a direct result of our chosen absence from God. We are “futile in our thinking,” meaning our thoughts are vain, amounting to nothing because the only eternal God is not in them. “Our foolish hearts are darkened” because the light of God’s glory has been eclipsed by our desire for self-glory, spiraling our desires into depravity. “Claiming to be wise, we became fools,” because we are divorced from the only wise God and so blind apart from His light we cannot even glimpse just how foolish we really are. Literally every aspect of our desperate condition finds its roots in separation from God, who alone is the eternal light of glory intended to awe us with pleasure.
Before Christ’s rescue, we are “under sin” (Rom 3:9), and this is explained in vivid detail three times in Romans 1 as God “gives us up.” This verb means to be handed over to the control of another. Here, it denotes slavery to sin. It’s the same word used redemptively in Romans 4 when Paul says: “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” This is an active and fitting judgment of God to give us exactly what we wanted anyway: everything but Himself. “He gave them up” is our judgment, our death sentence, that we worked hard to earn. It is captivity. It is slavery. This explains our “stuckness” before Christ came in and rescued. It explains why we neededrescue. Do you see sin’s reign before Christ and its continued influence though put down now as bitter? Do you see it as the attempted slavery that it is? And how does sin enslave us? It does so by our own desires as we read “God gave them up in the lusts of their heartsto impurity.” Apart from Christ, I want sin, and that is precisely why I could not escape it! It is precisely why Christ’s compassionate covering of my sin must have come counter to what I wanted and where I was going. If He did not interject and impose on me, I would be dead because I would continue to desire death. Our sinful desires are the very chains of our slavery to sin, and those chains must be severed.
What is the first sin to be handpicked by Paul when talking about our worship exchange: that is, us worshipping all that is not God rather than worshipping God? Broken intimacy is the first place Paul goes. We dishonor one anothers’ bodies in this pornographic world of taking and self-glorying that tries to pass itself off as sex. Severed from intimacy with God, we deform intimacy in the horizontal, cry out for it, and watch it slip through our hands like sand. It isn’t only sex though. We emotionally attach to people who have no business filling a void intended for God. We placate our lack of intimacy with hardening, hour-long bouts of reading, television, work, and exercise. We reel from living apart from the joyful union with God and others we were intended for, and we lash out in anger, suspicion, and bitterness. We live disconnected lives with technology that supposedly connects, piddling ever in the shallows with others. Marriage becomes a partnership and a roommate situation where the anger of distrust and bitterness has settled into a wasteland of complacent cohabitation, which we pass of as “peace.” We all suffer broken intimacy. We all sin in broken intimacy.
Paul arrives at another handpicked sin to describe the desperation of our common, captive worship exchange, and that is homosexuality. I believe this has two implications in Paul’s use of it, and here I want to ask you: What happened to the idol we exchanged God for? It starts off as that which is not God, meaning that which is worldly and like us. Then it moves to other peoples’ bodies, our worship has latched onto other humans, those who are much more like us. Finally, it moves to other people of the same sex, those who share our image and are much, much more like we are. Where’s the target? My worship apart from Christ’s rescue has an overwhelming emphasis on me, on self. I think of my interests first, my vindication first, my comfort first, my pleasure first. I fixate on the mirror, and all that I interpret sifts through a grid of self and revolves around the star of self. It’s as if our eyes are glued inward and cannot seem to detach. We fixate within, seemingly blind to all else. This is not a homosexuality issue, this is a human issue we share in common. My greatest glory, apart from rescue, is myself, and I pass off self-esteem as something healthy, when in reality it is suffocating me to death by depriving me of the only esteem I was made for: to esteem Christ in depth and joy above all things.
This twice repeated word tied in with Paul’s focus on homosexuality is not referring to familiarity. Paul is referring to function. An alternative translation reads: “their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural.” We’re talking physiology and function here, not uncomfort or distaste. What this is telling us about our worship exchange is that, in our broken intimacy divorced from a God for whom we were made, we are not at all living as we were intended to. Nobody has to tell you things aren’t right in the world. Depression medications would not be such a lucrative industry if we thought this world was right as it is, if we thought we were right as we are. How we are living is most unnatural for how we were created, because we were created for deep intimacy with God Himself. I say this because it is quite natural for a homosexual man to long for the body of another man, for a homosexual woman to long romantically for other women. It’s just as natural as it is for the greedy business person to long for more money at the expense of his or her family. It’s just as natural as it is for a straight man to long for women who are not his wife, or for a woman with an eating disorder to have every thought be relative to food in some way. For all of us, in our desires for sin that enslave us, sin comes naturally, but we know our state is most unnatural apart from deep intimacy with God.
We all need rescued desires
We need our desires to change, or our slavery, which began and perpetuates in God’s absence, will never lift. Since this is not in our power to do, we need a rescuer to come in, take out our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh that love Him. We need rescue, and this rescue is so powerful that it indeed changes our very desires, something most in America claim isn’t even possible. This post sits on the saved directly as much as it does our relation to the unsaved because I suspect we live out our lives still nurturing sinful desires, leading to the heavy burden of conflict that seems perpetually within us. Have you honestly pursued and lived in a genuine desire for and enjoyment Christ above all things? Or do you live most of your day-to-day in that conflicting limbo where you nurture desires for sin and feel the heaviness of not “being able to” sin apart from God’s presence and apart from genuine longing for Him above all?
Are you pursuing the death of sinful desires and the thriving of Godly desires, or are your efforts mostly confined to the realm of behavior? Christ promised us a light burden in the midst of very heavy suffering; and this seeming paradox only makes sense when we share His heart, which genuinely desired and delighted in the Father above all things. The burden of giving cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than money. The burden of purity cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than sex and pride. The burden of reconciliation cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than protecting our name. The burden of leadership cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than ease and smooth sailing.
We have the same need: that our very desires be uprooted and replaced by ones for God, that stand in joyful awe of Him and long above all to be with Him in full intimacy. Your neighbor, no matter what they are going through, have the same most fundamental need. No matter what circumstances we encounter in another’s life, however severe or dire, what is going on at the root of things is that sin is eating them alive from the inside. The poor need rescue from sin. The abused need rescue from sin. The addicted need rescue from sin. The rich and self-assured need rescue from sin. Knowing this, really knowing it, gives us a lot to leverage as we invade one anothers’ lives at Legacy and as we invade the lives of Knoxville as Christ invaded our own.