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“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”

“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 — Week of 4 Lent (Year One)

Gregory the Great of Rome, 604

[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 97, 99, [100] (morning) 94, 95 (evening)

Jeremiah 17:19-27

Romans 7:13-25

John 6:16-27

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:19)

This exquisite passage from Paul underlines one of his major themes — our lives are not self-improvement projects. We really can’t make it on our own. Becoming good, competent, and holy through the greater exercise of our will is futile and fatally frustrating. “Sin dwells in me,” he says.

His next words are worth re-reading:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (7:21-25b)

In last Sunday’s sermon I quoted from Robert Farrar Capon:

Confession is not a medicine leading to recovery. If we could recover – if we could say that beginning tomorrow or the week after next we would be well again – why then, all we would need to do would be apologize, not confess. We could simply say that we were sorry about the recent unpleasantness, but that, thank God and the resilience of our better instincts, it is all over now. And we could confidently expect that no one but a real nasty would say us nay.

But we never recover. We die. And if we live again, it is not because the old parts of our life are jiggled back into line, but because, without waiting for realignment, some wholly other life takes up residence in our death. Grace does not do things tit-for-tat; it acts finally and fully from the start.

The Parables of Grace, 1988, p. 140; quoting from Between Noon and Three, 1982, p. 77

Paul writes of his own experience of death and resurrection. Trying to be perfect, trying to bend life to his own control, trying to earn his own breath had brought him a living death — anxiety and failure. So he died. He speaks of dying to the law and being given new life in the acceptance of Christ — the free gift of grace.

For those of us raised in the church, that gift was given to us from the beginning, at our baptism. Grace acting “finally and fully from the start.” The “other life” of Christ “takes up residence in our death,” and everything is sheer gift. Paul celebrates his failure as the bridge that rescues him from “this body of death” through the gift of acceptance and grace in “Christ.”

I think I’ll close with the same words I wrote yesterday: Paul 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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Lowell Grisham

Thanks for the comment Andrew.

That reminds me of a story from an old priest who was a mentor of mine. He said that it was a sin to let another person’s words offend or upset you. I think he was saying that we owe the other the right to their opinion, and that our equilibrium should be grounded so deeply in God that we should be verbally unshakable. (I’m fuzzy on the interpretation.) What I remember vividly was his illustration.

A parishioner spoke to him with deep passion at the door after church saying, “Father Rogers. I was very upset at something you said in your sermon.” His reply: “That’s okay, my dear. I forgive you.”


Andrew Trofka

I remember once telling someone who said they were sorry for something they did. I replied, “Your not sorry, you just apologized. An apology means you are merely ‘acknowledging’ that you did something wrong, offended me, or created an inconvenience; sorry means you ‘feel’ for it. There is a difference!”

I wonder when I confess my “sins”, am I really just apologizing or am I truly sorry?

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