In Romans 7, Paul writes:
7 I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”
8 But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.
9 I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.
This passage is widely quoted to demonstrate the weakness of the law to make us righteous, but really, one must ask the question: REALLY? Telling someone not to commit adultery somehow leads them to commit adultery? How does that work? It really doesn’t make much sense at all. It would seem that if you tell someone to do something, they would be at least a bit more inclined to do it. What in the world is he talking about? If you can’t simply explain some course of action to a person in order to get them to do it, how can we ever ask anyone to ever do anything? Is Paul completely insane? This just doesn’t quite make any sense does it?
It does actually make sense. We all kind of know it in the hazy depths of our soul somewhere, but it bears some unpacking. Let’s suppose that it is true that we bear a divided understanding of the good, and that our aesthetic sense is drawn to the forbidden. That means that I’ve probably already been thinking about or pursuing or even practicing the very thing that the law forbids, and I have been in some way avoiding the thing the law asks me to do. So the law is not just distastefully bland and dull and intrusive, it is pressing on the raw nerve of what is wrong with us.
But there is more. The law does not appeal to our desire, because it was drafted knowing that our desire is drawn to the forbidden. It appeals rather to our fear. It spells out patterns of behavior, and the negative consequences of our behavior if we disobey. It says, do this, and you will be blessed, otherwise you will be punished. However, desire is stronger than fear, and the profit motive is more powerful than the obligation motive. We inherently understand that we have transgressed the law, and that we will at some point in some way continue to do so. Our conscience is very clear about our past transgressions, and the law does not alleviate this, it condemns us all the more. We know that the guilt of our past secret sins is not vaporous and passing away with time, it is as solid and real and present as the ground under our feet. Our conscience looks at the law and understands perfectly that it rightly condemns us. We understand that in all truth, justice to some extent and in some degree truly stands against us. We don’t enjoy the fact that the law spells this out with great eloquence and power.
So, how do we respond? We hate the law. We hate the affliction our conscience presses upon us. We are desperate for peace, for some covering pleasure. We are desperate for our desires to be gratified somehow, and it certainly doesn’t lie in the path of what is right and good! Against fate, against justice, against the terrible destiny and punishment that our conscience and the law agree are ours, we must exercise our strength and genius and creativity and every resource we can muster to snatch some pleasure from the world. The law is from God, and we will find no help or favor there. Here is what we all inherently know: God really is love, and we are selfish haters, and if He is good at all He must stand against us. There is no pleasure to be found in His holiness, there is only condemnation and rightly so. We cannot face that we ourselves are unjust, we must put some salve of pleasure over the wound. At all costs we must forget, so we can muster some smile in our times. The law would remind us of these awful and unpleasant truths.
And so the law comes and says, you must behave thusly. You must not covet, you must only want what you have or what you can honestly come to possess. You can smell the condemnation in this tenth commandment. You can feel it. And so you run, so you do anything to find some pleasure in the world against fate, because you know the truth. You have already failed, you are full of coveting, and it fills you with murderous lustful rage. What’s worse, you have learned to cover these things over with civility and an elaborate mask of lies. Yet you love these things the law is telling you that you cannot have. In the end the wanting is more powerful than the moral obligation, and while you may by an act of will prevent yourself from taking the forbidden thing, you are powerless to stop your heart from loving it. It is forbidden, and so it represents to you wild and unimaginable freedom and pleasure. So many others have such happiness with this forbidden thing, and you are prevented. You are prevented by no less than God! If only you could be free to do as you wish, but alas, you must not.
Weighed down by our terrible obligations, full of love for the very things we long for, secretly full of seething anger and deferred hope and desire, we soldier on, useless and morose. The law’s demands may be right, but we hate them from the very bottom of our heart. Who indeed will release us from this terrible fate (Romans 7:24)? The law really is right, but it really does produce rebellion. The law is a dentist’s probe that finds the bad tooth and produces the pain in great abundance that the dull ache belies. The law is telling you that you are much sicker than you want to acknowledge, and you really don’t want to think too much about that!