The Paradoxical Reality
One of the greatest struggles of being a Christian is the reality our Lutheran theology has dubbed simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner). The Scriptures describe this in several ways. Two shall suffice for now. First,
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.Galatians 5:17
Only Christians struggle with this paradox, not atheists or other unbelievers. Here, the desires of the flesh is the sinner part of the Christian whereas the desires of the Spirit is the saint part of the Christian. When a person believes Christ died for him and He is risen from the dead, this person becomes justified by faith (Romans 10:8-10). By the justifying blood of Jesus Christ through the faith by which we believe, God declares this sinner a saint. Yet while we still live in this sin-infested world, we are still sinners who commit sins every day, though at the same time we are also saints.
This is the tension Paul describes in his writings, and it is the tension only God maintains—that though we still sin, He still considers us saints. The battle between flesh and Spirit is like one long tug-of-war. Your soul is stuck in the middle and it feels as if the sin (flesh) part of you on the right is tugging you one way while the saint (Spirit) part of you is tugging you the other way. Perhaps this is where cartoons got their idea for the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other as a person’s conscience struggled between right and wrong.
Anyway, another verse that highlights this paradoxical reality is the following:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.Romans 7:15-20
Here, Paul describes at length his personal struggle with this struggle between flesh and Spirit. If Paul the great Apostle struggled with this, how much truer it is for each of us! Who of us cannot relate to Paul here? Can you think of a time when you could not help but do the wrong thing even though you knew at the time it was wrong? Addicts experience this all the time, especially those who are in recovery and relapse. We think, “I know this substance is bad for me, but boy does it feel good!” We know it’s bad, but we do it anyway!
This is true of “smaller” sins also. “I know I shouldn’t lie, but it’ll keep me out of trouble if I do.” “I know it’s wrong to steal or hit my sister, but I’m gonna’ do it anyway because I want to. I don’t care.” And so on.
Such is the struggle for every Christian. We battle with this paradoxical reality day in and day out. The good news is that there is an end to all this. But before we get there, let’s get to Gollum, which is the whole point of this article.
Gollum: Saint & Sinner
I came to this sudden realisation when I posted the following gif on Twitter. This imagery didn’t come to me through some deep, meaningful Bible study. Well, I was reading Reverend Jonathan Fisk’s book, Echo, and his talk of the old man (the Old Adam) in us made me think of Gollum for some reason, and that’s how I came to it. So, maybe I was in deep, meaningful theological thought or whatever.
Anyway, the particular image I have in mind of Gollum (not to be confused with the Pokémon Golem) is the unlikely friendship he forms with Frodo (at least in the LOTR films; I haven’t read the books yet to see if this is true in the books too). The film even goes as far as to portray the ugly creature as being oddly cute with his big, puppy-dog blue eyes. Meh, he’s still ugly.
As Gollum befriended the friendly Frodo, Frodo’s demeanour toward him and his kind treatment of him brought Gollum to an identity crisis. Throughout the course of this odd friendship, we watch Gollum’s schizophrenic battle with himself—a battle between two personas. It was the battle between Gollum and Smeagol.
As Frodo deduced whom Gollum once was as a Hobbit before the taint of the Ring corrupted him, Gollum also remembered whom he was: a lowly Hobbit named Smeagol. Like most Hobbits, he was kind and gentle. That is, before the Ring forever changed him (internally and externally) and he killed his friend for possession of The One Ring to Rule Them All. Remembering whom he once was, Gollum was no longer Gollum; he was both Smeagol and Gollum.
Thus ensued the battle between Gollum and Smeagol. Frodo’s kindness and compassion brought out the hidden Smeagol, whereas the Gollum inherent within himself indefatigably rose up to take control. (Samwise Gamgee didn’t help the matter. Not very wise, Samwise! …Sorry.)
Here’s where my analogy breaks down a little bit, as all analogies do. Whereas the good Smeagol was inside Gollum the whole time, this is not true of us as human beings. As St. Paul quotes from the Psalms, “‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one'” (Romans 3:10-12).
Putting this fact aside, I think Gollum is nevertheless a helpful representation of this paradoxical reality that is happening in every Christian, even his appearance. The Confessions describe original sin as a spiritual leprosy. “Before God, they [humans] are thoroughly and utterly infected and corrupted by original sin, as by a spiritual leprosy. Because of this corruption and because of the fall of the first man, the human nature or person is accused or condemned by God’s Law. So, we are by nature the children of wrath” (FC SD I, 6).
Gollum has quite a leprous appearance. He’s disgusting to look at. He pretty much resembles physical leprosy, and hence how we all appear to God before the Holy Spirit’s regeneration. This is why the Confessions’ image of spiritual leprosy is really helpful because it helps us see how despicable we are before the Holy God.
God could not stand the sight of us. In fact, He could not stand the sight of us so much that He decided to die for us. He took human flesh upon Himself in the person of Jesus Christ and suffered the death and wrath of God the Father we justly deserve. All this for the sake of redeeming us from our sins, turning us from spiritual lepers into His holy people (saints).
Still, however, as I said earlier, we continue to live on this side of the eschaton, which means we still cannot help but sin because of its leprous taint deep within us. It’s very schizophrenic much as the battle between Gollum and Smeagol was. Like Paul, as Christians, we want to be good! But many times we cannot help but do the bad we don’t want to do! Although we do this, as Paul noted, God no longer considers it us who do it, but merely the sin that still remains—like a cancer that won’t go away until we die. It might be a part of us, but it no longer defines us. It no longer has dominion over us, as Paul says (Romans 6:14). It is no longer our source of identity. Rather, our Baptism is our new identity and source of security:
What shall we say, then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried, therefore, with Him by baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.
We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we also live with Him.Romans 6:1-8
At the end of the LOTR trilogy, Smeagol fully surrenders to Gollum. Whether it was the corruption that overtook him or this was his own choice, you decide. The lesson here for us is that as Christians, we shall not suffer the same fate as Gollum. While any person can choose to fall away from the faith (see Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23), the darkness itself cannot overcome you since it no longer has dominion (power, authority) over you. Since it has not overcome the Light of Christ (John 1:5), who is in you (2 Corinthians 4:6), neither can it overcome you without your say (2 Corinthians 13:5).
So long as it depends on Christ, the sinner part of you will not have the final say. Not so long as it depends on you, but so long as it depends on Christ, as it always shall. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28). The battle is hard. You will struggle. There will be tribulation. “But take heart,” Jesus says, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
You shall overcome because Jesus overcame sin, death, the world, and the Devil. Anything you do cannot make it so. Jesus has already done it.
“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 5:10-11).