The Battle with Brother DonkeyBy Tony Caffey
July 14, 2020
When I was in college, I heard Philip Yancey make an off-handed comment about Romans 7, and it made me laugh. He was talking about the Apostle Paul, and he said something like this. I’m paraphrasing: “From what I can tell in the New Testament, Paul was an amazing man who rarely if ever sinned, and didn’t seem to struggle with sin like I do, except for those famous words in Romans 7—Bless that chapter!”
The Universal Battle with Sin
Why did Philip Yancey say “Bless that chapter,” that wonderful chapter of Romans 7? Well it’s because Romans 7 teaches us that the Apostle Paul was human. It teaches us that even the most holy and sanctified saints among us still struggle with sin. And that shouldn’t fill us with glee or with apathy. But it should encourage us in our battle against sin. I heard Tim Keller say once that when you become a Christian you move from the battle you can’t win (the battle to obey the law in your own power) to the battle you can’t lose. When you are saved by Christ’s blood, you embark on a journey that culminates at the celestial city. That journey will end at a good place. That battle is a battle you can’t ultimately lose. But along the way, that journey will be tough, and the battle will be intense.
Why am I this Way?
According to Romans 7, the law is God’s good gift to us. It derives from God, so it is spiritual and holy and righteous. It’d be great if we could read the law, understand the law, and obey it perfectly. That’d be fantastic! But we can’t do that, because we have his thing inside us called sin. And that sin is a wrench in the gears of our plan to obey the law. We want to obey the law perfectly, but we can’t. The problem is that there is a Mr. Hyde inside of all of us that is constantly wrecking Dr. Jekyll’s plan. There’s a monster inside of us called the flesh that keeps blowing up our desire to do the right thing. We may have defeated the monster through faith in Christ, but even as Christians, the monster still persists inside of us. And that beast won’t be fully defeated in this life, not until our glorification to come.
Who is Brother Donkey?
Francis of Assisi called his flesh, “brother donkey.” The more I think about my battle with my own flesh, the more I think that Francis’s title is apt. You tell your flesh to do something, and he says, “He-haw, I ain’t doing that!” You try to train your flesh to obey God’s law and it resists you. This is what Paul describes in Romans 7. His description is so vivid and so depressing that some scholars have assumed Paul couldn’t possibly be describing himself in a post-conversion battle with sin. I disagree; the present tense verbs and the first person singular pronouns are too pronounced, and his battle is too familiar to me in my post-conversion state. If Paul was describing his pre-conversion state, what does that say about me and my battle with the flesh?
The Battle with Brother Donkey
Let me just share with you my own struggle with brother donkey. This might make you a little uncomfortable, but I figure if Paul can do it, I can do it. The older you get as a Christian, the more sins you see in the cracks of your heart as the battle against sin rages. My battle involves envying the success and the gifts of other pastors. Why am I like that? Why can’t I celebrate the gifts that God has given those leaders? I also get a twisted satisfaction sometimes at seeing other pastors fall. Why am I like that? And why do I celebrate when my opinions on someone else’s character is proved right? I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want people to treat me like that. Brother donkey strikes again.
Why am I so restless and discontent sometimes? Why do I get so negative sometimes? I feel like there’s this black cloud hovering over me, and every person that gets near me, I share my black cloud with. I don’t want to be like that. Why do I lose my temper with stupid stuff? Why do I cuss under my breath sometimes? Sometimes it’s not just “under” my breath—sometimes it’s over my breath! Brother donkey strikes again. Why do I do that? I’m 41-years-old. I’ve been a Christian for thirty-plus years. Shouldn’t I be past that already?
And why do I think the worst of people sometimes? Why can’t I assume the best? Why can’t I give them the benefit of the doubt? I want them to give me the benefit of the doubt. Why don’t I return that favor? Why am I so contentious at board meetings? Why am I so domineering at small group? Why am I so dismissive of my wife or my son? Brother donkey strikes again. Why do I disregard God’s good gifts in my life and lust after the gifts of other people? Why am I not more generous? More kind? More disciplined? More patient? More like Jesus?
Brother Donkey has an Expiration Date
By the way, I’m not spilling my guts here because it’s cathartic. It’s not cathartic; it’s actually quite embarrassing. But it’s a good reminder that—after 41 years of life and after serving as a pastor for twelve-plus years—I am a sinner saved by grace. I never want to use grace as an excuse for my sin, but I will never be completely free from my sin and my sin nature until Christ returns or calls me home, whichever comes first. In the meantime I’m in a dogfight with sin, my flesh, and the devil. I’ve got to leverage the power of the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8—Bless that Chapter!) to tame and to domesticate brother donkey. But praise God, this is a battle that I can’t ultimately lose. Through faith in Christ I have moved from the battle I can’t win to a battle that I can’t lose.