“When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”
I wish Paul had written autobiographically. Only for himself. Only about himself. But, no. Paul reflects on an aspect of our universal human experience, so constant in occurrence and comprehensive in influence that he calls it “a law.” Overlooking the potential confusion he creates by using “law” in multiple ways, his point is simply, profoundly this: We can’t keep the law!
The law. Guiding, governing rules that frame our lives and focus our living; whether the Mosaic law, Paul’s particular point of reference, or another set of precepts transcendent in origin, spiritual in scope or natural laws deduced from keen observation about the way things are in the world around us or some philosophical ethical civil code. Whatever. It doesn’t matter what the law is. For in our efforts to follow it, we repeatedly discover that we, in practice, according to the prayer, following “the devices and desires of our own hearts”, won’t keep the law!
Here is the power of the law. It’s a two-edged sword, simultaneously cutting both ways. The law points to a higher truth, whether God or some honored virtue; enabling us to imagine it and, striving to do good, reach for it. And, as we always fail to do good always, the law reveals, exposes our inherent capacity to do what is not good, indeed, what is sinful.
Hence, here is the paradox of the law. It’s our finest dream and worst nightmare; a useful tool and a weighty burden.
I believe that everyone – whether individual, family, community, nation, me! – experiences this blessing and bane of the law.
Speaking for myself, as I age, I am clearer, nearly by the day, about the person I want to be and become. Wise. Knowledgeable about the world. Understanding. Able to apply that knowledge in the concrete circumstances of my daily living. Passionate for justice. Compassionate. Loving and patient, especially with those with whom I disagree. However, the more I behold who I want to be I also see how often I don’t reach for it, but rather retreat to the known and narrow confines of my present perspectives and prejudices. “When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”
I think of historically battle-scarred lands and peoples where the long, mutually recognized “good” of justice and peace is overshadowed by intractable conflict fraught and fought with the endless sins of generational resentment, rage, and revenge. “When humans want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”
I think of America. Once again, we have celebrated our nation’s birth. In recalling our founding principles, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, we are reminded afresh and our honesty compels our confession of how far short we fall in guaranteeing these rights to all. We are a nation of enormous wealth where poverty resists resolution; making Jesus’ observation, “You always have the poor with you”, stubbornly, sorrowfully true. We are a nation increasingly pluralistic where bigotry continues to raise its ugly head and to cry out in angry voice resisting the spirit of universal tolerance. “When we want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”
Whether the scale is large or small, whether the scope is personal, communal, national, or international, the same dis-ease infects and afflicts us all. Paul is right, “wretched” we are!
Here’s some good news. Whenever we come anew to this realization, we can cry with Paul, hoping there’s an answer, “Who will rescue us from this body – that is, this inherent, inescapable way of our living in this world – of death!” Whenever we ask that question, we can sing with Paul, knowing there’s an answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We with Paul praise God for Jesus, who, through his life and ministry, death and resurrection redeems us that through him we can fulfill the law!
This, I think, I believe, is what Jesus means: “Come to me, all you weary and heavy burdened…” Referring to the manifold stipulations of the Mosaic Law and any legal code, hard to remember, harder to do, Jesus offers in their place, one law, his law, his love. “Take my yoke (my love) upon you and learn (to love) from me…For my yoke (of love) is easy, my burden (of love) is light.”
Saint Paul, James Tissot (1836-1902)
Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec
 From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41
 John 12.8
 Matthew 11.29a, 30, my parenthetical and italicized additions