accepting the stress and distress of this life

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Matthew 7:13-14; NRSV

I’m reading Job from The Message right now which I take as more than an intriguing wisdom story, certainly a book chalk full of wisdom, but mostly in terms of the main points that come across, notwithstanding some of the striking details. I’m reminded of the thought that instead of life getting easier when one comes to Christ, it actually becomes more difficult. Why? Well we can surely say we’re going against the grain of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And central to it is simply the reality that believers are also followers of Christ, or else our faith may well be spurious. Following Christ means identity with him in this world, taking up our cross, as we seek to live out the King Jesus, kingdom of God life. Certainly a salvation story, but a salvation not in terms of simply securing one’s eternal life, but a salvation steeped in the values of God’s kingdom, inside and out.

We need to accept the stress and distress of this way in Jesus. That is half the battle, the Lord helping us to do that. God will be with us through the rest. We just need to settle into the mentality that we’ll have problems others won’t. As we seek to follow. In and through Jesus.

the only way to fulfill God’s law

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:18

At this odd date in history, the thought could easily be mistranslated into if you are led by the same spirit that animates others in a common cause, then you can flout the law. Of course that is not even remotely related to what Paul is saying here. In Christ the law is fulfilled. It was never fulfilled by human understanding and effort, anyhow. There was a large prescribed way that became cumbersome because of all the add-ons by the religious leaders. But still, God intended the Law to be an important backdrop both for the life of Israel, and most importantly as a preparation for the fulfillment to come in Jesus. Of course the way that took place, Jesus’s actual fulfillment of the law and the prophets was unexpected, counterintuitive and contrary to those expectations. They began to see how this idea of embracing the cross, even dying on it was actually a fulfillment of the law. That is rather hidden in the First/Old Testament narrative, but you can see it after the fulfillment.

Being led by the Spirit as itself a fulfillment of the law (Romans 8:4 and context) is another way of saying that one is not under or subject to (NRSV) the law.  This is really about the law of Moses as it’s called, what was given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was directives, really orders for their lives individually and as community. But it ended up being an important means of showing them their sin, and need for a Savior, indeed for the shedding of the blood of animals for forgiveness to be later fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s emphasis on being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit is contrary to our normal impulses. We want to do it ourselves, and in so doing, we automatically think of our efforts as fulfilling God’s law, what we understand God to be telling us as to what’s right and wrong. When we do that, we’re not living in the new life and the new freedom that new life brings us in Christ. We are either led by the Spirit, or we fall back into a practice that contradicts who we are as children of God. We are no longer in the flesh, according to Romans 8, so we need to live accordingly. Our desire and effort should be to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. Out of that, the Spirit will bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

To be led by the Spirit doesn’t mean we’re above the law so that we can flout it. It is more related to Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you please.” What he meant is the love that comes from the Spirit through Christ.

But back to the main point: Being led by God’s Spirit means, as a friend said this morning to “have the grace of God allow us to walk in the Spirit’s guidance.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians here is all about living in God’s grace rather than under God’s law. And that’s done by the Holy Spirit. May God help us, help me to more fully enter into this reality and experience in and through Jesus.

follow the Spirit’s leading

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25

Acts is an interesting book in unfolding something of the history of the early church following the Spirit’s leading. This is both for individuals and for the church at large. Acts is traditionally referred to as the Acts of the Apostles, but is sometimes called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, which makes a valid point. What good the apostles and early church did was always through the Spirit.

In this passage in Galatians (click above link), what is being referred to here is the fruit of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, etc., as opposed to the works of the flesh. Oftentimes we’ve isolated the Spirit’s leading into something like what specifically we should do during the course of a day, week, month, year. What we many times call God’s leading. And that’s perfectly good, even important to ask God to help us in finding a specific job, a good spouse to share life with, a useful life for others.

What Paul was getting at in the leading of the Spirit was not just some personal inventory like whether or not I’m having clean thoughts, am satisfied with what I have instead of wanting more, etc., etc. The concern at hand is how we’re living in relationship to each other. Does love inform and form that? Or do we live in both self-destructive and unloving, unedifying ways in which we’re failing to love our neighbors as ourselves?

The Spirit’s leading is more about relationships with people than anything else. Or at least we can gather that from reading this passage in Galatians. Certainly including the good news of God for all, beginning with ourselves. In and through Jesus.

deliberate in step with the Spirit

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25

It is easy to get out of step from the Spirit of God. All we have to do is what comes naturally to us, what is of the flesh. For us who are followers of Christ this becomes a bit complicated, not as straightforward. Although depending on where everyone is at on their spiritual journey, we can’t say it’s not complicated for others. But Scripture says people are either in the flesh or in the Spirit depending on whether or not their faith is in Christ. Paul’s letters make that clear. And yet those who are in the Spirit can fall into practices of the flesh. As Paul says, quoted above: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

I find oftentimes that I have to slow down and gather my thoughts. My thoughts can be disheveled, scattered here and there. When I do that what comes to the fore is something of a settledness on quiet and on what’s essential to Christ-followers. All the sudden it’s like there’s a gradual God meeting time again. I find this especially to be true when meeting with other believers. Or at least we can know more easily then that God was with us, that God was in that place, even though we may not have recognized it at the time. In Paul’s account here, he’s talking about life in community. We are meant to do this together. But much of life is lived more or less in solitude. The fruit of the Spirit doesn’t make much sense in solitude, and see the rest of the passage (click above link). But even when alone we need to hold on to what is good not only for ourselves, but for others. In prayer, our thoughts and attitudes, what we can do. As well as accepting needed rest and quiet.

This is like a dance so to speak. I find for myself that I often need to slow down, maybe even stop, but just consciously think of not trying to do too much, just one thing at a time. Doing what I need to, what I have to do. I find God helps me there. For us by ourselves as well as with others. In and through Jesus.

no quick fix

When I read Scripture and life after over four and a half decades of being a Christian, at least it seems to me that there is no quick fix or great spiritual breakthrough awaiting us if we can just find it. Yes, it can make a big difference when we learn to depend on God and less on ourselves, and when we learn to “walk” more by the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, etc. All of that surely does make a world of difference, the difference between light and darkness.

But it’s best to settle down into the realization that there simply is no quick fix. Change for us is incremental and takes time, and yes, effort, on our part. God’s grace underlies it all, and without God’s working, there will be no change at all. But we have to apply what God has given us, and do it again and again and again, so that new habits replace old ones. For example my first natural reaction to problems will be to grumble and complain, maybe utter something under my breath that I shouldn’t. But as I learn God’s way given in Scripture, I might instead learn to rejoice and give thanks, and pray to God, and at least not grumble. Or if I do complain, to do so to God.

Christians waste their time trying to find the big breakthrough, maybe some great spiritual experience, instead of simply endeavoring to follow Christ and stay in the word and pray, and remain in the fellowship of God’s people. And just accepting the fact that life will be a struggle in this world, that the world, the flesh and the devil aren’t going to disappear because of some mountaintop experience.

The sooner we accept this, the better. That God will be with us through it all. In and through Jesus.

indwelling sin

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:8-10

Romans 7 is the classic go-to passage to talk about indwelling sin (see also Romans 6 and 8). When I say indwelling sin, I’m using a theological description to simply talk about either sin residing in us, or our propensity to sin. It seems to me that the main point in that controverted passage is that apart from the Spirit, humankind resides in the flesh, which often in Scripture doesn’t just mean our body, or physical being, but refers to us in our fallenness or brokenness.

Regardless of how we parse all of that, or the passage above from 1 John, I think it’s indisputable that if we don’t live by the Spirit, we’ll live by the flesh, just as Galatians 5 tells us. And we might say the reason for that is indwelling sin.

I think it’s healthy to recognize and acknowledge that. Instead of rationalizing and excusing our attitudes and actions, or wondering what’s wrong with others, we need to chalk it down to one thing: sin, and indwelling sin. We struggle with sin in the life, and that’s simply a matter of fact. And we do sin; there’s no such thing as sinless perfection here and now.

But God not only forgives us as we acknowledge our sins, but also cleanses us from all unrighteousness. In other words, there’s a way to deal with it through the gospel, through Christ. But it’s not by sweeping it under the rug, or pretending it doesn’t exist. We’re not at all defined by sin; we’re “in Christ.” But we need to hold on day after day to the truth and power of the gospel for us.

God is faithful, and will help us through all of this. In and through Jesus.

 

lying feelings lead, truth feelings follow

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Galatians 5:16

This is a difficult one, tricky. It seems like we humans are most often led by our feelings, and only live beyond them when we have to. Like left to ourselves, we might take a long, extended (and maybe even needed) vacation. But that’s not on our calendar, so off to work we go.

Feelings are an important part of who we are as humans. They’re not merely to be thrown on a scrapheap as simply not counting. Feelings can indicate problems we have, or what really are dangers. Fear can be good as well as bad, we call it a healthy fear.

But all too often we humans are led by our feelings. “If it feels good, do it,” is a sad slogan that is all too often our practice. We don’t feel like doing the hard necessary thing, what needs to be done, so we either put it off, or cancel it all together. Or we feel like doing something we know is not actually good for us, like eating one cookie after another until they are all gone. Or something worse.

Scripture indicates to us that God’s word to us is to lead us, with God’s promises following. So that means we have to place our faith in God’s word and act accordingly regardless of how we feel about it. We are led by God’s word, often in spite of our feelings. And so led by God.

But we’ll inevitably find at least in time that feelings confirming God’s word follow. What I mean here is that the confirmation will be that we have understood God’s word to us, and that God is blessing us in that understanding.

In the Galatians passage quoted above, we’re told not to walk by the flesh, but by the Spirit. The flesh here stands for what’s in opposition to God, and oftentimes is feeling oriented. We do in our sinful state what comes natural. And even as those who have been made new in Christ, we still have old habits that are not necessarily easy to break.

God calls us in Christ to walk by the Spirit. This will often, in fact I think most often, at least in my experience, will mean that we aren’t led by feelings. We instead are led by God’s word and by God’s Spirit. As we earnestly endeavor to be open to, and do that, then God will open that up for us. It may take some time, but if we persist, that experience will come. And the feelings will follow. And the fruit of the Spirit especially having to do with our relationships with each other, will follow.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Galatians 5:22-26

In and through Jesus.

 

the conflict of the flesh and the Spirit

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:13-18

Scripture makes no bones about it: There’s a flesh/Spirit conflict. You can see it throughout, and Paul spells it out in his letter to the Galatians. The flesh often means all that is opposed to God in the world. It is set in its ways, in an underlying rebellion against God which might be disguised as anything other than that. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit of God in Christ, actually a person within the Triunity of God: Father, Son and Spirit.

Just try to be led by the Spirit, and keep at it, and you’ll run up against the flesh somewhere at some point. Either those “in the flesh” will just ignore you as irrelevant, or they’ll challenge you directly or indirectly. With some that will be pure opposition, but with many others it can be a mix. They’ll regret their weakness or at least wonder over it, and the Spirit might well be at work in their lives for something much better. Only God knows all that’s going on under the surface. We need to hold our ground, and seek to walk and be led by the Spirit.

Of course we’re not always going to get it right ourselves. After all, who knows what it actually means to walk by the Spirit? I mean, we might actually be able to biblically or theologically describe or put some definition on it. But when it comes to actual life, we can’t have a handle on it ourselves. It is something by prayer and faith we seek to practice.

But again, make no mistake about it, when we do so we’ll run up against “the flesh.” That will be present, and we might as well expect it, so that we can be prepared for it. But the only preparation and follow through for us is simply to continue to walk by the Spirit. Continuing in that “way” in and through Jesus.

the work of the Spirit: forbearance

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance…

Galatians 5:22

In seeking to be led by the Spirit, rather than fall into the default of the flesh, Paul’s words are set in the context of Christian community. The words certainly apply beyond that, even how we seek to engage our enemies. But are directly applicable in relation to each other in Christ, responding to what’s difficult for us by the Spirit rather than the flesh.

Traditionally the word in the NIV translated “forbearance” has been and continues to be translated “patience,” “longsuffering” in the KJV. One of my professors said it’s basically the idea of putting up with each other. Bill Mounce in his “gloss” of this word tells us:

patience, forbearance, internal and external control in a difficult circumstance, which control could exhibit itself by delaying an action

Collins Dictionary describes how we use this word:

If you say that someone has shown forbearance, you admire them for behaving in a calm and sensible way about something that they have a right to be very upset or angry about.

We don’t want to be thinking negatively about others, finding fault and picking at it. We have our own faults and weaknesses for sure. But we often do rub each other the wrong way; it works both ways for sure. Sometimes through misunderstanding, but other times whether or not we should be, we’re frankly annoyed.

When we find ourselves there, we need to determine that we want to be led by the Spirit so that we can walk by the Spirit, rather than act or react in the flesh. That should be our goal. God will honor that commitment of faith by helping us. But there may be a point where other feelings and thoughts submerge us. We then need to prayerfully seek the Spirit’s leading and help, not responding by the flesh. Part of that is moving in directions we know are good and avoiding what we know is not.

When we do stumble along the way, we can confess the sin to God, and if need be to someone we might have offended, and go on. We also have to be careful not to consider something thought, said or done as necessarily sinful. God knows, and is conforming us to the image of Christ. Satan is always present to condemn us. It’s these low points that can strengthen us in our commitment to walk by the Spirit, rather than give in to the flesh.

This leads to the important point that we just can’t go on our feelings or give in to disparaging thoughts. We certainly can’t control our feelings, but we can choose to seek in all things to be led by the Spirit, to walk in the Spirit, to keep in step with the Spirit.

So back to our main point: The fruit of the Spirit is forebearance. The Holy Spirit of God will help us in our thoughts toward people and things that we find disagreeable or even offensive. God understands our struggle with it; Jesus himself experienced that. The Spirit will help us in love to put up with each other well, as we receive their forebearing love in return. In and through Jesus.

the works of the flesh, or the fruit of the Spirit

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit,you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Galatians 5:13-26

The “works of the flesh” as pictured above (and this is a sample list) are evident to us everywhere nowadays, especially when we consider the national (US) political stage. This has always been true to some extent, but it’s especially the case now. And unfortunately it can spill over into the lives of followers of Jesus who act and react accordingly, sometimes even against each other.

Paul was facing a religious controversy, so to speak. It seems true that there’s no two issues on which people can get more hot over than religion and politics. And when you study history, go to war over as well.

The kingdom of God come in Jesus calls for its followers to be completely different, to live in another way entirely: the way of the Spirit as opposed to the way of the flesh. I think the NIV footnote here is correct concerning the Greek word σάρξ, translated “flesh”:

  1. Galatians 5:13 In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit; also in verses 16, 17, 19 and 24; and in 6:8.

Unfortunately we in Jesus who have the Spirit can fall back into those old patterns and way of life. If we who live by the Spirit fail to keep in step with the Spirit, then we fall back into the ways of the flesh, and can become conceited and hateful toward each other.

Living by the Spirit is not simply shrinking back and becoming passive, even hiding. It’s our answer in Christ to what is all too common fare in the world. We in Christ must refuse to respond in kind, and that especially concerns our disagreements with each other. But even toward our enemies, our lives in our actions and words should be marked by “the fruit of the Spirit.”

This is not something we can produce on our own, but we’re responsible to yield control of our life to the Spirit so that the Spirit can bear this fruit in us. It’s up to us. Will we give in to the flesh and its demands? Or will we yield to the Spirit and endeavor to keep in step with the Spirit? There’s no middle ground, it’s either one or the other.