one step at a time

It seems like many want something like an instant spirituality, or great leaps into a new experience which completely changes everything or more like one’s experience of everything.

The Bible certainly doesn’t exclude spiritual breakthroughs like Saul/Paul’s Damascus Road experience. But one will find out after a season of being on the mountaintop, that most of life is lived out in the valley. One will have to learn to walk with God through thick and thin, depending on the Spirit. 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.

 

walking in the Spirit

Yesterday I mused a bit on the fruit of the Spirit, gentleness. If there’s anything more crushing and heavy for me, it’s considering the fruit of the Spirit as if we’re meant to live in them: love, joy, peace, etc. We can’t in and of ourselves. But that’s where again as always we need to consider context. So now more of the context (of course the entire book is the best context).

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.

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

There’s a lot there, but I want to consider what it means to “walk by the Spirit,” and to “keep in step with the Spirit.” There seems like there are two possibilities for us: we either walk/live by the flesh or by the Spirit. I think the NIV footnote is helpful:

  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.

If the Spirit is in us, then we’re not “in the flesh,” perhaps meaning not controlled by it (Romans 8). God’s Spirit is God’s life breath given in both creation (Genesis) and new creation. Physical life and spiritual life are both in play here, we could say the physical to creation and the spiritual to new creation. But there’s surely some interplay between the two in both, even if we do well to keep the distinction. And in the end God’s life breath is the entirety of life for the human so that any distinction between the physical and spiritual will be all but lost, in the resurrection in Christ.

But I want to better understand, I might say understand period what it means to walk in or by the Spirit. When I consider it, it seems so heavy to me, like a burden placed on me. But then I know I’m approaching it wrong. The Spirit is our spiritual life breath. Our physical life breath is from God too, actually from the Spirit, but not in the same way. But there is some correlation between the two, while a clear distinctiveness, as well.

It is subtle, something present, and so important for all of life, especially for us living in the life of Christ. But it’s present not for itself so that when we examine it as if it is, we miss the point and perhaps lose out on what it’s doing. The Spirit draws our attention to Christ, who in turn draws our attention to the Father, who in turn glorifies the Son and is thus glorified himself in the Son by the Spirit. So the Spirit is God in us, as close to us as the physical breath we breathe, and actually our spiritual breath.

So we’re to walk or live by that spiritual life breath, not by our own impulses which are actually diametrically opposed to that. What that actually means in life, I’m not sure, and I doubt that we’re meant to pin down its meaning. There’s a certain mysteriousness about the Spirit like there’s a certain mysteriousness with God. It’s like it’s present, an important part of the picture, but not something we’re to be so focused on. To be aware of, yes, as God’s means to God’s end. Not that the outcome is mysteriousness as we see clearly in the passage above.

Something I’m working on as I consider what God wants our lives in Christ to be like, certainly gentleness being one characteristic of them.

 

gentleness

But the fruit of the Spirit is…gentleness…

Galatians 5:22-23

What is meant by gentleness is probably obvious to most, but I’ll try to define or describe it. It’s a disposition that is soft yet firm, not weak at all, but neither is it the kind of strength commonplace in the world. It’s force is not physical, but moral and spiritual. At its core for the Christian is Christ-likeness. In love, it is persuasive at least in the sense of being admirable, and eventually emulated, at least influential to others.

I’m looking forward to reading Dallas Willard’s book on gentleness. If there’s one characteristic that should mark our professed love as Christians in this day and time, I think it’s gentleness. But such a disposition would do us a world of good as well. And I don’t mean simply the act of being gentle, which is good in itself, but gentleness in our hearts working into our bones out into our lives, so that we’re simply people who are becoming gentle.

This is called a fruit of the Holy Spirit, in other words something the Spirit produces in our lives. The book of Galatians says that we either walk, that is live according to the flesh or according to the Spirit, one of the two. There might be somehow a gray in between in our experience as we endeavor to move toward what we don’t have. I tend to think Scripture is saying it’s either/or. So we are dependent on the Spirit to be working in our hearts and lives, which means we must yield to the Spirit. Again, the book of Galatians is a great (and not long) book to prayerfully read and study with that thought in mind.

At any rate, that’s my goal. I am tempted to abandon gentleness, especially with the pressures I face at work and elsewhere. But such a place is good training ground to  discipline myself to hold on to what the Spirit would bring forward and through my life, instead of giving in and living in the flesh, as I’m all too accustomed to do at least in certain habits, like keeping my thoughts to myself, but the attitude unchanged. Though, as you might imagine, a wordy person like me can all too easily speak up. To become disposed to something else as a new habit of life is surely vitally important for those of us who wish to follow Christ.

And I think it’s good to take the quote in its entire context, considering other traits that the Spirit would be working into our lives, the fount of it arguably being love, in and through Jesus.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Galatians 5:22-23

the fruit of the Spirit contrasted to the works of the flesh

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

I was much impressed in my meditation over scripture yesterday, now in Galatians, over the contrast of the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. And I didn’t want this to be an impression which comes and goes, and maybe only jogs the mind in a certain direction to correspond more to truth. But I prayed that this reality through the Spirit may be more and more who I am, as opposed to the works of the flesh, which I can at least in my heart fall into. And that I’ll learn better how to keep in step with the Spirit, and the Spirit’s working in my life.

When all around us is such great divisiveness, yes, even hate, we as God’s people in Jesus need to show the better way, not our imitation of Jesus, but the the Spirit enabling us to walk in his steps, beginning in our relationships with each other. Yes, to show the world a better way, the way actually, in Jesus. And to do so by no less than the blessed Holy Spirit. He alone as God can help us live in a different sphere, regardless of our feelings, or what we’re up against. To live in that fruit which is not of us, but of him, and yet worked into our very hearts and lives. My prayer to God is that this will be more and more the case in my life.

Scot McKnight on the Sermon on the Mount as God’s gracious demand on Jesus’ disciple

It is hard not to point a finger at Martin Luther for creating a counterforce between law and gospel. In fact, contrasting the two — one to condemn and one to bring grace — is at the heart of the Lutheran dialect, or how the Lutheran is taught to read the Bible. Nothing can be achieved by obedience to the law; all that can be achieved is achieved in Christ. The Reformed, those who follow from Calvin, involved themselves in a more nuanced way in the issue of how the law and the gospel are related. A good example of this approach is found in a statement by John Stott: “the law sends us to Christ to be justified, and Christ sends us back to the law to be sanctified.” There is considerable debate over this issue among evangelicals today.

This problem is created by tidy systematic formulas, and I appreciate the nuances and discussions and light that systematicians sometime shed, but in this case something has gone terribly wrong. The immediate problem is that the debate often assumes that law demands performance while the gospel expects only faith. Beside the importance of what the New Perspective on Paul brings to the discussion, not the least of which is a radical reshaping of how Judaism worked as a religion and that “works of the law” are not just Torah but the special laws that separated the Jew from the Gentile, the contrast Paul makes between works of the law and faith does not result in the latter not having law or performance. After all, in one of his quintessential statements in Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul overtly argues Christians are created by God “to do good works” (which is performance by any other name).

As one sympathetic to the Anabaptists I believe in salvation by faith and not by works, and to their credit the Anabaptists have always taught the demand of discipleship in a way more emphatically central than most. Radical distinctions, often made by major theologians in the Protestant traditions, between justification and sanctification are unwise because they are not grounded in the Bible. The Torah is God’s revelation to God’s people and to be read as God’s gracious demand. God graciously reveals what God wants, but God unfolds that demand over time so that it is completely revealed only in Christ; God graciously provides the power for us to do what Jesus teaches as we live in the Spirit in the light of the coming kingdom; and God graciously demands how God wants us to to live in the Sermon and in the ethical exhortations of the New Testament.

In other words, in Jesus’ demand to live righteously, which runs through the Sermon, we see an Ethic from Above, from Below, and from Beyond* — but it is an ethic his followers are to perform. The best way to preach the Sermon is to preach what it is: a demand on the disciple.

Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary)

*Earlier in the book these terms are explained: “Ethic from Above: Torah,” “Ethic from Beyond: Prophets,”  and “Ethic from Below: Wisdom.”

learning to live well in grace

An ongoing venture with me in which I hopefully am growing is the rejection of a spirituality based on something less than the grace of God in Jesus. The spirituality I am rejecting over time, and with more than a little help from my friends is one in which I think this or that ought to be done to maintain the highest ethical standards. The problem with that “this and that” can be that people are trampled on in the process, or hurt in a way which does not facilitate the mission we in Jesus are on- of living out and sharing the good news in Jesus.

I am not referring to compromise in sin with others. Of course what is sinful to one may not be sinful at all to another; check the passages in Paul’s writings on the weak and the strong in faith. I am referring to getting used to a different orientation altogether. I think a significant part of the problem is that we can be concerned and even bent out of shape over something which is already taken care of. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” period. Those in Christ Jesus, the passage goes on to say, follow the way of the Spirit and are enabled by the Spirit in and through Jesus and his death to fulfill the requirement of the law which is essentially love, love for God and for our neighbor. But we humans tend to want to operate in ways in which we are in charge and can understand.

Yes, discernment is important and the church together, and particularly the elders ought to be involved in that. But enter now an error, I think in many Anabaptist circles, of having an orientation which has the idea that somehow what we think as to right and wrong reaches the status of God’s will. I’m thinking of an emphasis on externalities with the worthy goal of pursuing and living out holiness. And with the idea that life should revolve around that.

Enter Jesus. He broke the rules set by men over and over again. His was a different orientation altogether, set on loving God and neighbor, on proclaiming and teaching the good news of the kingdom of God having come in him. As well as doing the works of that kingdom in the world. We need to get beyond a focus which is taken up primarily with our own eternal welfare, since that is taken care of in and through Jesus. Or beyond even the false idea that somehow our communion with God is maintained by rules we keep, as if those who do not keep them could not be in the same fellowship or communion with us in Jesus. Instead we need to become intent on an orientation of learning to follow Jesus in the way of the cross, the way of love.

This doesn’t mean we can always flaunt human rules and conventionalities, that we should never have any regard for such. There may be times and places where we need to keep such in order to live in love for God and our neighbor. What this does mean is that we ourselves are not tied down to such in our own lives. We are on mission in Jesus seeking to live fully in him and in obedience to his commands. Living out the new in Jesus in the old of this world. Together in Jesus for the world.