One of the more important texts in Paul’s correspondence with the churches of Galatia is a reminder that we should always pursue deep spirituality in an age overrun with new technologies and media images that threaten our very humanity. I quote in full (NIV 2011) this text from Galatians 5 and urge that you read it meditatively:
13 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. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 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.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
In the middle of ancient Oxford University, a place that I love to visit, there stands a glorious old building surrounded by well kept grass. It is a famous library called Radcliffe Camera. The Radcliffe is protected by high railings. During World War II these railings were taken down so that the iron could be melted and used in the war effort. Suddenly, overnight, this great building was free from a barricade that kept people off the grass. In the 1950s and 60s small notices appeared asking people to stay off the grass. By the 1970s and 80s tourists picnicked and held parties on the grass. By the late 1980s less desirable sorts of folks hung out on the grass to drink and beg for money. They actually became a local, threatening menace. Something had to be done to protect the place so the railings went back up again.
This story illustrates what happens when you abuse freedom. Paul understood this well when he wrote the words of the above text to the Galatians.
I have seen this same principle at work in my ministry with ex-convicts. There is a term you soon learn in this kind of work that is called recidivism. Recidivism is what happens when prisoners are granted freedom and released. The majority end up back in prison in a matter of months, which is what the word refers to when you hear it used as “the rate of recidivism.” Newly released prisoners cannot handle freedom without life skills and new patterns (including a place to live and a job) that truly free them on the inside and the outside. Even many who profess faith inside a prison do not make it on the outside. Sadly, most churches never get directly involved with ex-cons! One of the highlights of my twenty years as a local church pastor came when ex-cons got deeply involved with my congregation. There were some weeks when I could look out and see so many of them. Most were seated up front so they could be deeply engaged in listening to me preach. I always felt this was a turning point for the life of our congregation. This was the day we embraced unwelcome people, the kind of people that most churches feared and misunderstood. There were risks and we got burned but it was all worth it.
The point here is simple. Because you have the freedom to walk on the grass does not mean that you should. Because you have been set free does not mean you cannot put yourself back in bondage.
Paul is arguing in this text that we have been given “new freedom” in Christ. It is primarily a freedom: (1) From our unbelieving and dark past life, and; (2) From the claims of the Jewish law. For the Jewish believer in the first century this was an extremely difficult idea and thus it was very hard to express clearly. Why?
Well, the law had looked after the Jews. It was their friend. It kept them separate from non-Jews and truly helped them not behave like the pagans who worshiped false gods.
But the Apostle Paul clearly offers Christians (Jews and Gentiles) this “new freedom.” It is a distinct third way. There is a double freedom here. We are released by a new Exodus because the new and greater Moses, Jesus Christ, has delivered us into a new place were we have internal, true freedom.
Note that the first thing Paul says about our freedom is very clear: it is for love.
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.
The danger is that we might use this freedom to “indulge” rather than to “serve” and “love.” The word flesh seems to be a subtle reference to the circumcision that was done with hands. So what is the alternative to circumcision, a powerful ritual that marked a Jewish male? The alternative is the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us who believe leading us to love as Jesus loved.
A common mistake Christians make at this point is to see flesh and Spirit as exact opposites. In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power that is in opposition to the Spirit; see also in verses 16, 17, 19 and 24; and in 6:8. But the Spirit works in our material flesh, in our actual bodies, to lead us to the purity of the new covenant written on our hearts. That purity does not come because we put up walls around us saying “Keep of the grass!”
The issue here is “our new identity.” This identity has to do with our innermost desires, our motivation. Who am I in private? What truly motivates me each day when I get up? Paul says that for the Christian it is love. We are to “humbly serve one another in love.” This is the precise opposite of the work of the flesh. He adds that the “entire law” is completed, lived and honored when we love our neighbor. We love one another (our first priority) according to the New Commandment; John 13:34-35. We also love our neighbors. This is the most central and basic expression of God’s will for us in the Bible. It is therefore connected again and again with the shema, which is our love for God. If we love God, by the Spirit, then we are to love our neighbors.
But “Houston, we have a problem.” In a day of protests, culture wars and continued calls to aggressive holiness, understood as a public reaction against the rising tide of secularism in our society, we have severed ourselves from the most basic of all holiness prescriptions, the new commandment. In the process we have lost the second great commandment (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39 and Mark 12:31), severing it from the work of the Holy Spirit inside the church.
Life is like a battlefield! This is why this metaphor here is important. But we have misused this metaphor very badly. We think the real battle means that we should “speak the truth in love” (a favorite proof text) and this releases us to speak aggressively to every political and social issue in our time. I wish I had a dollar for every Christian who has told me that the gospel has public implications thus this means we can and should speak to every hot-button issue that arises around us in modern society. The Chick-fil-A controversy this week reminded me once again of how so many of my Christian brothers and sisters misunderstand the true role of Christian faith in public. Both Jesus and Paul are plain here but we seem unwilling to hear them as our Western values are being continually eroded by secularism.
Let me be clear. I agree that moral issues are genuinely important. I also agree that there is a place and time to work for change in the culture. Yet, having said this, I deeply question the ways that we are doing this today. Let me explain.
The issue for Paul, and thus for us, is our true identity. What does this mean in terms of how we live out the freedom that has been given to us by Christ? Our freedom is not to live as we please. It is not a freedom for sin. It is a freedom to love. Notice that we can destroy one another, as Christians, if we “bite” and “devour.” The word “bite” has the idea of “wounding the soul, cutting or lacerating, rending with reproaches.” It refers to our speech. We wound, lacerate and separate by what we say and by how we say it. The word “devour” is even more intriguing. It has several uses in Scripture but one idea seems to capture the essence of what Paul says here: to devour refers to “the consumption of the strength of body and mind by strong emotions” (Strong’s Concordance).
I ask you, are we biting, especially devouring, our brothers and sisters, as well as our neighbors, by the way we use our freedom in speech and actions?
If we live by the Spirit we will experience love for the most unlovely people. We will express our inner spiritual life, thus our proper and true motivation, by divine love. Love is, first of all, something that we do, not something that we feel or say! If we truly love we will speak differently for sure. We will bless and not curse. Standing up for what is right is good. Standing up for what is right, with the idea that the battle is really “with flesh and blood” is clearly wrong! May God grant us the true inner holiness to know the difference. This will be a holiness rooted in love, not in pronouncements about where the church stands on a particular “hot button” issue in our culture. We can and should teach our own congregations what is morally right and pure. But preaching this to the world, as a form of cultural and social condemnation, sounds like biting and devouring speech. We “cut and lacerate” and then we become consumed with strong emotions