Manipulating the System
Have you ever wanted to make God work for you? I remember the days and weeks leading up to my grandpa’s death. He had gotten sick while he and my grandma were away on a trip. He was sick enough that they weren’t able to transfer him back home and after several weeks he passed away in Phoenix. My mom made a trip down during those waning days, but my folks deemed it wisest (and I agree) to keep my sister and me home with my dad throughout the waiting. This all happened not terribly long after I had made a profession of faith and was baptized. I was pretty new to the whole faith thing in spite of having been raised in the church. I thought it made perfect sense to try and make a bargain with God. If He would heal my grandpa, I would be really, really good. I would perform just like I figured I should and as a result He would do His part. It didn’t work. I remember curling up in my dad’s lap and crying for a long time in the den of my grandparent’s house on a Saturday morning in April when the call came. It wasn’t like God had rejected my bargain…although I guess technically He had. Rather, those simply weren’t His plans. But oh how I wanted to make God work for me in that season. If there had been a certain set of things I could have done to cause Him to work in those events to turn them out in my favor I would have gladly done so. I’d have performed whatever routine I needed to have. I’d have studiously kept every rule written down in the law if it would have accomplished my goal.
So again, have you ever wanted to make God work for you? I think we all hit that place at one time or another, in one way or another. This is a totally natural desire. Most people throughout history have assumed that God or the gods can be manipulated with the right blend of action and obedience and praise and worship. Perform this ritual at this time and the god will send rain on your fields. Offer this animal as a sacrifice and “merge” with this temple maiden and you will have a large family. Rub this plant under your tongue and say these words three times backwards and you’ll be healed from whatever ails you. Pray these prayers in this way, faithfully fill your pew each week, and make sure the offering plate never passes your place empty and God will bless you with peace and happiness. The list could go on and on. And yet, in doing all these different things to try and manipulate God to do our will in order to live our lives free from whatever trouble we might be facing something interesting happens. We become slaves to the rules and rituals, the symbols and ceremonies. In doing this or that to make ourselves free we actually become enslaved to the very things we were doing to effect freedom in our lives. And yet we persist, convinced that if we can just adopt the right set of rules we will finally put ourselves in the freedom for which we are longing.
Friends, this is no way to live free, and as we stand at the threshold of the sixth part of our series, Living Free, we are going to wrap up Paul’s theological argument in favor of freedom over and against a life of rule-keeping. In this second part of the letter we have so far seen that we don’t get right with God by rule-keeping, but only by keeping the faith. This inversion of the way we normally think is actually rooted in the foundation of God’s interactions with people. Rules have never served to move people in the direction of God. Then last week we were finally treated to an explanation of the reason for all the rules in light of their impotence in the very task we most often set them to doing. The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like. Nothing more. And if we use them for anything more than that we will wind up disappointed and frustrated. In this final part of the section before Paul begins to offer some applications of all this talk of freedom, Paul makes another personal appeal to the Galatians to walk in the freedom he originally preached to them. We’ve already seen his personal appeals, though. What is really important for us here is the theological argument Paul wraps around this personal appeal. It comes in two parts which at first seem distinct. But, a closer look will show us that there is a much tighter connection than we are tempted to think. So grab your Bible, open your Bible app, or find your bulletin insert and we’ll take a look at what Paul has to say here starting in 4:8.
This first argument Paul makes is really interesting and actually a little scary to think about its implications. Listen to what he says: “Earlier, before you knew God personally, you were enslaved to so-called gods that had nothing of the divine about them.” Stop right there just a minute. Paul is basically saying: “Before you became followers of Jesus and got to know the real God, you were worshiping a whole variety of things that passed as gods even though they weren’t really.” Now, he’s saying this to a people who came out of culture steeped in classical paganism. But he could just as easily be saying this to any one of us. I mean, yes, our “so-called gods” look different than theirs did, but our worship of them—while not often phrased in those terms given the ostensibly secular nature of pop-culture—is no less sincere and devoted. But notice that Paul doesn’t use the word “worship” to describe the Galatians—and our—relationship to them. What word does he use? “Enslaved.” We don’t merely worship things other than God. We are enslaved to them. Because again, there’s freedom and there’s slavery and nothing else. Mostly free is entirely enslaved. And real freedom is only found in God.
In light of this, look at what comes next: “But now that you know the real God—or rather since God knows you—how can you possibly subject yourselves again to those paper tigers?” In other words: “Why would you go back into slavery once you’ve been freed?” We’ve already answered that one: freedom is unnatural. If we don’t work to maintain freedom we naturally drift back into some kind of slavery. That’s just how it happens. But that’s beside the point for the moment. The point is that we do put ourselves back into slavery just as Paul feels the Galatians have done. In fact look at what he says: “For that is exactly what you do when you are intimidated into scrupulously observing all the traditions, taboos, and superstitions associated with special days and seasons and years. I am afraid that all my hard work among you has gone up in a puff of smoke!”
Did you catch what Paul did there? This is pretty huge. Before following God Paul said the Galatians were what? Pagans. So were we. We may not have been garden variety pagans, but we were pagans. Then they (and we) were (and are) tempted to drift back into our former allegiances after we started following God. We are tempted to pick up our old vices, especially when we feel like our faith walk isn’t going so well. There’s nothing so comforting in a hard moment like an old vice. When we do this, though, what’s Paul say we become again? Pagans! Now, on the one hand we may think that’s not so hard to swallow, but put this in context. The Galatians weren’t drifting back into the idol worship they left behind to become Jesus followers. They were drifting into…keeping the Old Testament laws. Gasp! Isn’t that what they should have been doing? Keeping God’s laws? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? I mean, we’re not supposed to disobey God as a show of our faith, are we? Wouldn’t it seem like a good thing to encourage new believers to be diligent in keeping God’s rules? They are His rules, after all. And yet Paul accuses them of drifting back into paganism. This seems ridiculous if you think about it very long. Yet why the charge? Well, very simply, because it’s true.
While paganism is kind of a broad description, the basic idea is that it involves people trying to manipulate some god or gods or natural forces through various rituals or performances in order to achieve some desired end. In other words, paganism is people doing certain things to cause supernatural forces to do what they want. We manipulate the system for our benefit. How does this relate to the rules in the Law of Moses? Well, the way the Galatians were being instructed to use the rules, and indeed the way many of us probably learned at some point during our time in church, was as a tool for pleasing God. The better and more rules you kept, the happier God was with you. Do we not think in the same terms today? The better we are and the more rules we keep, the happier God will be with us. We do certain things like keeping the rules in order to cause God to do what we want, namely, to be pleased with us. That’s paganism! You may not have thought about it in these terms before, but when we lean back into the rules as a way to please God rather than relying on faith to do the job, we are behaving in a manner different only in the externals from the folks who dress up in robes and perform secret nighttime ceremonies in worship of the goddess.
Put in these terms it sounds like even less of a good idea to rely on the rules to help us please God than perhaps it was before. It’s no wonder, then, that Paul follows this observation with a deeply personal appeal to get back on track with the message he originally preached to them. Starting at v. 12, and you can read it in your text, Paul reminds them of their first meeting. He tells of how they first received him with such grace when he was so weak he couldn’t go any further. He recalls the superb care they gave him, making deep personal sacrifices in order to help him. He expresses his earnest desire to see them walk back into the freedom only found in Christ so he doesn’t have to write them such firm words as he has thus far in the letter. These words are a good reminder of the passion Paul had for the people to whom he ministered. This letter wasn’t written generically to a bunch of people he’d never met. These were people he counted as close friends, brothers and sisters in the Lord.
With this in mind, Paul changes tacks one more time and uses a slightly different theological argument in favor of freedom over and against the rules. It appears at first read that this final argument of the section doesn’t have anything to do with his charge of paganism, but what we’ll see is that the two are entirely more related than it initially seems. And as with last week, he gets pretty nuanced with his use of the Old Testament in drawing out an interesting allegory. So stay with me and I’ll explain as we go.
Keep in mind at the beginning here that Paul has just made an appeal to them to stop worrying with diligently keeping the rules and walk with faith in Christ. Follow along with me starting at v. 21: “Tell me now, you who have become so enamored with the law: Have you paid close attention to that law?” Essentially Paul is saying: “If you’re going to be so concerned about assiduously keeping the Law, have you even paid attention to what it says?” Now he takes them back to Abraham again: “Abraham, remember, had two sons: one by the slave woman and one by the free woman. The son of the slave woman was born by human connivance; the son of the free woman was born by God’s promise.” In other words, Paul is taking us back to Abraham and he begins by reminding us that Abraham had two sons through whom God could have worked to bring about the descendant of promise: Isaac and Ishmael. While Isaac was born as a result of God’s promise to Abraham to build from him a great nation through which He would bless the world, Ishmael was born as a result of Abraham and Sarah faithlessly attempting to connive in a certain way to force God’s hand in fulfilling His promise on their terms rather than waiting patiently for Him to complete it.
Now Paul begins to draw out his allegory. Stay with me in v. 24: “This illustrates the very thing we are dealing with now. The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is from Mount Sinai in Arabia [the site where the Law was given]. It corresponds with what is now going on in Jerusalem—a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar.” Got that? What Paul’s doing is to set Hagar up as a symbol of the life spent trying to perform well in order to fit ourselves into God’s promise. Specifically, he sets her up as a symbol of the law-keeping that was going on in Jerusalem at the time based on the law that was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In contrast to that is Sarah and the life she represents. Verse 26: “In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother—this is the way of Sarah.” This is the lifestyle of freedom and faith possessed by those who have submitted their life to Christ.
Next Paul includes this really interesting quote from Isaiah 54 which talks about children of a barren woman surpassing those of a chosen one that in its original setting was part of a prophecy of hope for the people of Israel. Paul here sees in it an additional note. He sees a great reversal going on. The barren woman was Sarah. She didn’t have her first and only child until she was 90. I think we can say that qualifies her as barren. The chosen woman, on the other hand, is Hagar. That seems backwards to how we normally think, doesn’t it? She was chosen, though, not by God, but by human attempts to force God to act in a certain way—in other words, she was chosen out of a pagan mindset. The children of the barren woman, Sarah, now surpass the children of the chosen woman, Hagar, in that we have by faith what they have never been able to acquire by rules—a relationship with God. Thus, the children of promise are not those who perform well at keeping the Law, but those who receive by faith what God desires to give.
In verse 28 Paul draws all this out and points to one implication: “Isn’t it clear, friends, that you, like Isaac, are children of promise? In the days of Hagar and Sarah, the child who came from faithless connivance (Ishmael) harassed the child who came—empowered by the Spirit—from the faithful promise (Isaac). Isn’t it clear that the harassment you are now experiencing from the Jerusalem heretics follows that old pattern? There is a Scripture that tells us what to do: ‘Expel the slave mother with her son, for the slave son will not inherit with the free son.’ Isn’t that conclusive? We are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.”
So what’s Paul done here? Through his allegory Paul has shown in yet another way the problem with trying to live by the rules in order to take part in the relationship God has promised to all those who will receive. Here’s the truth: performance won’t get us there. Abraham and Sarah connived with Hagar to produce the offspring God had promised. They performed according to the standards of the world at that time to try to make God give them what they wanted, indeed, what He had promised them. What they achieved by this, though, was nothing of the sort. Instead of being freer in the promise of God, they became further enslaved to their mistake. Now there was an extra mouth to feed. There was a child who should have never been born. There were a host of domestic problems. There was a threat to the child of promise for indeed Ishmael’s bullying of Isaac was bad enough that Sarah demanded that Abraham throw out both him and his mom. Now, granted there was no law that was guiding the performance of Abraham and Sarah (beyond cultural norms and expectations), but what was the Law of Moses if not a set of cultural norms and expectations that we attempted to follow in hopes of achieving with God what we could in actuality only receive with open hands? We perform well and God has to accept us. This is a pagan mindset. It was the mindset of Abraham and Sarah. It was the mindset of Paul’s opponents in Galatia. It is the mindset of every person today who thinks they can live by the rules and keep God happy. Perform well and we’re in. But a performance has never been the key to receiving the freedom a relationship with God brings. To become free we don’t perform, we receive.
Abraham and Sarah performed with Hagar in an attempt grab the freedom God had promised them through a descendant. Paul’s Jewish opponents attempted an elaborate performance of rule-keeping in order to walk in the freedom of a relationship with God and they were encouraging the Galatian believers to do the same. Paul himself had been a party to this performance before he started walking in the freedom of faith. We too perform in a variety of different areas of life. Every time we try and substitute some kind of routine or ritual or rule-keeping for faith in Christ we are attempting to perform to gain God’s favor. Take superstition for example. Superstition is an attempt to affect the forces of the universe—including God—by doing things in a certain way. I had friends in high school who would touch their sunshade every time they sped through a yellow light to make sure they didn’t get pulled over for running a red one. Many athletes will wear a certain article of clothing over and over because they had a good performance while wearing it one time. Those are performances designed to effect an outcome. To become free we don’t perform, we receive. Or how about religious performance? Some seasoned Jesus followers are exceptionally faithful in their church attendance and giving as if those things in themselves are pleasing to God. They’re not. That’s a performance. To become free we don’t perform, we receive. Or perhaps you just like to keep the rules because things seem to go better when you do. And they may. But as soon as you start thinking that the rules are enough to put you in a good place with God, you are performing. You’re performing in hopes of winning your freedom. And yet, to become free we don’t perform, we receive.
And here’s the thing about all these different performance attempts: they are all a form of paganism. At the core of all of these different types of performances is the hope that the performance will somehow put God— or whatever you might happen to substitute for Him—in your debt so that He is duty-bound to do something good for you. Yet God is the one person in the universe who is truly free. He can’t be forced into anything. He can’t be fooled. He can’t be bought. He can’t be manipulated. He doesn’t work for us. Ever. He’s not interested in a show. He’s interested in our hearts. He’s interested in giving us life through a relationship with Him. He’s interested in seeing us share in His incredible freedom. But this will only happen when we stop performing and start receiving. To become free we don’t perform, we receive. So friends, stop performing. It’s not working. It’s never going to work. I know it’s a little scary to think you’ll be out of a job, but God has much better and greater work for you to pursue in faith when you’re ready to receive from Him through the ministry of His Son. To become free we don’t perform, we receive. I pray you will.