Beyond shaping and preparing little minds for the challenge of the world ahead of them, grade school acts as a kind of a social grinding mill. The students are put in a petri-like environment and must learn how to get along. They learn patterns of interaction that will ultimately carry them into adulthood. This doesn’t mean they are founts of maturity just yet, but they are given the chance to learn and interact in a lot of settings that function as a minor league system to the majors of life post-schooling. They are afforded the opportunity to lay social foundations that will serve them, well or not, long into life. But of all the different environments within the larger elementary world, the one that stands out as perhaps the most intense in terms of its shaping power is recess. I know recess has probably changed quite a bit since the days in which I was wolfing down my lunch to get a few extra minutes outside before the bell (that’s probably the reason I eat so fast today), but in those days we were pretty much left to our own devices with the teachers serving as little more than line judges to keep us from going totally Lord of the Flies as we played. Now, we played a lot of different games depending on the season, but easily the most popular recess pastime was kickball.
Well, after a few years of playing like savages—grab a ball, split into teams, and anything goes—we started to get more…sophisticated in our play. And by sophisticated what I mean is, we started to formulate some rules. Now, this was a delicate process. Once teams were selected, we began a dialogue to determine which rules were going to stand which weren’t. It wasn’t always the most harmonious dialogue. In fact we could at times be fairly accused of arguing over the rules. It went something like this: “No lead-offs. Fine, but no stealing then. No stealing?! Of course we can steal. What’s the point of not leading off if you can’t steal? To make it more challenging. How about this: if you steal, I’ll drill you in the head. Then I get a free base for an illegal hit. Illegal? How can a hit be illegal? Shoulders to ankles and wear a cup if you’re nervous. But your head is your biggest target! I’m going to forget you said that. Anyway, what if you miss me. I don’t miss. Yeah, but what if you do? You get one base. One? You made the bad throw. Why should I be punished for that? Because otherwise it’s not fair and the game will never move along. Well, then perhaps you should just let me steal. See, this is why I said we shouldn’t allow stealing in the first place. But it adds an extra challenge to the game. It’s not much of a challenge if you’re breaking the rules all the time. Rules? Who’s breaking rules? We’re making them…” On and on and on it went getting more detailed all the time. I think our record was 2/3 of recess establishing and debating the rules to 1/3 actually playing. Of course, the first time a rule infraction occurred we went right back to the arguing.
Why did we spend so much time wasting time instead of enjoying our recess? Well, for one, who says we weren’t enjoying it? For two, because we needed the specificity. And we needed the specificity because we are, all of us, driven by an addiction to the rules. As I’ve said several times over the past few weeks: apart from Christ there’s nothing but rule-keeping. This is even true for social rebels. They’ve simply chosen to live by a set of rules that run counter to everybody else and so merely seem like they are eschewing the rules. The reality is that they are just as much enslaved to them as the rest of us. Indeed, it is this enslavement to the rules and how we can experience real freedom instead that we have been talking about for the last seven weeks with the help of Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia. This morning we are in the second to last week of our series, Living Free, and are right in the middle of Paul’s application of his argument on the importance of living by faith in Christ instead of living by a system of rules as a way to enter into and remain in a right relationship with God. Last week as we finally got the first part of the answer to our long burning question of what freedom looks like, we discovered that freedom is found in loving service. The only acts we perform which are truly free acts are those which are done with the intent of building up the people around us to be more fully to God designed them to be. Anything we do for any other purpose is an enslaved act.
So, freedom is found in lovingly serving others. We need to love others to be free. That sounds really good. But somewhere inside all of us is that playground kickball player who needs more specificity: “Okay, so that’s what freedom in Christ looks like, but what does that look like?” This morning, after clarifying something he said at the end of last week’s passage, Paul draws out a comparison between these two different lifestyles—life by rules and life by faith—that makes things a lot more specific. So open up your Bible or Bible app or bulletin, and we’ll take a look together at what else Paul had to say here starting in Galatians 5:16.
At the tail end of last week, when we finally got down to an answer to our question of the nature of freedom in Christ, Paul made the point that serving others in love is the one class of actions that is truly free. While it went unstated then, the opposite of this fact is also true: acts which are inherently selfish in nature are not done freely. Well, if you are at all like me, then you know that while this desire to serve others in love might be fairly strong in us, so is the desire to do things primarily with ourselves in mind. It’s almost at times like we are compelled by some irresistible force to do these things. We’re stuck on stupid, if you will. With this in mind, as Paul begins to unpack this idea that freedom is found in loving service, he writes this: “My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.” No surprises so far. Of course Paul counsels that. It’s the why that we’re interested in here: “Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?”
Got all that? The desire to serve ourselves and the desire to serve others are at war with one another inside us. They can’t both win. And we can’t just switch sides willy-nilly. To indulge one is to deny the other. So then, we are presented with a choice. Serve ourselves. Indulge our fancies. Satisfy our desires. Or, lovingly serve others. Intentionally commit ourselves to see the people around us become more fully who God designed them to be. As you know, though, this isn’t a choice made once. This is a choice made a thousand times a day. Every time we find ourselves facing an area of life in which we have some indulgent preference we must make the choice to satisfy it or to deny it for the sake of someone else. Because, we can’t serve both ourselves and others. We may have some areas conquered so that the choice is pretty easy to make, but in other areas we fail every time because we haven’t yet made the choice. And we have to make the choice because to not choose intentionally to serve others and be free is to choose to serve self and be a slave. Serving self is what comes naturally. Living free does not.
Thankfully, and with an apparent awareness of our need for specificity in mind, Paul goes on from here to compare the two different lifestyles. As objectively as he can, Paul spells out in pretty stark detail the kinds of things which come from each different kind of life. I want to take the next few minutes and look over these with you. Let’s compare and contrast what comes from living by the rules and living free by the Spirit. Come back to the text with me starting at v. 19: “It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time.” Stop there just a minute. The Message puts this a bit differently from normal translations. But the difference, I think, draws out the point. The translation I normally use puts it: “Now the works of the flesh are evident…” Others refer to the “sinful nature” or “human nature” or “that old nature.” The point is that Paul is describing the results of the kind of behavior that comes naturally to us before we are found in Christ and which is wrapped up in trying to get our own way.
Look at what he lists: “Repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and even uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”
That’s quite a list. Perhaps you are used to hearing these couple of verses in more traditional translations. There Paul’s vice list—for that’s what this is—sounds a bit more sanitized: “Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” Those words are more familiar, and we can define most of them if pressed, but those are “Bible words.” Hearing them in a little different way brings a degree of realism back to the party. When we are operating on our own, trying to please ourselves, these are the kinds of behaviors in which we naturally find ourselves. Now, it is tempting here to think, “Well, the person dealing with all of those is obviously a terrible person. I’m not dealing with all those things. I must be doing okay.” But Paul didn’t say anything about the person living by the rules, and thus stuck pleasing self first, dealing with everything on the list. He merely said that these are the kinds of behaviors that come from such a way of life. And, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I suspect we could come up with some more vices if we tried. The point, though, is that if you are living according to the rules, these kinds of things are going to happen.
We’ll get caught up in repetitive, cheap, loveless sex whether that’s with an actual person or a digital one. Indeed, the incidence of pornography use and addiction is high and rising in this country. Did you know that the average child is first exposed as young as eight? Or if not that, we’ll pile our minds high with garbage. The vast majority of what’s on both the small screen and the silver screen right now is garbage. It’s entertaining garbage that we happily imbibe, but it’s garbage all the same. And does our culture not glaringly reflect this frenzied and joyless grab for happiness? We are so numbed to real feeling by our self-enslavement that we’ll do just about anything to feel, and yet the kinds of experiences most widely available to allow us some sensation only serve to further dull our senses. We could go on and on through this list—have you ever had a desire for something that threatened to drown out everything else in your life but which you never seemed to be able to satisfy? What becomes crystal clear in all of this is that when we do what comes naturally to us, freedom is never the result. Only more slavery. Indeed, look how Paul concludes this famous vice list: “This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.” A free life is not marked by vice. It can’t be. The two are antithetical.
Well, after painting a pretty bleak picture of the life of rule-keeping, Paul goes on to show us the other side. We know that freedom is found in loving service, but what are some of the other characteristics of the life lived in the freedom of faith? The list Paul compiles is famously known as the “fruit of the Spirit” because of the analogy he uses. As with the vice list, though, the Message puts these in a way that is different from how we’re used to hearing them, but different in such a way as to shed more light on them. Stay with me in the text at v. 22: “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” Do you recognize all the elements of the familiar list there? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. While the person living by rule-keeping may not exhibit all the behaviors on the vice list, the person living by faith will gradually come to be characterized by all the things on this virtue list. This is because the free life is found in virtue, not vice.
Paul closes this list of the virtues a person living by faith demonstrates with the help of the Spirit by famously declaring: “Against such things there is no law.” Think about that. There is no law regulating this kind of behavior whether against, as Paul insinuates, or for it. There never has been. This kind of behavior can’t be forced. As we said last week, our own desires can force us into the kinds of behaviors on the vice list, but nothing can force these. These are all truly free acts. They are all part of lovingly serving someone else. The free life is found in virtue, not vice. This is because the kinds of things on the list of vices demand laws to restrain them. The kinds of things we pursue naturally, the sort of sensations we seek when doing things with ourselves chiefly in mind—and it is very easy to deceive ourselves into thinking we aren’t when we are—are the reason we have laws in the first place. Think about it. What might happen if a brutal temper is left unchecked? How about murder? And so we have laws against murder. Now, it’s true that it would be hard to pass a law against the specific things on Paul’s vice list—how do you prosecute jealousy?—but we pass all kinds of laws to limit their outworking (like theft). And laws limit freedom. When we live by the rules to please God, we must rely on the rules to completely eliminate these root vices and their fruits. But that never happens because we are powerless in the face of our desires. And so instead of getting into a right relationship with God, we remain sunk in a well of slavery. Indeed, the free life is found in virtue, not vice.
This is why Paul finishes this paragraph as he does: “Among those who belong to Christ [in other words, if we are going to claim to be Jesus followers], everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.” Jesus put it another way: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This was imagery that communicated powerfully to Paul’s audience. They knew what crucifixion looked like. They had traveled down Roman roads and seen the lines of crosses with the still decaying bodies of men and women hanging on them. It was a powerful and violent image to communicate a powerful and violent point: this inclination in us to satisfy our own desires, thus perpetuating a need for rules to restrain our behavior in order that we might be made good enough for God, cannot simply be ignored. It cannot be overlooked, eschewed, downplayed, or minimized. It must be destroyed. It must be killed. It must be put to death and violently so such that it has no hope of rising again. If not, it will come back because it is the way which is most natural for us to go. Yet again this is no one time decision. It is a decision which must be made daily. We take up our crosses daily. Freedom demands it. The free life is found in virtue, not vice.
The way to do this is to give ourselves completely over to the Spirit. We don’t have what it takes otherwise. We must let Him have full reign over us, destroying every vestige of our playground kickball selves which look to create an ever-increasing litany of rules in hopes of fitting ourselves for Heaven. As Paul writes: “Let us make sure that we do not just hold [the Spirit-led life] as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.” Anything less than this will leave us slaves. Anything less gives a free reign to vice to flourish. And vice destroys freedom. Vice requires rules. Rules make us slaves. Freedom flourishes in a world shaped by virtue. The free life is found in virtue, not vice.
So let us go against our grain. Let us commit ourselves to doing what doesn’t come naturally, but only comes with the abiding help of the Spirit. Then we will be free as we have always wanted. Then we will be fully who God designed us to be. The free life is found in virtue, not vice. Pursue virtue.