One of the perks of having young kids is that their capacity for love is still pretty much limitless. They forgive and forget with remarkable ease. They are ready to roll on with the relationship as if nothing has happened within minutes of an episode of discipline. And, they have a wonderful penchant for hyperbole to express how they are currently feeling. For example, Noah loves to remind us that he loves us. When he’s feeling really good he’ll tell us he loves us with a bit of hyperbole for effect. The other day he told me that he loves me “ten hundred, thousand, million.” Now, there are several things wrong with this statement from an object standpoint. First, that’s a terribly convoluted way to express the number 1 trillion. Second, his brain isn’t yet developed enough to even grasp the concept of 1,000, let alone 1,000,000, let alone 1 trillion. Third, love is not a quantifiable commodity so putting numbers on it doesn’t make any sense. But, as far as I’m concerned, none of that matters a bit. What he really means is that he loves me a whole lot and the natural literary vehicle for him to express that is hyperbole. And, as long as he’s telling me how much he loves me, he can be as hyperbolic as he wants.
The truth is, we all use hyperbole to express ourselves from time to time. There are places in communication where we desire to express some emotion or feeling as particularly acute but, a normal comparative or even superlative don’t seem to fully cover things. For example, on occasion one of our older boys (I’m getting used to saying that), will do something to irritate us. I’m sure you don’t at all know what that’s like. Anyway, if they do whatever it is for a sufficiently lengthy period of time (you know, a minute or more), one of us might ask them to stop with an exasperated, “You’re killin’ me!.” Now, of course they aren’t literally killing us by doing whatever it is, but the hyperbole offers a much more emotionally satisfying and verbally creative way of expressing something like, “Could you please stop making that high-pitched sound? It’s particularly irritating right now.” Perhaps you’ve used this or one of these other common hyperbolic statements: “I’m bored to death!” “I’m starving to death!” “I love you to pieces.” “I’m going to kill you.” “I could just eat you right up.” “This is taking forever!” The list goes on and on.
Speaking of hyperbole, do you know who else used hyperbole on occasion? Jesus. You see, in spite of its detachment from reality, hyperbole can actually be an effective way to make a point. It forces people to think about something in really stark terms that make the more immediate point easier to grasp. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of Jesus being hyperbolic comes from His most famous recorded sermon which took place on a hillside in Galilee. Because of that it’s often called the Sermon on the Mount. (Incidentally He preached a similar sermon which Luke records that took place in a giant field. It’s called the Sermon on the Plane. Aren’t Bible guys creative with titles?) Jesus was trying to get people to understand the seriousness of sin. In order to make His point He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. . .And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Let’s just be clear. Jesus was not advocating self-mutilation as a solution to the problem of sin. Perhaps some folks have taken Him literally here, but pretty much everybody else throughout history have understood Him to have been using the figurative device called hyperbole.
This creative expression on Jesus’ part makes the text more readable for us. The device is not, however, without its problems. In fact, do you know what the real problem with the presence of hyperbole in the Bible is? It’s not always immediately clear when it’s being used. And, if we wave the hyperbole flag at the wrong time, we run the risk of getting ourselves into some troubling interpretations. For instance, a few verses later in the same sermon Jesus said that the standard of behavior God will accept is to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s tempting here to conclude that Jesus was merely using hyperbole to make the point that God’s standards are really high and that we need to be as good as we can be in order to be acceptable to Him. But a bit closer analysis of the text suggests that, no, Jesus really did mean that perfection is the only standard God will accept from us. There are actually several other places throughout the Bible where while it is tempting to wave the hyperbole flag because it makes the text a lot easier to understand and apply, we need to hold off because the author did in fact mean exactly what he said in the way he said it. This morning as we continue our series, Leave Your Chains Behind, I want to look at one of these with you.
When we started this series a couple of weeks ago, we took a look together at the good news that the freedom we have in Christ comes with not a single catch. In spite of a pressing desire to look this particular gift horse in the mouth, there are no strings attached to the offer of freedom Christ offers us. That is indeed good news. Last week, though, I brought us all back down to reality with the bad news. The bad news is that in spite of this incredible freedom we have in Christ, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. This means that everyone who does not avoid committing sin altogether is entirely enslaved to it. Well, this is a pretty radical idea in our culture and so rather than just making the point and leaving it alone, I attempted to prove it to you. The proof lies in the fact that even if we reject all potential authorities over our life beyond us—in other words, nobody is the boss of us—we are still a slave to our appetites, our desires. We cannot do what we want to do because our desires are too powerful. We engage in a variety of forms of self-indulgence which are destructive to either us or someone else in our life in spite of the damage they cause because we can’t stop ourselves. If we could we wouldn’t be slaves, but…we can’t. And, if you happen to be one of those folks for whom the phrase “you can’t” transforms you into an “I’ll-show-you” warrior, you may whip one form of self-indulgence that’s causing you problems, but another will rise up in its place even if only the pride of having whipped all the rest on your own. Whatever the pathway, the end result is the same: if we live apart from the freedom Christ offers we are slaves. This is the choice before us and make it we will whether we realize it or not.
That’s where we landed last week. I told you then that starting this morning we were going to spend this week and next examining the kinds of lifestyles that go along with our choice. And so we shall. In order to do this, I want to take us to the other end of the chapter we started with two weeks ago. In Galatians 5, Paul starts out by setting a firm foundation for understanding the reason we have freedom in Christ. At the end of the chapter he comes back around to show us the consequences of our choice, whatever we happen to choose. He begins this little discussion by sharpening the dichotomy between the two choices. I said last week that there is no middle ground here, we’re either slaves or free. Paul makes the point even clearer. If you have a Bible in some form with you this morning, find your way to Galatians 5:16 and take a look at this with me.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Now, just to clarify terms, when Paul uses the phrase “walk by the Spirit” and later the “desires of the Spirit,” he’s talking about walking in the freedom of Christ. And, when Paul uses the phrase “desires of the flesh,” he’s talking about living the life of slavery that comes when we try and do life apart from the freedom Christ offers. We are either going to seek to satisfy the desires of the Spirit or the desires of the flesh. There aren’t any other kinds of desires. Furthermore, as Paul points out in v. 17: “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh …”
So here again the contrast between the two different lifestyles we are talking about is made explicit. On the one hand, we can live to satisfy the desires of the flesh, our appetites, the things we do when we are living as if there were no God. On the other hand, we can live to satisfy the desires of the Spirit, we can live consistently with the freedom we have in Christ, consistently with who God is and how He designed the world to work. There is no middle ground here. If we strive for one, the other is off the table as an option for us. These two approaches to life are diametrically opposed to one another. We can’t straddle the fence here. I mean, we can try, but all we’ll be doing is pretending things are other than they really are. Wishing doesn’t have anything to do with the reality here. As Paul declares at the end of v. 17: “…for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
You know, one of the things I appreciate about Paul is his honesty about the human situation. If we are living according to the desires of the flesh, as Paul calls them, we may want to do things which are honoring of God, and we may even attempt to do things which are honoring of God, but every time we start in that direction we are called by another appetite to come back and gratify its desires. On the other hand, if we are living according to the desires of the Spirit, trying to live consistently with the freedom Christ gives us, there is still going to be a part of us that wants to gratify the desires of the flesh. You know this is the case. You are trying to live righteously and are even relying heavily on the support Christ offers, but there’s some part of you that wants the self-indulgence you used to take for yourself. Yet if you are going to live with the freedom Christ offers, as we talked about, you cannot do whatever you want.
There’s one catch here, though that Paul doesn’t mention. If we live consistently with one side of this dichotomy or the other, our desires will gradually shift to fall more in line with the side we choose. In other words, if we live in such a way that we pretty consistently go after the self-indulgence, feeding our various appetites as they demand, we will gradually come to less and less desire to do anything truly honoring of God. Self-less actions will seem more and more undesirable to us. And, when self-less actions are less and less desirable to people, societies have to pass more and more laws to keep our selfishness in check. This is part of what Paul is getting at when he says in v. 18 that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” On the other hand, if we live consistently with the freedom Christ offers, seeking to choose the action or attitude that is honoring of God even at a cost to self, we will gradually come to desire to honor Him and sacrifice self more and to honor self and sacrifice Him less.
The question pressing in on us at this point, though, is the very question with which we started: what do these two lifestyles actually look like? Another way of putting that might be: What is the fruit of living as a slave versus living as a free person who is led by the Spirit? Thankfully Paul doesn’t leave us hanging and I won’t leave you there any longer. Paul starts out by listing some of the fruits of the lifestyle marked by slavery to sin, the lifestyle characterized by gratifying the desires of the flesh. Look at this with me starting at v. 19: “Now the works of the flesh are evident.” Okay, so I’m actually going to leave you hanging just a bit longer. What Paul says here is provocative and important. The works or the fruits of the flesh are evident. Some translations use the word “obvious” there instead. I think that may capture the punch of what Paul is saying a bit more clearly. The kinds of behaviors associated with living by the flesh, doing whatever we want to do are obvious. Anybody can figure out what these are. Just look for places where God is not terribly welcomed and observe how people act. Think Las Vegas or New Orleans. When people don’t think God is looking and the restraints of polite society are loosened a bit, what do people do? It’s not a pretty picture.
Paul agrees. Look at this with me: Sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality. Prostitution is legal in Nevada and by reputation there are several Vegas shows for which sensuality would be an apt description. How about idolatry and sorcery? Voodoo is part of the culture of New Orleans. Paul lists relational problems (enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger), issues resulting in disunity (rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy), and personal vices that often get worked out in painful, public ways (drunkenness, orgies), and then includes the phrase “and things like these” at the end just to make sure we know this is not an exhaustive list.
You know, reflecting on all of these I think there are a couple of ways to react. The first is common to church people: “Well of course those immoral saps do all those things! They’ve taken God out of the country and now we’re all going to Hell in a hand basket.” The second reaction is perhaps more common to everybody else: “Really, Paul? Using hyperbole much? You know what, I’ll grant you that I’m a slave to sin, but come on, now. There’s a big part of this country that doesn’t have religious views that are recognizably Christian and yet is not that bad. Vegas and New Orleans represent the fringes of our culture. Most of us are going through life doing the best we can to live as moral lives as possible. Don’t paint us with the same broad brush as the lunatics on the edges.”
So which is it? Is Paul painting with too broad a brush here? Is this an example of hyperbole? Is Paul merely trying to force us to conclude that the fruits of the flesh are bad, but not necessarily to include all these things? I mean, he lists about every vice in the book and finishes with a big et cettera, et cettera, et cettera. Surely he’s not just writing off all non-Christians as terrible people, is he? No, I don’t think he is. You can rest easy there. But, that said, I don’t think he’s being hyperbolic either. I think he is speaking quite plainly and even literally. The life marked by slavery to sin, the life characterized by trying to do whatever we want (as opposed to whatever God wants) is indeed marked by all these things and more. And if you want proof of this you need look no farther than our culture.
If you pay much attention to the news then you are perhaps aware that there has been a spate of big headline cases lately that involve either a Christian individual or group suing the government or the government going after a Christian individual or group about something. The Hobby Lobby case involving the mis-named “contraceptive mandate” which goes before the Supreme Court this week or the various cases of a Christian business owner refusing to participate in a gay wedding are but the most well-known of these instances. I recently read an article, though, that I thought put things in the proper perspective. The main problem, the author argued, is not religious freedom per se, but rather the fact that Christianity has lost its place as the chief definer of our culture. All the individual spats between a Christian group and either the government or some other non-Christian entity are merely reflections of the angst of a culture in transition. I think the author makes an insightful observation that speaks directly to what we’re saying here. Our culture, while still borrowing heavily on some value judgments that don’t make sense apart from a Christian worldview, is no longer recognizably Christian. Accordingly, then, if Paul is not only right, but also not being hyperbolic, we should expect to find these fruits of the flesh showing up with an ever-increasing frequency.
And indeed, look around. Much of what passes for normal primetime fare on network television these days probably would not have made it past the FCC censors even ten years ago. Even ABC Family’s primetime lineup features a series of shows all of which portray teenagers engaged in a whole lot of wildly inappropriate behavior…at least from the standpoint of the Christian worldview. Sensuality is the name of the game these days. Sex is used to sell…well…everything. But this is hardly the total of it. While much of our culture is not recognizably Christian, the alternatives to which it is turning are not varying forms of atheism, but rather varying other forms of spirituality. The occult and all of its mythologies in general are wildly popular today. Stay with me. Modern pollsters routinely find that, politically speaking, the country is more polarized than ever before these days. Folks on the opposite end of the political spectrum are not seen as fellow countrymen with a different take on things, but as enemies to be opposed at every turn. Folks from the millennial generation (that’s my generation) have a lower level of trust in the basic goodness of people than all the generations before us. Symptoms of relational brokenness (divorce, broken homes, depression, and so on) are higher than ever before. A majority of the country disapproves of the President, the Congress, and the direction the nation seems to be headed. (By the way, lest I seem to be making a partisan point, this was the case for the last guy too.) And generally it just seems like the moral climate of the nation is declining. Just consider the recent popularity of the “Knock Out Game” where the goal is to walk by an unsuspecting stranger and sucker punch them hard enough to knock them out. What is that? If you spend much time thinking about all of this it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Indeed: The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare.
Paul wasn’t trying to be hyperbolic or dramatic or anything else other than serious and sober-minded. He was simply giving an honest assessment of what life looks like when it’s lived apart from the freedom of Christ. He wasn’t even passing judgment. He was simply observing a fact of life. The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare and this is what they look like. This isn’t about painting with too broad a brush. Rather, it’s about offering a fair take on reality. As Christians we believe that we are made in the image of the God who is good. We believe further that we should live our lives in as close an approximation of the quality of His character as we can with the Spirit’s help. But for the occasional bubble of our original creation, though, on our own, we aren’t capable of anything good. Our appetites are too demanding to allow that to happen. The pessimist’s assessment that people are all just out for themselves, when made without consideration of folks living in the freedom of Christ, is right. And when we are out for ourselves, the kinds of things Paul lists here are the entirely expected outcome. The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare. Think about this for a minute: can you come up with a single morally positive cultural change that did not come out of a Christian worldview and which did not have Christians leading the way? I can’t. Whenever the freedom of Christ is rejected in favor of the illusion of freedom granted by our appetites the result is a train wreck. The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare.
That’s why, again, when Paul says there at the end of v. 21 that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God,” he isn’t making a threat, but merely observing the logical outcome of the choices we make. The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare. But, you can get used to bitterness such that the sweetness of the fruit of the Spirit becomes undesirable. At that point, you won’t want to inherit the kingdom of God because it’ll sound terrible. All of this, however, is the result of a choice. Slavery isn’t a pleasant lifestyle and in spite of a lot of work to make it attractive on the front end, the honey on our lips becomes gall in our bellies. The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare.
So then, after a lot more bad news this morning, where’s the hope here? The hope is found in the fact that we have another choice. We don’t have to be slaves. We can be free. We can leave our chains behind. The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare, but the sweet taste of freedom is a breath of fresh air. And if you’ll come back next week we can breathe it in together.