March 30, 2014

A Breath of Fresh Air

There is a movie that came out a few years ago about a brother and sister who get sucked into a 1950s sitcom and the impact they have on their host world called Pleasantville.  The sitcom world is completely black and white and…perfect.  Everybody does exactly what’s expected of them all the time.  People are always polite to each other.  Never is there heard a cross word.  Teenage boys and girls play it entirely on the straight and narrow.  There is no such thing as social vices.  The high school basketball team makes every shot they take.  It never rains.  It’s…perfect.  It’s…boring (or so we’re made to think).  But then, two siblings, David and Jennifer, arrive from our world, bring a 1990s cultural mindset with them, and things begin to…change.  At first David tries to fit in with everyone else, but Jennifer isn’t having it.  She takes her boyfriend out to “Lover’s Lane,” and they give the place a new reputation which quickly catches on with the other kids.  She explains to her TV mom the birds and the bees.  Eventually David joins in on the more philosophical side as he realizes that the total lack of freedom and people who want to maintain it are unfairly taking the rest of the town down a hole of boredom with them.  And as people begin to learn to do what they want to do rather than what’s expected of them, color begins to come to the black and white world.

It happens slowly at first.  An apple falls from a tree and lands on the ground bright red.  A person turns up in color.  Books in the library pop with new hues.  At first the color is viewed with shock and skepticism.  But eventually more and more people begin to want the color.  The world becomes brighter, more inviting, and fun at a rapidly increasing pace.  But something else enters the world as well: imperfections.  One of the basketball players misses a shot and as the ball bounces off the rim and rolls to a stop the team can only stare at it with a mix of wonder and horror.  Clouds move in over the city and it rains for the first time.  People panic at first, but gradually adapt.  Relationships also begin to fray.  Doubt and mistrust enter the picture.  Yet all these things are seen as minor side effects to the more important change of bringing color and freedom to the once colorless and tightly choreographed world.  In the end, even the strongest holdouts eventually come around to embrace the color and the life it brings.

The movie itself tells a pretty engaging story, but more than that, it proclaims a worldview to viewers.  Trying to live with an out-of-date, tight code of morality stifles a person’s freedom of choice.  People should be able to choose to live however they want.  They should be able to follow both their hearts and their desires to satisfaction wherever that happens to lead.  When people learn to loosen up and “live” a little (and by “live a little” the director means “push the bounds of traditional society”), color and vibrancy will come to the world.  This idea is pushed with a near religious intensity on partakers of our culture.  If you turn on the TV, if you turn on the radio, if you pick up a pop-culture magazine, if you go to the movie theater, you are going to see some version of this: People are freest when they are doing whatever they want.  The popularity of this notion helps explain the rising popularity of the Libertarian political party.  The truth, though, is that just the opposite is the case.  The real color and vibrancy come to the world by an entirely different route.   More on that in just a bit.

This morning finds us four weeks into our series, Leave Your Chains Behind.  The whole idea for this series is that while we talk a lot about being free, we don’t really understand what freedom is, why we have it, and how to live with it.  To this end, we started things out a month ago by establishing a kind of freedom baseline: we are set free to live free.  Jesus offers us the freedom of being in a right relationship with God purely for the purpose of seeing us enjoy this freedom.  There are no strings attached.  There is, however, an other side.  The unfortunate other side is that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  In spite of our desire for freedom, on our own we are not free because on our own we all sin.  The only way to get out of this slavery is to make the choice to not only receive, but to live consistently with the freedom Christ offers.  Finally, last week we began unpacking the lifestyle associated with whichever choice we make.  We started by looking at the lifestyle that accompanies the choice to remain a slave.  And remember: although it may not seem to make any sense that someone would choose slavery, because the consequences of our slavery are not often immediately felt and because the apparent benefits often are, choose such a lifestyle we do.  The hard truth, though, is that when the consequences do begin coming to bear, they are most bitter.  The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare.

Well, unless your taste buds happen to be broken, bitter isn’t much fun.  Accordingly, as I posted on Facebook last Monday, last week was hard.  I had someone comment to me on their way out the door that while they enjoyed the sermon, it was depressing.  And, this person was right.  Last week was depressing.  Thinking about what life would be like absent the real freedom of Christ is a dismal affair.  So yes, last week was hard.  But, fortunately, last week was just the first of a two part miniseries.  As I told my commenter then, “Come back next week for the hope.”  This morning I want to look at the other side of the coin.  The fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare, but the sweet taste of freedom is a breath of fresh air.

This morning I want to sample with you the sweet taste of freedom.  We are going to pick up just where we left off last week in Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia.  We have seen the bitter fruits of the lifestyle of slavery, the lifestyle of doing whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want.  This morning I want to look with you at the lifestyle associated with living in the freedom Christ offers.  Paul describes the fruits of the life of freedom, the fruits that come from living according to the desires of the Spirit, with words that are eminently familiar.  You know these, but let me read them anyway and then we’ll talk about them for a few minutes.  After listing off the fruit of the lifestyle of slavery to sin, Paul shifts gears and reveals the fruit of the lifestyle of freedom.  Look with me at v. 23: “But…” meaning, on the other hand, as a contrast, here’s something different and not in an apples-to-oranges kind of way such that they are moral equals but rather in a white-to-black kind of way such that they are moral opposites, “but the fruit of the Spirit [meaning, this lifestyle is the result of the Spirit’s presence and work in a person’s life; it doesn’t come from within us, but from outside us] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”  Now, you know those words.  You’ve probably heard them before both in church and outside of the church.  Some of you may have even done a study on them.  But, if you’re much like me at all, unless you’ve been put in such a place, you haven’t done much thinking about these words on your own.  Let’s see together why the fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.

First, let’s define our terms.  What kind of a lifestyle is Paul describing here?  Let’s start with love.  What is love?  We’ve talked about this before.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be.  Immediately we see a contrast with the life of slavery to sin.  All the flesh can manage are bad comparisons with the true fruit of the Spirit.  Instead of love, the flesh can only produce sensuality.  Do you know the difference between love and sensuality?  In the Nicholas Sparks book and later movie, Nights in Rodanthe, which is about a separated-but-not-divorced woman getting physically involved with the dashing and mysterious stranger who she’s let stay in her beach house, we are shown what our culture considers a “love story.”  That’s not love, though.  It’s sensuality.  Here’s why.  Love is inherently others focused.  Love is never about me, but always about you.  It’s not about what you can do for me, either.  It’s, again, about seeing you become fully who God designed you to be.  Our culture, propelled by the flesh, only understands sensuality wherein I use you to meet my physical, mental, emotional, or relational needs.  Now, I might do the same for you such that there is a mutual benefit, but still, if you stop meeting my needs, I am totally justified in looking for another needs-meeter.  That’s what was going on in the movie.  Her husband wasn’t meeting her needs and this new guy did.  Therefore, her actions, performed in the name of sensuality masquerading as love, were right.  This is why marriages rooted in sensuality instead of love don’t survive.  At the end of the day with sensuality, your needs are not my chief concern, mine are.  In other words, with sensuality we are all just helpless pawns, or should I say, slaves, of our appetites.  Love brings freedom by putting off self in favor of an other.  People have always defaulted to living for self.  Contra the message of Pleasantville, that’s the boring, out-of-date lifestyle.  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.

Look at these other fruits with me.  Do you know what joy is?  Sometimes joy is confused with happiness.  Joyful people often are happy, but not necessarily so.  No, joy is a deep-seated sense of contentment with our lives that is disconnected from our immediate circumstances.  Joy comes by knowing that our future circumstances will unquestionably be happy regardless of how they look now.  Think about that.  When people stop short at happiness they become slaves of their circumstances.  If their circumstances turn south, their happiness goes away and they have to work like crazy to bring about better circumstances in order to get their happiness back.   But, there are some circumstances in our lives, many even, over which we are powerless.  Joy brings about freedom by loosening the stranglehold of our circumstances on our lives.  See how this contrast between lifestyles is taking shape?  Indeed, the fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.

How about peace and patience?  Peace, more than the mere absence of conflict, is a calmness of spirit that comes from a pervading sense of wholeness in our lives.  Patience is the decision to go at the speed of someone else.  There’s a connection between these two: When I am driven by my appetite for convenience and I’m on the road, if I don’t get to go my speed all the time then I don’t have any peace.  I actually become a dual slave.  I am a slave to my desire for convenience which is punishing me for not satisfying it by taking away my peace.  I’m also a slave to the slow driver in front of me who is forcing me against my will to operate at his speed and thus stealing my patience.  When I make the free decision to go at his speed, both stay right there with me and I’m not a slave to anyone.  Do you see how the fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air?

How about kindness?  Kindness is loaning your strength to someone else.  It is enabling them to accomplish their goals with a bit (or a lot) of your strength.  Goodness is living chiefly with the welfare of other people in mind.  Faithfulness involves honoring the commitments you’ve made such that other people can comfortable and confidently place their trust in you.  Gentleness is the decision to respond to you in light of your strengths and weaknesses instead of responding to you out of my strength.  It is the state of mind which says that my relationship with you is more important than you being impressed by me so I’m going to adjust my approach to your benefit.  Self-control is living as the master of your appetites instead of the mastered.

Are you seeing the common thread running through all of these?  The fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.  Whereas the fruits of the flesh were inherently me-focused, the fruit of the Spirit is inherently you-focused.  The lifestyle of the Spirit operates on the basis of working toward the welfare of others, not self.  When we are slaves to sin our world shrinks down to basically us.  Everything we do is about meeting one appetite or another.  Even if we do something for someone else, the act itself will not be altruistic, but selfish in nature.  For example, I have an appetite for feeling good about myself and so I do something good for you in order to prompt thanks from you so that I feel good about me.  Or perhaps I have an appetite for control so I do something good for you in order to put you in a position of indebtedness to me such that I now exercise some control over you.  In the movie Pleasantville we are made to believe that David and Jennifer, but particularly Jennifer, are simply bringing freedom of choice to this world that’s enslaved to a version of morality that’s constrictive and out-of-date.  How noble!  And in the end, the town appears more loving and joyful and peaceful and so on.  But the story ends before reality has a chance to come to bear.  The siblings don’t introduce love, but sensuality because people are really only using each other to get their holes filled.  They don’t bring joy, but mere happiness as people get what they want but put themselves in a hard place later when the relational bills come due.  They don’t bring peace, but future conflict when wounds from living by the fruits of the flesh begin to fester.  They don’t bring freedom at all, as it turns out.  Loosening up and learning to listen to our desires is not how freedom is born.  That’s slavery.  I mean sure, we can convince ourselves that it really was all pure altruism—that’s the conclusion of Pleasantville—but deep down the truth is that we are merely meeting the demands of our appetites.

But, when we live by the fruit of the Spirit, freedom is the natural result.  The fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.  I know that our culture teaches with both volume and clarity that we are freest when we are least involved in the lives of others and when we are most getting our desires met, but the truth is exactly the opposite.  That’s not the path to freedom.  This is.  Living for others expands our world exponentially beyond ourselves.  All of a sudden we have room to do the things we want to do as our desires turn outward.  This is how the freedom of God Himself works.  God is, in a sense, restrained by His character.  He does not and in fact cannot act in a manner inconsistent with His character.  Far from being restricted by this, however, it makes Him truly free.  He is free to pursue what is good—being concerned with the welfare of others.  Before creation this goodness played itself out in the context of the Trinity as each member worked for the good of the others.  This still happens post-creation, but now God is free to pursue our good as well.  All of this is to His glory which, given the character of God, is the highest good in the universe and the chief end of reality.  Stay with me here.  As we have made abundantly clear, we are not able to freely pursue the good of others on our own.  That’s the bitterness of the fruits of the flesh.  But, when we submit ourselves to Christ in order to receive the freedom He offers and then rely fully on the abiding help of the Spirit of God, we are so able as the various fruit of the Spirit begin to manifest themselves in our lives.  When we are working for the good of others, we are reflecting the character of our God which is what we were designed to do.  When we are operating according to our design, we are bringing glory to our Designer, God.  Well, what did I just say?  Bringing glory to God is the highest good in the universe and the chief end of reality.  Remember what freedom is?  Living in accordance with reality.  Thus, when we bring glory to God we are living in accordance with reality and are thus truly free.  In this way, the fruit of the Spirit not only create freedom, they come from freedom.  What a breath of fresh air!  The fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.

Here then is the hope we’ve been waiting for.  We are not limited to the fruits of the flesh.  The bitterness of life spent focused on only ourselves, whether that plays out in negative ways or apparently positive ones, need not be the chief definer of our life.  Your life doesn’t have to be limited to you and what you can accomplish on your own.  You are not limited to the stagnant air of the way things have always been done.  Look, I know movies like Pleasantville make it seem like “traditional,” “old-school,” “out-of-date,” a “relic of a bygone era” morality was how people used to behave before people woke up and began pursuing the desires they’d long since held in repression either voluntarily or by force of some evil institution like the church, but this is simply not an accurate description of history.  The oft-maligned concept of traditional morality is anything but traditional.  It’s not really how people have ever behaved except in specific times and places where, as it turns out, things went really, really well while it lasted.  It’s the fruits of the flesh—the true face of “traditional” morality—that have been the controlling narrative for most of human history.  That’s why prior to about 250 years ago there had never been such a thing as a free country.  Sure people had theorized about one, but thanks to true “traditional” morality there had to be lots of laws to keep people from going crazy.  The threat of the sword was the only thing keeping most people from acting out the full edible arrangement of the fruits of the flesh.  And, where there are lots of laws, there isn’t much freedom.  This is how things always were.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.  After listing off the fruit of the Spirit, Paul finishes the sentence by noting that “against such things there is no law.”  In other words, where the fruit of the Spirit, what some folks call a lifestyle of virtue, flourishes, you don’t need many laws because people are voluntarily doing what the laws would have demanded.  In other words, people are living according to reality which means they are what?  Free.  They can do this because, as Paul points out in the very next verse, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  When we belong to Jesus, when we have taken up His offer of freedom, we are no longer dominated by desires, we are no longer at the mercy of our appetites because they are dead.  Dead things can’t have any control over us…unless we let them.  But the fact remains that in Christ the stagnancy of self is done away with and we are free to breathe deeply of the fresh air of freedom.  The fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.

Incidentally, let’s pour some concrete on all of this.  Do you know when the real work began at forming the first truly free country this world has ever known?  About the generation or so before the Revolutionary War.  Do you know what the period of U. S. history just before that is called?  The First Great Awakening.  Do you know what happened during the First Great Awakening?  Some really powerful evangelists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield called the British colonists to get serious about their religion.  The Spirit of God moved and through their sermons and writings people did begin to get serious.  A Christian (not merely religious) revival swept over the colonies and people began, many of them for the first time, to get really serious about living their faith.  They began to live out the kind of morality that was never traditional.  Virtue flourished and for the first time people realized that if these ideas not only caught on, but stayed, they could govern themselves without the aid of a far-off king and his lackeys.  This idea was revolutionary.  Indeed, the fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.  Eventually the initial fires cooled, but the ideas planted deep in that revival soil began to germinate.  By a generation later they had not only taken root and sprouted, but began bearing fruit.  As people consumed this fruit, revolution broke out, but so did a second period of Christian revival (led in part by Baptists, I should add) called the Second Great Awakening that carried us through those early days of nation building to the point where the nascent free nation was up on its feet and running.


Now, perhaps there are other interpretations of this period of history, but I would argue that history played out like it did because people began living according to the fruit of the Spirit.  We can debate to the ground whether or not America has Christian origins, but let’s be clear about one thing, absent the First Great Awakening and the harvesting of the freedom the fruit of the Spirit naturally produces, the United States of America would have never existed and then neither would any of us.  So in a sense, we all owe our lives to people pursuing the freedom of the fruit of the Spirit.  And so we’re clear, I don’t say this to somehow demonstrate that we are better than anybody else (although I do believe that no other nation in the world has done as much good for the world as we have in our history), but to show what happens when we leave behind the fruits of the flesh and make the choice to live by the fruit of the Spirit.  The fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air.  And if it can accomplish the creation of the first free nation this world has ever known imagine what it can accomplish in your life.  Imagine what it could accomplish in this community.  Imagine what it would look like for people to begin leaving their chains behind en masse and choosing the lifestyle that comes from a place of freedom and which always gives rise to more of it.  The fruit of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air, and when we choose to take up Christ’s offer and the Spirit’s help such that we begin living with the freedom it brings, we’ll get to breathe it in deeply.  So breathe deeply, my friends, and then come back next week as we begin to dig a little more thoroughly into how we can live out this freedom around other people.