Monday, February 22, 2010

What is the Fruit of the Spirit about?

Yesterday after breakfast, the lovely Carol wanted to look at Galatians 5:16-25 with me. She has a copy of John Stott's study guide, and we worked through some of his questions together. You may recall that Galatians 5:22-23 talks about the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so on); many Sunday School children memorize this list, though of course it takes a lifetime for the fruit to be fully formed in us.

We don't usually memorize the other, contrasting list (the works of the flesh), and I don't know that we always have the big picture in view when we think of the fruit of the Spirit. Here's the passage:

16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For 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 do not do what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

19The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and 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.

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:16-25 NIV
(with "sinful nature" ⇒ "flesh")
So here are a few comments.
  • The passage begins with "So I say..." which suggests that we came in part-way through his discourse. More on this later.
  • The way to overcome the flesh isn't to just "try harder," but to live by the Spirit (see verse 25).
  • Christians have an inner conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. This helps explain Paul's struggle in Romans 7 for example, as well as the struggles we have trying to live the Christian life daily.
  • For some reason, "led by the Spirit" (verse 18) is in the passive voice -- we can't just do this but we must somehow surrender or something. And in verse 24, it says we who belong to Jesus have crucified the flesh -- this is the active voice. What does the contrast mean? Why is one passive and the other active? I hope you'll let me know.
  • Our study guide pointed out that the acts of the flesh seem to be divided into four areas (the NIV editors helpfully put semicolons between groups):
    • sex (v.19: immorality, impurity...)
    • religion (v.20: idolatry and witchcraft)
    • society (vv.20-21: hatred, discord.. factions and envy)
    • drink (v.21: drunkenness, orgies and the like)
    I think the study guide asked us to comment on these areas, and it occurred to us that abuse of sex and alcohol is a poor attempt to overcome personal alienation, whereas abuse of religion (in this case magic) and society is a poor way to overcome feelings of powerlessness. I think of all these as ways of taking control. (Even alcohol abuse is an attempt to control our perceptions of reality, or at least to suppress or conquer unpleasant parts of it. Not very effective, but it might feel good for a short while.)
  • In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit have to do with humility and surrender. We overcome alienation by love and peace and gentleness. We overcome powerlessness by rejecting the desire to control; rather we seek to be mastered by the Lord: we aim to be led by the Spirit.
When we see some truth in the Scriptures, it's sometimes useful to do the dialectic thing -- to say "If this is the truth, what is the lie that we'd otherwise be tempted to follow?" I never noticed this before, but it seems to me that this passage really has a lot to do with control, and with who's master. Are we trying to master reality, our feelings, others? Or are we seeking to be mastered by the Lord, to be led by the Spirit?

Now verse 16 began with "So I say..."; let's zoom out a little on the chapter:

13You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
-----insert 17-24 here-----
25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Galatians 5:13-26 NIV
Verses 13-14 warn against one kind of selfishness (poor attempts to overcome alienation) and verses 15 and 26 warn us against another (poor attempts to overcome powerlessness); these concerns "bookend" this passage about the fruit of the Spirit.

I found this really interesting, because I hadn't noticed before the connection between selfishness (of various kinds) and the deeds of the flesh -- more to the point, it hadn't occurred to me that we could think of the fruit of the Spirit as being largely the antidote to selfishness.

This makes a certain amount of sense, because as I understand the way this is supposed to work, the Spirit's job is to lead us into a right relationship to God and to Jesus (that is, the Spirit leads us to the Father and the Son; he doesn't really draw a lot of attention to himself). If I'm right about this, the fruit of the Spirit would be the power to surrender(!), and thereby to overcome selfishness and discord. And he will certainly finish his work, and we will someday be perfect, as the Lord wants us to be. Now that's good news!

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