I’m reading in Galatians today–looking for a better understanding of what it looks like to be walking by the Spirit. Sometimes sin is not obvious. In fact often I am blind to my own sin nature. It masquerades as a good thing, a conscientious thing, a right thing. And yet the aftermath is not love, joy or peace. And I discover that my self is in control rather than being controlled by the Spirit! It’s not just wild parties, sexual immorality, or outbursts of anger that reveal the sin nature at work. Sin can hide in the heart in the form of ‘selfish ambition’ and ‘the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group’.
False teachers had come winsomely coaxing the Galatians to turn back to keeping the law so as to be better Christians, to join their elite forces and become circumcised so they could boast of their superior righteousness…
Into this context Paul speaks God’s words:
If we are living now by the Holy Spirit, let us follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives—when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves…the exact opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict. But when you are directed by the Holy Spirit, you are no longer subject to the law.
What counts is whether we really have been changed into new and different people—What is important is faith, expressing itself in love—May God’s mercy and peace be upon all those who live by this principle. They are the new people of God!
Galatians 5:25; 5:22,23; 5:16-18; 5:6; 6:16 (NLT, British text)
Sin is not always blatantly obvious. It can boast of great self-control while all the while feeding the self’s passion to be in charge, to be ‘productive’ on its own terms and to be esteemed as ‘conscientious’.
The Pharisees were surely conscientious! They might not have been caught in wild parties or obvious immorality. In fact they strolled about looking pious, intimidating the common man with their intense ‘goodness’, all the while being odious to God and incurring the harshest of Jesus’ words. They turned righteousness into a nit-picking list of do’s and don’ts that served to assure them of their own righteousness while in fact alienating them from God! It is to them I look when I need a reminder of sin at its most deceptive.
They were not unlike the religious leaders that wheedled their way into the church at Galatia, luring them to become better Christians by getting circumcised and joining their elite band. Theirs was a righteousness superior to that of the simple Gospel preached by Paul, or so they thought. This fraudulent version of the ‘good news’ was attractive. It offered the go-getters something they could do to improve their standing with God and especially with man! It appealed to the competitive. They could look better than their lowly neighbor and earn themselves some congratulatory pats on their own backs. Best of all, they could feel good about themselves!!
The true Gospel isn’t about this. It paints a grim picture of our self-enthralled natures. The hope of the Gospel is found in dying to my sinful self in order to gain the life of Christ within. It means dying to my pursuit of goodness on my own terms. I am not good enough to commend myself to God and will never be apart from reliance on Jesus’ death and resurrection on my behalf. Only His goodness has merit. Only His life in me by His Spirit can cause me to walk in a way that truly pleases God.
I am often not pleased with my productivity on any given day. I often have unrealistic ideals of my potential. I get annoyed when my plans are interrupted, my ideas turned down, my ambitions foiled. Love, joy and peace vanish so readily. And then I have to reconsider whether my plans were in fact God’s plans for me. Was I following my agenda or His?
I suspect that dying to selfish ambition is at the very heart of what it looks like to follow the Spirit. The natural self and the Spirit are constantly dueling for control. My ‘choices are never free from this conflict’ (Gal.5:17 NLT) and yet I am not at the mercy of the old me. The Spirit fuels God’s desires in my heart. He leads me in paths of righteousness. He opens my eyes to wrong motives and selfish ambitions and points me to fresh opportunity to love and serve the ones whose paths I cross. This is the life I live by faith in the One who loved me enough to die that I might so live!