Monday, 27 June 2016

freedom of "sin" and freedom of the spirit







I heard a quote from Sitting Bull, who was a Lakhota leader in the 19th century. He said, “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”

This isn’t too far off from what Paul says. Paul says that there are two natures at war within us. One is the spiritual nature, the other is the sinful nature. The spiritual nature is both God’s Spirit within us transforming us into who God had created us to be, and the part of us that is transformed and desires God. The spiritual nature is the part of us that has been renewed. The sinful nature is that part of us that resists God. Paul uses the Greek word “sarx” to refer to this sinful nature. You can translate the word literally as “flesh”, but Paul isn’t just talking about the body here as if the body itself was an evil thing. He is talking about a deeper reality. It is that part of us that continues to be ruled by sin.

Both the Spirit and the Flesh promise freedom. And both the Spirit and the flesh say the other way is slavery.

The “freedom” the flesh promises is: “fornication (forbidden sexual intercourse), impurity (like an unclean spirit), licentiousness (inclination towards lust), idolatry (worship dedicated to something other than God), sorcery (using drugs and making spells), enmities (related to the word enemy, hatred or hostility), strife (contention, expressing enmity, rivalry, fighting), jealousy (intensely wanting what another has), anger (very agitated, wrath, revenge, explosive anger), quarrels (strife, selfishness, rivalry), dissensions (divisions, “standing apart”, dissension), factions (sects, heresies, following self/ personal preference/ personal advantage), envy (displeasure at prosperity of another- jealousy wants it, envy wants the other deprived of it), drunkenness (intoxication), carousing (drunken partying, revelry), and things like these” (5:19-21).

I think this is often what we are taught to think freedom is- freedom from moral restrictions. Freedom to follow every desire and every appetite. We feel like this is the way of fun. We look to the way of the spirit and it looks like the way of nerds, the way of restriction, of self-denial rather than self-expression.

Those of us who have lived the way of the flesh know that the fun doesn’t last. The way of the flesh is also the way of numbing pain, of broken relationships, of children conceived in unstable relationships, of STDs, of tiring drama, of violence and danger. The preacher Frederick Beuchner says it this way, "To obey our strongest appetites for drink, sex, power, revenge, or whatever leaves us the freedom of an animal to take what we want when we want it, but not the freedom of a human being to be human."

The freedom the spirit promises is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23). That last one grabs us as particularly opposed to freedom. We live in a world that has a hard time seeing self-control as being part of a life of freedom. Really it is essential. To be truly free we must choose what makes ultimate sense rather than what my immediate desires are. This is sometimes called “delayed gratification”. You are willing to deny yourself something you want right now, in order to have a greater good later on, or to prevent an unwanted consequence.

The way of the Spirit is the way of mature freedom. St Augustine said, “love God and do what you will” (in a sermon on love- 1 John 4:4-12). That is the freedom of the Spirit. Ultimately there is only 1 thing necessary- Love God. Now, if we love God we will treat our neighbour with kindness because they are a work of God’s hands and created in God’s likeness. If we love God we will care about the directions God has given us to live our lives. That means really where we get in trouble is when we love something other than God best- self, money, prestige, etc.

The New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says, "Freedom is not to be free for self, but for others. The real question is not whether an action is 'lawful' or 'all right,' but whether it is good, whether it benefits. Truly Christian conduct is not predicated on whether I have the right to do something, but whether my conduct is helpful to those around me".

Again, Frederick Beuchner says it this way, "The old prayer speaks of God 'in whose service is perfect freedom'. The paradox is not as opaque as it sounds. It means that to obey Love himself, who above all else wishes us well, leaves us the freedom to be the best and gladdest that we have it in us to become. The only freedom Love denies us is the freedom to destroy ourselves ultimately."

Ultimately, the way of the Spirit leads to life in the Kingdom of God. The way of the Flesh, Paul says, does not inherit the kingdom (5:21). We hear this from Jesus in our Gospel passage. The kingdom is for those with an unwavering dedication (Luke 9:62). We deny ourselves in this life, even enduring the cross, because there is a greater good. We delay our present gratification, for a future greater gratification.

So maybe you believe that the way of the Spirit really is the way of freedom, but you just don’t know how to live that way. Maybe your anger is too explosive and you don’t know how to replace it with patience and kindness. Maybe your lust feels too strong and you don’t know how to replace it with self-control. Something that I’ve learned is that we have to plan for this. I used to think I could just wish it and then someday God would just transform me and I would wake up different. God is very involved in this transformation, but we do need to plan for it and work towards it. Going back to what Sitting Bull said, how do we feed the good dog and not the mean dog?

Dallas Willard was a spiritual teacher who had a particular interest in personal transformation into the way of the Spirit. He uses the Acronym “V.I.M.”, which stands for “vision”, “intention”, and “means”. First, he says we need the “vision”. We need to see Christ and his ways as being the best way to live. We must have a desire to see Jesus as king of the world, but especially of our lives. To allow Jesus to rule in your life means you are at that point living in his kingdom. The kingdom is where what God wants done is done- not just at some point in the future, but now. We need to have a desire and love for Jesus that outweighs everything else. We need to be convinced that the way of the Spirit really is freedom- even if we don’t feel like we have the ability to live it. We have to want to live it.

Next is “intention”- We have to intend to live this way. We have to resolve that this is a way for us. We have to decide that not only that this is a good way to live, but that this is the way to are going to try to live. You have to choose it. You have to trust Jesus as your king. You have to trust that he really does know the best way to live. We intend to obey him as our king- to follow his example and teaching. Willard says, “no one can actually believe the truth about him without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility. … In fact, you can no more trust Jesus and not intend to obey him than you could trust your doctor and your auto mechanic and not intend to follow their advice. If you don’t intend to follow their advice, you simply don’t trust them. Period.”.[1] This means that we live according to our beliefs. If we are living the way of the flesh, then we are believing something more than Jesus. If we really believe Jesus, then we must intend to follow his ways and actually decide to do it.

Lastly is “means”- these are the methods we use to become the kind of person that naturally has the fruit of the spirit as a part of their character. First, we should be specific. We should look at ourselves honestly and name what ways of the flesh are present in us- Anger? Resentment? Lust? Quarrelling? Drunkenness? We won’t always be able to just grit our teeth and do otherwise. We should aim at become the kinds of people who naturally act as Jesus would have us act. Because of who Jesus was, the easy thing for Jesus was to forgive people from the cross- the hard this would have been to curse them. Our outer actions are expressions of our inner being. That’s why Paul talks about the “fruit” of the Spirit. They are an expression of an inner reality. We intend to become the kind of person that has the fruit of the Spirit. That means we examine and learn to transform our inner being- our thoughts, feelings, habits, and relationships.

There are a number of means of transformation God uses. For example, spending time in prayer and meditation before God concerning an enemy might lead us to see our enemy differently. Perhaps God allows us to see their motivations and good intentions. Maybe we see their abuse at the hands of their parents. Maybe we see some sort of disorder that causes them to act in disruptive ways. Maybe God will remind us of a time someone else forgave us when we hurt someone. We can study Scripture and meditate on our enemy as being made in the image of God, or we can meditate on Jesus forgiving those who nailed him to the cross and imagine our own enemy and ask ourselves why we are so unwilling to forgive. We can meditate on the logical consequences of not forgiving. Fast forward your life 10 years and see where the un-forgiveness leads, or where the habit of not forgiving leads. You might consider places where un-forgiveness is the norm- maybe Israel and Palestine- Has un-forgiveness led them into a life you want? Perhaps read about the lives or the saints, or read their writings and learn from their many years of dedication to way of Jesus. Maybe take up the practice of fasting to teach your soul to be sweet and kind when you don’t get what I want.

Transformation is possible, but we have to want it. We have to have a vision of where we are heading in our spiritual life, we have to actually decide to start walking the way of the Spirit, and we have to use every means God has put at the disposal of the church. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and this is what it means to be a subject of the kingdom of God. Of course God is with us every step of the way and we need to rely on Him for strength and guidance. Anything else is not what Jesus meant by following him. AMEN



[1] Renovation of the heart, p87, 88

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