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Seeking the Spirit: A Reflection on Galatians 5:16-26

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. ” – Galatians 5:22-23

When I read the list of acts of the flesh in this passage, some stick out to me more than others. I have never partaken in some of them, and some even seem wholly irrelevant to my life, but others reveal themselves as regular temptations in my mind. We all have bents toward different desires of the flesh, things we honestly feel we want to do. However, Paul tells us the flesh and the Spirit are at war with one another, so we do not do whatever we want.

The Christian life is one of laying down things we thought we wanted, things we thought would make us happy, or even things we have given a hold over ourselves if those things compete with God for our affection, devotion, and love. This process is often painful, long, and even confusing, as we may wonder what God plans to do with the parts of ourselves we have chosen to surrender to him. Sometimes, when God plants things in those freshly cleared flowerbeds, they take time to grow. In the meanwhile, as we wait, we might feel we lack gratification or even happiness.

We must hold fast to the truth that we have crucified our old selves, old passions, and old desires to make room for the Spirit. Dying is hard, and this takes trust. However, we serve a God who is trustworthy. I must confess that sometimes I forget the Holy Spirit is a person. I think of him as a sort of force or idea, but I find comfort when I remember he is one of three persons of the Trinitarian Godhead. Cultivating a personal relationship with God, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reminds me why it’s worth it to crucify my old self, old passions, and old desires. If something needs to move to make way for him to move in, it has to go. Nothing else is really worth it.

The fruit the Spirit plants in place of the desires of the flesh can take time to grow and ripen, but the Holy Spirit is trustworthy with any part of ourselves we give to him. The fruit he brings will gift us with exceedingly more fulfillment than we ever could have expected from our old desires. I have found that, though the process of turning away from myself to turn to God has not always been the happiest journey, it has brought deeper and more abundant happiness than I ever could have given myself. Living by the Spirit and keeping in step with the Spirit can be hard, but it is always good, and always worth it.

Only the Holy Spirit can give us the fruit of the Spirit, and seeking God in relationship can serve as a great first step in asking God to fill us with those fruits. C.S. Lewis words it well when he says, “The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come as you are looking for Him.” Go and seek God today, giving up the flesh and its desires and passions. Seek the Holy Spirit, and ask him to do what he will in your heart.

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

Unveiled Faces: A Reflection on Galatians 4:8-20

This week at New City we heard about Galatians 4:8-20.  In this passage Paul writes, “Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back again…?”

Paul describes not knowing God as being enslaved to things outside of God. He is concerned that the people of Galatia will turn back to these old ways which he calls “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:9). When Paul describes where the Galatians are now, he does not just say that since they know God they should know better than to go back to their old ways but he says that God knows the Galatians. For Paul, God knowing people is the primary reason to not turn away from faith.

Why does Paul make this distinction between knowing God and being known by God in Galatians 4? Paul’s image in 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 helps us grasp what Paul is saying to the Galatians.  In 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 Paul writes,

but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit

In Galatians we see language of enslavement, and in 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of freedom. Where does this freedom come from? Paul says it comes from the Holy Spirit. How do we learn about the Holy Spirit?  When we pray and worship we can see the Spirit working in our lives and other’s lives and we come to know the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. These are great ways to see the Spirit of God at work. However, in this passage to the Corinthians, Paul seems to offer another way to know the Spirit of God and the freedom it offers.

Joao Zeferino de Costa, Moses Receiving the Law

The first line of this passage offers the first step: “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” When you see the word “veil” maybe you think of the veils women wore in this time that covered their faces. Or maybe you think of a veil worn at a wedding. Both of these images can add to our understanding; however, what Paul has in mind can be found in the verses right before this passage when Paul describes Moses putting a “veil” over his face after going into the presence of God in Exodus 34:34. Moses would go before the Lord with his face unveiled and, when he returned to the people, his face was shining.  Because his face shone so brightly, Moses would then veil his face when he spoke to the people in order to protect them from the sheer glory of the Lord.  In the same way that Moses got to speak with God with an unveiled face, Paul says here that the Corinthians too can have “unveiled faces” before the Lord.

However, Paul’s concern in his letter to the church in Galatia is that some people are approaching God as if they have veils over their hearts. The people want to get to know God without letting God get to know them. Psalm 139 tells us that God already knows us because he formed us from the start. Maybe it is scary to let God in on the pieces of ourselves we do not like or we do not think He would like; but Paul assures us that there is freedom in the presence of God’s Spirit. Just as Moses was invited into the presence of God despite his unworthiness, we too are invited.  On our own we are not worthy to be in God’s presence, but as Paul says, “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”

This is not freedom to do what we want. This is a freedom to stand before God unveiled, to not hide our shame from God. When Adam and Eve hid and clothed themselves in Genesis, God looked for them and made a new covering for them (Gen 3:8-21). And God has made a new covering for us today in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul says that if we are in Christ we are “clothed with Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  Because of Jesus and the coming of His Spirit, we do not remain in our sin, but “we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18).

We do not have the enslavement of sin anymore, because Christ took the sins with him on the cross and he came back resurrected with new life. This is something we know about God, that he loved the world so much that he sent his son to die for us (John 3:16). Do we know that, because of Christ and his righteousness, we can now have unveiled faces before God? Do we know that when we are known by God he transforms us into his image? This is why we do not only seek to know God, but we rejoice in being known by God. This is why Paul begged the Galatians to not turn back to their old ways of enslavement, because they have freedom already in Christ Jesus. Instead of reaching for our veils, for our coverings for sin, we go into the presence of God and reach out to Him. We trust that Jesus really did take our sin to the grave, and returned with new life and freedom for all of us to be transformed.

May we live with unveiled faces, and invite others to do the same.

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

The God Who Passes Through: A Reflection on Galatians 3

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue says “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story…do I find myself a part?'” (216). The church in Galatia had forgotten the story they had once received with joy, which was the Gospel story.  This is why Galatians is known as Paul’s angriest letter. You can just hear the frustration and disappointment in Paul’s writing:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1 ESV)

The problem with forgetting our story as Christians is not just that we lose sight of what is true and what gives us life, but that we are also taken over by rival stories. Our culture promotes a story of self–self-sufficiency, self-promotion, self-satisfaction.  A rival gospel in our own day is one of individualism where we can only find “freedom” if we do what we feel is right for ourselves. It wasn’t so different in Galatia. The Christians in Galatia were slipping back into the “law,” believing that they needed to be the ones to earn their salvation.  The primary way this manifested in the Galatian church was by their trying to force Gentile believers into circumcision, which signified entrance into the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17). While this story they had fallen back into had all the trappings of piety and religion, it was really a gospel of self. They had forgotten their new and better story, a story where Christ provides a way to freedom for all through him and him alone (John 14:6).

This “gospel of self,” both in our day and in Paul’s, cultivates a kind of fear. It places the burden of salvation, joy, contentment, and freedom on us.  We shift our reliance from an unlimited God to our limited selves.  It is in this state of fear and worry that we begin to take measures into our own hands. We make lists, we read self-help books, we try to go to bed earlier, we listen to TED talks, we volunteer our time, we do our best to pray and read our Bibles, we go to work early and stay late, we make sure we attend church and small group, and we expect the same from others. There is nothing inherently wrong with any one of these “rules.” They have value so long as they are operating in the right story.  We need to take a serious audit of our lives and ask the question: Are we operating in the right story? Is our list-making, self-help following, people-pleasing, five-minute-a-day praying blueprint for our lives producing any growth?

Many of us Western Christians have smuggled the story of the world–a story of individual achievement, social status, self-sufficiency, productivity and consumerism–into the Church.  We have tried to baptize a way of life that is totally foreign to what God intended, Christ inaugurated, and the Spirit inhabits. We sing “Take the World, But Give me Jesuswhile carrying the story of contemporary culture in our back pockets.

I know this because I struggle with the same thing. I find myself always battling anxieties about my future. These anxieties force me to ask “I” or “me” questions.  “What if I fail?” “How will I know what to do next?” “What if I’m not accepted?” “How will my gifts be utilized?” “What if my calling is never realized?” Notice that these questions–the questions many of us wrestle with every day–are totally centered around the self, the I. Of course, these kinds of worries are natural to us, because we are natural sinners born into the world’s story. Unfortunately, it draws us into a way of life that is marked ultimately by “anxiety for tomorrow” and leads to us trying to control every aspect of our lives (Matthew 6:34).

This is one of the primary reasons why Paul’s letter to the Galatians is so important for us today.  Of course we aren’t demanding circumcision for those who want to be a part of the Church; however, we do find ourselves capitulating to rival gospels all the time, often bringing them into the church.

Paul responds to this backwards gospel in Galatia by sternly (read: angrily) reminding his fellow believers that Christ has ushered in a new stage, a new covenant. Trying to apply the old paradigm (which had an important place in the story of God!) onto the new becomes “works righteousness” and is antithetical to the Spirit of God and His mission in the world (Galatians 3:28).

But how does Paul do this? How does he prove to them that this law and taking matters into their own hands is no longer necessary and assumes the wrong story? He reminds them of their story– a story that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus.  After all, Paul mentions Abraham eight times in Galatians 3 alone, so it should be obvious to both the Galatians and us that our story encompasses the whole of Scripture.

Genesis 15 tells the story of God’s sacred covenant with Abraham, and in Genesis 15:8, right after God has reminded him of the promises of offspring and land He has in store for him, Abraham, who has been wandering and surviving and stumbling in the wilderness for years, often taking matters into his own hands, desperately asks, “How am I to know?” a question we are all too familiar with when anxiety creeps in and we feel as if our calling may never materialize. Notice, again, that it is a question centered on “I.”

God answers this question not with a time-frame, not with a seven-step plan, not with a to-do list, but with a promise. He makes a covenant with Abraham.  

To enact this promise, God instructs Abraham to bring “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9).  He then told him to cut in half the cow, goat, and ram (but not the birds) in half. In Ancient Near Eastern treaties, which this covenant between Abraham and God certainly draws upon, the halved animal carcasses communicates that if either party violates this sacred promise, they will end up like these animals. Death is to come upon the one who doesn’t uphold the sacred covenant.

But, as we read a few verses later, Abraham does not pass through. He doesn’t participate in the covenantal ritual. Instead, Abraham only saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” pass between the animal carcasses (Genesis 15:17).  Because the fire and the smoke represent the presence of God, the narrative is telling us that only God passes through.

The significance of this cannot be understated. This means that God Himself–the One whose Word can never fail and whose promises are eternal–takes the penalty of a failed covenant upon Himself. This is the beginning of God’s story with His wayward people. A story about a God whose mission it is to bring all things into His love, even if it means giving up His own life.

Now let’s return to the Church in Galatia.  Paul, in responding to their false gospel, reaches the climax of his argument when he states:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14)

Paul is saying that Christ himself, who is the Word of God incarnate, took on this “curse” and became like the slain animals of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Christ, who is fully God and fully man, becomes the curse that was meant for us–not because God’s promise failed, but because ours did. By doing so, Christ fulfills the original promise made to Abraham and, if we have faith in Christ like Abraham had faith in God, we too become “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

This faith is a deep trust in the God who passes through on our behalf. This means that if we continue to try to pass through ourselves, if we continue to attempt to earn God’s promises by laws and rules and plans, we are participating in the wrong story, a false gospel.

Jesus Christ, in fulfilling the promises of God to redeem creation, inaugurated the fulfillment of God’s story that began with Abraham.  If we forget this story, it means that we have forgotten that God is a God who passes through.  A God who passes through the animals on our behalf to take the burden of the promise on Himself.  A God who passes through the spiteful and vindictive crowds, carrying that heavy tree, getting tortured and mocked on His way to become a curse for us.  

When we remember the story that centers around God and His redemptive work, we avoid the burden of attempting to tell a story that we never could.  We move from the story of limited self to the Story of unlimited God, whose promises are both sure and true. And when we do this, when this faith overtakes our hearts and we participate in God’s story, we can set up “rules” for our lives, but these rules are now an expression of our salvation, not an attempt to earn it. They become the means by which we enter into deeper communion with a God who has already achieved freedom for us precisely because he has already passed through death on His way to life. He invites us to do the same.

A rigid matter was the law, demanding brick, denying straw,

But when with gospel tongue it sings, it bids me fly and gives me wings

18th Century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Ralph Erksine

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor