Discerning the Spirits: Reading Galatians 5 together

When people in our era think about Christianity, there is a tendency to assume it’s about superstition, or rules, or repression, or even hate against others in society. They take the worst elements of history and highlight these.  It’s a distorted view.

Sometimes those of us who are Christians have a distorted view too.  We can get caught up in guilt, or legalism, or isolating kinds of behaviors that keep us from being part of our neighborhood.  We can feed on that guilt, defining our lives by it and inflicting on others.

I noted this in my sermon last week, but it bears repeating, guilt really isn’t an emphasis in the New Testament. There’s not really even a word for it. The translations that have “guilt” or “guilty” have inserted that word. For instance, in Luke 23:14, Pilate says that he doesn’t see a reason to bring charges against Jesus.  Whereas the NIV says, “I have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him.” In 1 John 3:4, the NIV says, “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness.” Whereas, the Greek says anyone who does (or makes) sin does (or makes) lawlessness.  It’s not about guilt. Guilt is inserted because we have tended to think about salvation in terms of guilt rather than objective fact.  We then feel “guilty” about sin, when in fact our feeling about it is really not the issue.

What is the issue?  Galatians 5 gives us guidance: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” 

Christianity is an invitation to freedom and an experience of freedom. This is good news! 

It’s not like a court case where we’re in front of judge and made to feel guilty about what we’ve done in the past and the most we can hope for is that not being held against us.  That’s a kind of negative salvation.  It’s more like the fact we’re already in prison (because that’s what sin is) and we’re being invited to get out.  It’s a positive salvation, inviting us to a new kind of life, not caught up in the chaos or frenzy of the world around us. 

That’s good news!

Those of us who have accepted this invitation-to be free!–aren’t suddenly transported to a magical world without sin or without temptations. We’re called into this new way of Jesus, but continue to live in regular life.  The story is different but the setting is the same.

If everything around us is the same, then how can we know if we’re on the right path, following the Way of Jesus?

We learned in Acts 2 that the power and counsel of the Holy Spirit is with us.  So the question is how do we recognize the Spirit’s work?  There’s a lot of ways of doing this, and the NT fills these out. Some key ways have to do with what is called our “passions” and desires.  The Spirit reshapes our goals in life and our experience of life.

Galatians 5 gives us two lists. One is the sorts of passions/emotions/desires that the world inspires. The second list is the passions/emotions/desires that the Spirit initiates.

One way of coming to these lists is to feel guilt if we’re indulging the first and pressure to pursue the second. We make the Spirit’s work into our work, and then feel guilt, or judgment, or discouragement.

Don’t read Galatians 5 in terms of guilt. Read Galatians 5 in terms of diagnosis. When we go to a doctor we don’t feel guilty (for the most part) when we describe our symptoms. The symptoms give indication about the problems, and their presence means we’re not in complete health.  We diagnose problems in our cars, our computers, our sports teams, our crafts. If we can see there’s a problem, we know things aren’t the way things are supposed to be.  There’s a better way. There’s good news!

Spirit and Truth – Rahab Series-miniature
Gwen Meharg

Peace is good news.  Love is good news. Joy is good news.  These and the rest are the invitation of the Spirit.

If you’re feeling full of chaos, drawn to impurity, full of anger or envy, then that’s a sign the narrative of the world is becoming defining. What’s the solution? Find your way back in tune with Christ. The Spirit is with you.  What does the Spirit call you to do?

This is really what “discerning the Spirits” is about. Read Galatians 4 and see why I say that. How do we know what the Spirit wants us to do? Where is the way of peace, joy, love, patience?  What does the Spirit want us to stop doing? Look at what fills you with the passions of the world.  Learning how to walk in the rhythm of the Spirit’s work is what it means to be wise. It’s not a list of rules or legalism. It’s a dance.  It’s music. It’s learning how to be in tune and in step, so that it becomes second nature.

Read through Galatians 5 this week.  Think about Paul’s challenge and Paul’s invitation.  Think about what the way of Jesus Christ is in light of this approach. Is this good news for you? Is it good news for your neighbors?  Those are just some starting thoughts. Add your own, share with us what the Spirit is doing in your life or share what questions come to mind as you wrestle with this passage.

Again, like with a doctor, there’s progress in openness and honesty, sharing with each other and learning from each other helps us all become wise that much faster.