Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and 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.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
This passage strikes me as a very important one, because it sketches out the difference between a life lived according to our sinful human nature and a life lived under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s start with this important note: The Greek word that’s translated “sinful nature” in this passage is the Greek word sarx, which literally means ‘flesh.’ The reason that it’s important for us to stop and think about that is that some versions of the Bible – especially older versions, like the King James Bible – actually translate the Greek word sarx literally – as ‘flesh.’ And that’s led to some misunderstanding about what Paul really means to say.
Some of the most influential schools of Greek philosophy taught that each human being is actually two parts: a good, pure, high-minded spirit trapped in a dirty, sinful and vaguely distasteful body. That’s called “dualism” – the idea that we have a dual nature. That idea took hold in the early church when Paul and others began doing ministry outside of Israel, because the gentile world was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. This “Christian dualism” is still around, in large part because of the use of the Greek word sarx as “flesh” in the letters of Paul.
This dualistic idea that everything physical is bad probably helps to explain the church’s historic obsession with sexuality, which is far out of proportion to its prevalence in the teachings of Jesus.
But that Christian dualism isn’t really a biblical point of view. The phrase our NIV Bible uses – “sinful nature” – is further from the literal translation of the letter, but it’s probably closer to what Paul himself actually meant. The Bible as a whole views us as unified beings with physical, mental and spiritual aspects.
Even the traditional Christian idea of the ‘soul’ as an immaterial thing that floats around inside of us is not what the Bible really expresses. The Bible really uses the term soul to describe our capacity for relating to God and to one another. The Bible doesn’t really teach us that we have an immortal soul that floats up to heaven (or not) when we die. It teaches us that the followers of Jesus will be resurrected bodily to the heavenly kingdom – as Jesus was. That’s why, when we say the Apostles’ Creed, we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” We don’t say, “I believe in the immortality of the soul.”
So, anyway, that’s no doubt why the editors of our NIV Bible chose to use the phrase “sinful nature” to translate that word sarx – to protect us against what they regarded as the error of dualism.
Having said all that, two paragraphs of this passage, one beginning at verse 19 and the other beginning at verse 22, sketch out Paul’s understanding of a life governed by the “sinful nature” and contrast it with his vision of a life in which “the fruit of the spirit” is ripening.
A life dominated by the sinful nature might well include some of the sins Christians love to obsess over and talk about: sexual immorality, drunkenness and orgies. But the sinful nature also causes us to commit sins we talk about less but are probably much more likely to commit. That would include envy, discord, selfish ambition, dissension and factions. And notice that Paul doesn’t distinguish between the ‘hot-button’ sins and ones we think about as ‘really not so bad.’ As uncomfortable as it might make us, Paul seems to regard causing dissension is just as serious as taking part in orgies.
One thing we can say all of these sins have in common: They all cause harm to others – or the church as a body – for our own selfish purposes.
On the other hand, Paul says, is the life marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, goodness, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. A life in which that fruit is ripening will look a lot different from one dominated by the sinful nature. The fruit of the Spirit contribute to the happiness and flourishing of others, and to the peace and harmony of the community of faith. A person in whose life that fruit is ripening would refrain from condemning and criticizing others to gain an advantage, from exploiting another person sexually, and from insisting on getting their own way and causing discord in the world around them.
There’s a subtle nuance here, I think. It’s not so much that Paul is saying ‘We should show the fruit of the Spirit.’ Clearly we should, but I think what Paul is really saying is something a little different. I think he’s saying that if we are diligent about opening ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit, then its fruit will appear. I think he’s inviting us to hold up our lives against these two models and ask ourselves how much each of them fits. And then, I think, he’s urging us to open our lives more and more to the work of the Spirit so that its fruit will be evident to everyone we meet.
And the peace of Christ will become an unmistakable part of who, and what, we are.
Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that you would help us to open our hearts more and more to let your Holy Spirit pour into us, and cause its fruit to ripen more and more in our lives, so that we can be Jesus to everyone we meet, and so that your love will flow into their lives through us. Amen.
Have a great weekend! Worship, rest, and have some fun! And of course, worship God joyfully on Sunday!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 40 and 84; Isaiah 55:1-13; and Mark 9:2-13.)