Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Galatians 5:16-24

Life by the Spirit

     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, factions21 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. 

Some of you might remember that one of my daily prayers is John Stott’s prayer that is drawn in part from this passage – Stott included the ripening in us of Paul’s list of fruits of the Spirit as one of the things we might pray for. In this passage, the apostle Paul also discusses a couple of issues that we followers of Jesus should stop and think about regularly. His overall theme is the contrast between the way of life directed by human nature and the way of life directed by the Holy Spirit. But what Paul says is often misunderstood, so before we get to that contrast, we should stop to clarify his meaning.

Several places in this passage – as in other letters from Paul – the text includes the phrase “sinful nature.” For instance, the first verse of the passage says, “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” That phrase translates the Greek word sarx, which literally means ‘flesh.’ So in some versions of the Bible, you would read the word ‘flesh’ everywhere our version reads “sinful nature,” and the passage would become a contrast between the flesh and the Spirit. This is how it appeared in nearly all older versions of the Bible.

But Paul’s use of the term sarx has created a persistent problem in Christian thought. It has led followers of Jesus to fall into a misunderstanding called “dualism.” That’s the idea that each of us is made up of a material body, which is weak and impure and prone to sin, and a spirit (sometimes called a ‘soul’), which is pure and holy and focused on higher things.

But it’s important to know that this dualism isn’t how the scriptures of the Old Testament portray human nature, and it almost certainly isn’t how Jesus understood human nature.

Dualism was a central concept of Greek philosophy. One of the main schools of Greek philosophy said our soul (their word was psyche) was trapped in our body and couldn’t wait to escape. As you might remember, Paul was doing his ministry in a Gentile world where Greek culture was dominant. That’s why his letters, like the rest of the New Testament, were written in Greek. So to help him explain the meaning of Jesus to the people of this Greek culture, Paul often borrowed ideas from Greek philosophy, like this distinction between ‘spirit and flesh.’

But Paul wouldn’t have bought into the dualistic idea that the body was bad and the spirit was good. The Hebrew scriptures – the Old Testament – portray each of us as one unitary being, not a supernatural soul in a material body. In the Hebrew way of thinking – and almost certainly in Jesus’ way of thinking – ‘soul’ is probably best understood as a capacity within each of us to relate to God and other people. It’s not some mysterious thing that’s in there somewhere and gets out when we die. Paul believed Jesus was resurrected bodily, and that his followers would also be resurrected bodily. That’s why we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

This isn’t just a point for philosophers to debate – it actually matters to us as followers of Jesus. If you adopt a dualist mindset, then the body is gross and evil and anything physical is bad. That would include eating and drinking, dancing, laughing and physical intimacy. But if we are all one, body and soul, then every part of us is a blessing from God to be enjoyed and used to glorify him. We think of the sacraments as practices God has established to make spiritual promises real and concrete to us by making them physical.

So the point that Paul wants to make in this passage is that our lives are a kind of battleground between the sinful desires of our basic human nature and the higher desires that the Holy Spirit is gradually nurturing in us. Paul lists some of the desires of basic human nature – selfish and violent desires that are willing to let others suffer for our own perceived good.

But Paul says that a life under the direction of the Holy Spirit will be characterized by different “fruit” – by love, joy, peace, goodness, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (This list of Fruits of the Spirit is the part that’s included in a morning prayer I use.)

So how can you tell someone who is genuinely living under the influence of the Spirit? Probably not by their views on any doctrinal issue, or by whether they ‘act religious.’ But rather by whether the Spirit is winning the battle over their human nature and causing those “fruit of the Spirit” to become more and more visible in their life.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that you will open our lives more and more to your Holy Spirit, and let it flow into us and cause us to be marked by its fruit: love, joy, peace, goodness, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Amen.

Every Blessing,