The passage we examine today is often misunderstood. When viewed from a binary framework, it seems to dovetail into the ultimate either/or proposition of Heaven or Hell. After countless hours examining the original texts, multiple commentaries, and as much historical background as I could, my conclusion is that this text opens up a new framework for understanding moral behavior.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:16–21)
This verse is so pivotal, and so loaded that it is easily used to bludgeon people. It’s spun into a fear based threat in order to curb human sexual behavior (which is necessary), but has unfortunately bifurcated our sexuality and spirituality placing them at opposite sides of each other. This passage does not threaten eternal damnation, rather, it illuminates precisely those areas where the false (shadow) self has the most power, and how that power keeps us from the freedom we have already inherited.
Secondly, since the whole point of this letter, and specifically chapter five, is freedom, then the inclusion of this junk drawer of naughty sins reveals something amazing between the lines. Namely, that a free person, under the jurisdiction of the Spirit has an entirely new way of interpersonal engagement, of which sexuality cannot be excluded. So put your floaties on, we’re going to the deep end of the pool.
Now you can see why I laid the foundation I did over the last several weeks. The trajectory of Paul is that the light of the Spirit illuminates those structures within us that cast a shadow. The shadow cannot ultimately be real and stand on its own, it requires a true/real thing to exist at all. The point Paul is making is that behavior motivated by flesh (shadow) creates a false self that cannot ultimately exist in the light of perfect truth.
Now that you know the nuance of epithumía (over-desire) from last week, we can decode this passage. Teléo is the Greek word that many bibles translate as “gratify“, but a better rendition is to “reach the end” or “complete.” This reframes verse 16 to say: “Walk by the Spirit (shine the light of truth) and you will not reach the end of the over desires of the flesh (shadow).” In other words, the end result of over-desire is not freedom, it is living with a fake ID, false self. The false-self thinks its free, but it’s not. Like a shadow it can only exist by something obscuring the light.
Our prisons exist where light is obscured.
Perfect Truth cannot know anything that is false (Matthew 7:21). The shadow mimics reality but can never be real. The shadow (pseudo-the false) cannot exist in perfect light and is cast away (Revelation 21:27). This is to disregard ones inheritance or birthright (Hebrews 12:16-17). In other words, so long as we operate under the impulse of our flesh/shadow, we cannot live from a place of inner freedom (Kingdom of God). The work of the Spirit within us is the gracious counter-balance to the impulse of shadow or flesh. It exists and works only in tension, not in isolation, thus we cannot get rid of one or the other. One keeps us from doing the will of the other (Galatians 5:17). The binary doesn’t work. It breaks down in application.
So how can we tell whether we are getting it or not? Thankfully Paul uses what I call the two junk drawers to help us out. We’ll deal with these each in turn.
Paul’s drawer of naughtiness at first seems all encompassing and diverse. At closer examination, all the naughty deeds of the flesh surround human engagement. Sexual behavior, existential participation (magic), strife, enmity and drunkenness are all examples of interpersonal dysfunction. Such behavioral pathology is merely the blossom derived from any seed not planted in love. Paul’s whole point is that love is the basis for interpersonal engagement and thus personal freedom. Faith working through love is the soil which produces different plants from the same seed, allowing total freedom.
For example: If you think a drunken orgy is sexual freedom, then you haven’t inherited the truly free kingdom, but are operating from the prison of the false self. It’s the false self freely becoming more false and more unknown to God. A free-fall further away from one’s true self. To dismember another by taking only their sexuality without taking on their entire life (past, future, relatives, goals, debt, and emotional pain, ) is to plunder an aspect of another and not to love them.
The end result is not only interpersonal dysfunction and drama, but the loss or forfeiture of your true self. Those who don’t care are squandering their inheritance, or not living from the kingdom. Verse 21 is in the present active tense. Pauls point when it comes to flesh and spirit is that the doing of one is to not inherit (or reach the end) of the other.
On the other hand, faith working through love means that we are free to explore our sexuality so long as it is rooted in love and interpersonal integration. While that opens the door of possibility wide open, very few people will ever have the maturity nor bandwidth to be this loving and integrated with more than one person. Such a person would have the self control to live asexually if required to do so by the bounds of love. If love and light lead the motivation, the sexual desire and attraction are neither wrong nor ever in control. Only a perfectly free person can truly give themselves to another perfectly free person. The law of love is much more strict than the law of abstinence, but moves on completely different motivations within the heart. This is why Paul recommends people just get married (1 Corinthians 7:2).
Freedom is not turning loose of the the steering wheel and letting our lives crash. When we give vent to our flesh/shadow, it always brings with it a commensurate amount of pain, disintegration, and loss of self. Freedom is apprehending the Spirit of grace within to expose those prisons that would prolong our bondage and our living hell–which most of actually want.
Freedom is wanting our life and our true self enough to see who we become after we resist temptation. We’ve all glimpsed who we are when we give in, and what we see causes us to look away from ourself. Walking with Spirit means that freedom potentiates unto itself as greater freedom. With this comes greater knowledge of ones self transparently grounded in God.
And so the dance ensues. It’s never one sided. When people say “I used to be a sinner,” I know they haven’t seen this yet. Shadow and light, good choices and bad, both gradually illuminate the path to wholeness, unity, integration and love. Two steps forward, one step back. This is the only dance I’ve ever seen. Dying to one part, living to another, all the while learning, practicing, hoping, and strangely modeling the Christ pattern of death, burial and new life.
We are all Liberated Captives who are discovering that the pinnacle of freedom in this life is the ability to choose our own captor. The goal of the gospel can’t be to liberate us from our humanity, but redeem it. The goal of redeeming humanity is not the eradication of our sin in some magical transaction, but to grow from the tension that our sin produces in life. We are made stronger through our weakness.
Sins can no longer be failures that keep us from God, they are the beacons that remind our deepest, truest self that there is another way to live. Sins either produce the suffering needed to turn things around (repent- 2 Corinthians 7:10) or they produce the suffering commensurate with leaving them behind. It’s in our suffering that we find ourselves written into the story of God in Christ, and ultimately find our true self.
Now that is real freedom.