I have recently been pondering Galatians 5:13-26. Usually when I read Galatians 5, my focus is on verses 22-23, that wonderful list of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” But lately I’ve been considering the bigger context of what this passage has to teach me.
In the NIV, the heading for this passage of scripture is “Life by the Spirit.” Paul calls us to walk by the Spirit and to love our neighbors as ourselves. But then in the middle of the passage he provides a contrast. Paul lists the “fruit” of our sinful nature, the behaviors that are common to mankind because of the fall, and follows it up with a warning:
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. . . . The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 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.
Galatians 5:17, 19-21 (NIV).
There is a tendency by many (myself included at times) to focus on just part of this list. It is easy for someone to judge another because of his or her drunkenness without giving a second thought to their own selfish ambition, or to judge another for their sexual immorality without ever looking into their own heart to see hatred and jealousy running unchecked. It is far too easy to point out someone else’s sin than to reflect on our own.
I hear people all the time wonder why our world is the way it is, why there is so much violence and debauchery, and why so many lie and steal without giving it a second thought. “It’s only wrong if you get caught,” the joke goes. But as people complain about the mother who left her child in her car to go inside and gamble, or the twenty-something who drove through Portland, Oregon randomly shooting a gun out of his car window, they often don’t look at their own less-than-perfect behavior. People see the sin of others and wonder why such things happen or if the world will ever get any better.
As I thought about this, I was reminded of one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes: “I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” What scripture teaches me, and what I believe, is that our world is in the mess it is in because people live by their sinful nature and do not even try to live by the Spirit. For those who believe, there is at least the conflict within of the fruit of the Spirit trying to grow and overcome the sinful nature. But for those who have rejected God or who don’t understand the power the Holy Spirit provides, the sinful nature runs rampant. The result is, as Paul says, quite obvious.
The worst thing is when Christians point fingers at the sins they do not themselves struggle but fail to confess the sins they do struggle with and how the Holy Spirit helps them to overcome that sin. Let’s face it, everyone struggles with at least one of the items on the Galatians 5:19 list, and it is only by cultivating the fruit of the Holy Spirit that we can overcome that struggle.
What if we Christians were honest with the world about our own struggles with sin and how the Holy Spirit has helped us overcome? What if, when we pointed out someone else’s sin to them, we also shared how the fruit of the Spirit can help them to do what is right? What if we turned to the Spirit to heal the ills of world as only He can?