The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
I was able to understand the list in Galatians for the first time, when I started looking at it, not as an obligation, but as an offer.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Galatians 5:22-23 ESV
Many times, the outcome of our Bible reading is quite disturbing. Without realizing it, we reach conclusions that go against the spirit of the passage. Maybe we haven't reflected on it as we should have; or maybe we haven't listened to the pastor or teacher carefully. At the time, it seemed acceptable to us or, at least, it made sense. Maybe we are not one of those who go around questioning their teachers; maybe we believe our opinions are worthless and that whatever the person preaching from the pulpit says must be true automatically -otherwise they wouldn't be allowed to mount the pulpit.
In any case, suddenly, automatically, a false or misguided belief has slipped in our subconscious. It stays there, and will bother us from now on every time we go back to the Bible, or every time we need to use these truths in our daily lives. Like a pain in the neck, it could become that bothersome.
Sometimes we don't read the Bible with the Holy Spirit by our side. We are superhero, self-sufficient, independent, capable Christians. We are not dumb, we can add one plus one. We might have read El Quixote, or Joyce's Ulysses, and this cannot be harder than that, we think.
But that's not how it works. The Bible, like any other book, can be read and understood without further complications. But, at the same time, unlike any other book, reading the Bible without the Spirit's presence by our side can result in a great problem for us.
This problem can be easily identified when it comes to the verse in question. We can prove this by asking this simple question: have I ever felt that I don't measure up after reading, or hearing a sermon on, these verses? I am not talking about the desire to grow, to become more Christ-like, but about a real, unpleasant sensation of not being enough, of falling short. If so, there you have it: you also have, or have had, a misguided belief as a result of careless or shallow reflection.
I say also because this has happened to me. For a long time, and very often at the time, I could only think of a very high bar I couldn't reach, every time I ran into these verses. I found myself in an odd sort of limbo. In the verses before, Paul talks about another list, that of the common sins we commit whenever we let our old self take control. For the most part, I didn't commit any of those sins.
But I wasn't in the other list, either. I wasn't overwhelmed with love, peace, or patience. I wasn't especially good at self-control. If Paul is comparing both lists, without leaving any room in between, where was I in my Christian walk? The worst part wasn't this, though, but thinking that I had to work harder to achieve those spiritual qualities, which I definitely lacked. It was my own obligation. That endeavor was mine and only mine. I never measured up to it.
I do not want to always talk about other people's mistakes. Today, I feel like talking about my own.
Therefore, what's the deal with the fruit of the Spirit? What about this list of qualities that every self-professing Christian should possess? We are totally missing the point when we understand this list as an obligation, even if we do it very often.
Perhaps we use this list not to feel bad about ourselves, but to measure those we don't like, or feel suspicious about, against it. This person shows less love than I do. I'm more patient than her. If he were such a good Christian as he says, he would be a little more gentle. And so on.
Thus, Galatians 5:22-23 becomes a weapon, although it wasn't written for that purpose. A few years later, in one of those processes of cleansing and rearranging that the Lord makes us go through from time to time, I reread this passage, this time with the Spirit's guidance, and God slapped me gently on the neck. Why, shouldn't we, instead of seeing through this verse all of our imperfections, see his original offer when he inspired the writer, that is, an emphatic present for each one of us? Then, when I started seeing this list as an offer, instead of seeing it as a list of obligations, I was able to understand it for the first time. Not only was I able to understand this verse, but Galatians chapter 5 as a whole.
Living in the Spirit is a gift, not a burden. The Lord has already made the effort, making Himself human to get close to us and fix the mess resulting from judgment, death and condemnation. Our efforts shouldn't be directed towards being the most devout person in town, but towards letting this list of qualities persuade us. Letting the Spirit within us do this job, in accordance with Jesus' promise. We must let it persuade us, then commit ourselves to it and learn. But the job, all the effort, is in His hand. He has already made it, actually.
Otherwise, this would be impossible. Absolutely. How would I make myself feel like being patient with the neighbor who leaves the elevator door open every day? What joy could I feel at seven in the morning on a December Monday, when just stepping out of bed freezes your thinking? The amount of energy we can waste thinking that all of this can come from ourselves makes us incapable of performing any more deeds for the Kingdom. It's the equivalent of thinking that, once we've become believers, God sits back in the corner of the sofa and does nothing, saying: 'well, now I want you to make the effort to show supernatural love to demonstrate that you are really a Christian'. There's nothing more stupid than understanding Christian life this way.
Rather than this, what the Lord does is, precisely, revealing Himself to us showing all these qualities found in the list. He knows our infinite capacity to do stupid things and put our foot in our mouth, but even so He stays by our side. He shows us love and gives us joy -by the way, how little we talk about God's joy! He's patient, good, kind, faithful… what Paul is trying to say in the epistle to the Galatians with this list is that these qualities aren't ours, but God's. This list defines God's character, a character that we, through the Spirit, can enjoy.
Let's think for a second about the context of this verse. Paul is comparing living in our sinful nature -in the flesh, although this kind is more dangerous than the flesh the WHO has warned against recently- to living according to the Holy Spirit, who lives in those who've known Him. These two things are opposites, there's no comparison between the two.
The life in the Spirit doesn't always bring about the best or most comfortable situations in our lives in the short term. Nevertheless, it prepares us for eternity. In comparison, although now we might be too short-sighted to see into the distance, it is the best option. Paul is describing how these two kinds of lives are and what are the consequences of each one. The key to living in the Spirit is to allow Him to make us more into the image in which we were originally made, like Christ, in a daily basis. The Spirit offers us a new identity, renewed strength, new resources. He doesn't just come up with them from nowhere, since these belong to God Himself. This is the reason why He's our father.
Therefore, the most wonderful thing about this verse is understanding that this is the fruit of the Spirit because God is that way. The fruit of the Spirit could become our new character precisely because it is God's character, and Christ has made this connection possible.
Are there any reasons to think this is true? Does the Bible say something about this? The truth is that it is delightful to take the time to reread certain passages and find, in the different accounts, poems and stories, a God who shows Himself sincerely, letting Himself be known.
Ezekiel was certainly troubled by seeing God's revelation of his omnipotence, which is incomprehensible to our tiny minds. His efforts to describe the vision in chapter one is moving. However, God's immeasurable power is not overwhelming, but comforting, for example in the passage where God opens the Red Sea so the people of Israel can cross it. These two moments could seem as irreconcilable in biblical history, but actually talk to us about how God is, how He reveals Himself to us: what He wants, what He's looking for, how He talks to us.
So, my proposal is that during the coming weeks we will immerse ourselves in the details of each fruit of the Spirit and God's character. We'll go to the ancient texts, diving into them for a while, getting lost in them like a tourist strolling around the old quarter of a city, stopping to absorb every detail, letting the environment sink in, without hurrying.