The following is derived from a sermon I delivered at Wonderful Mercy Church. You can listen to the full message online.
Before reading on, take a moment to read Galatians 5:1, 13-25. The link will take you the New Living Translation, but feel free to use whatever translation you like. When You’ve read the Galatians passage come on back and we’ll chat about it.
What do we make of this passage? In my experience, our natural approach (my approach, anyway) is this. We really only pay attention to the two lists at the end. We treat them as a rule book. Don’t do the bad things, do the good things! It can be very tempting to live the checklist life. We steel ourselves to avoid the bad, start or increase the good fruit, and congratulate ourselves on our spiritual progress. The checklist life is tempting, but it is not where Paul is trying to point us.
So, what is wrong with the checklist life? Quite a lot, really. To start with, it is the opposite of freedom, and that is the main thrust of Paul here. The reading began with 5:1: “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” But living the checklist life is doing the opposite. Living the checklist life is binding myself up in the “law,” not the law of Moses, but my checklist serves as my law nonetheless.
Next, the checklist life ignores the central thrust of Paul’s teaching here. He is describing what our lives look like when we are controlled by our sinful natures (all the bad stuff) and what they look like when we are controlled by the spirit (the good stuff). He is not talking about what we do, but what God does when we are controlled by the spirit. Verse 16, in the Voice translation, makes this very clear. “Here’s my instruction: walk in the Spirit, and let the Spirit bring order to your life..”
Not only Paul’s teaching, but adopting the checklist life ignores Jesus’ teaching, and he had some pretty strong feeling on the matter. Consider Matthew 23:25-28, in the Message translation. Here we find Jesus addressing the Scribes and Pharisees, the masters of living the checklist life:
“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. 26 Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.
27 “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. 28 People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.Matthew 23: 25-28, Message Translation
There is no doubt: In Jesus’ view what we do is not nearly as important as who we are on the inside.
Now, if none of those arguments against the checklist life don’t convince you, I have one more. IT DOESN’T WORK! If we are living the checklist life we will, sooner or later, fail. Jesus used the metaphor of trees and fruit to talk about people. See, for example, Mt 12:33. If we think of ourselves as tree and we are living the checklist life, we will be about the business of trying to pluck off the bad fruit and somehow produce good fruit, or at least a close approximation of good fruit. We may be successful for a while, as long as things as going our way. But one day, we will be tired or frustrated or overworked and all our good efforts will collapse in a heap. We may justify ourselves, citing extenuating circumstances, but the truth is we will be revealing our true, unfiltered, unregulated self. As Jesus said, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart.” (Mt 12:35) Any change we seem to make is ephemeral and will eventually fail. How we are when our defenses are down reflects how we truly are.
No, The checklist life; the self-improvement road, is not the road we should be on. Both Jesus and Paul warn us off this path and our experience tells us that any success will be short lived. That leave us the question of how do we rid ourselves of the bad fruit and produce the good? The answer is pay attention to the kind of tree you are; to tend to the tree, not the fruit. Examine the fruit we produce, but good fruit is not the goal; aim to be the kind of person that produces good fruit.
“A good person produces good things from the treasury
of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things
from the treasury of an evil heart.” (Mt 12:35)
So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you
won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. (Gal 5:17)
We are not asked to “fix” ourselves (if that is even possible). Our part is to invite Holy Spirit’s ministry and position ourselves to receive it. That is where Spiritual Disciplines come in. Spiritual Disciplines, activities like prayer, meditation, memorizing scripture, and fasting are: ” Intentional practices that help as “keep company” with Jesus. “(adapted from Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun, p 19). Dallas Willard characterized Spiritual Disciples as direct actions taken to achieve indirect results.
Disciplines do not, by themselves make us better; they open the door for God.
As we begin to practice spiritual disciplines, as we begin to “keep company” with Jesus, we will begin to change us. Soon, often we we least expect it, we find the fruit we used to strive for now spontaneously appearing. We begin to see the Fruit of the Spirit described by Paul.
Why not spend some time, now is as good as any, asking the Lord to show you what “bad” fruit He notices in your life. Ask Him too, what good fruit is lacking. Don’t be surprised if you He points out things that would not have occurred to you! Finally, see if He is inviting you to any Spiritual Disciplines, direct actions on your part to allow him to produce His results. Here is a paritial list of Spiritual Disciplines, if an unfamiliar one is brought to your mind, don’t write it off. Descriptions are easy to find!
Solitude, Silence, Fasting, Sabbath, Hiddenness,
Submission, Bible Reading, Scripture Memorization,
Worship, Prayer, Spiritual Direction, Examen, Service,
If you have spent some time in prayer just now, you likely have a clearer understanding of the health of your soul and of what God may be suggesting you do about that.
If you begin a journey of Spiritual Disciplines, come back some time and leave a comment. I’d love the hear what the Lord is doing in you!