Sin Management or Walking with Jesus?
Today's lectionary reading is from Galatians 5:16-25.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 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, forbearance, 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 flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
I have a love/hate relationship with this section of Paul's writings. Verses 19-21 have been used in Evangelicalism for "sin management" or behavior management. This sin list, or others like it, are often preached against with the not-so-subtle reminder that these sins will get you sent to Hell, despite the fact that we are saved by grace. Don't ask me to explain this cognitive dissonance; I can't.
Usually, these sins are preached one by one, very literally. That's one reason why Evangelicals focus so much on sexual purity; it's the top of these sin lists. We don't actually know what Paul would have meant by "sexual immorality" in the 21st century USA; he was writing in the 1st century Mediterranean world. That's OK, Evangelicals have decided what sexual immorality is - and it's a little different depending on your denomination. In some denominations, women get to wear pants; in others, it's only skirts. See, we know exactly what sexual immorality is.
And, preaching against drunken orgies is always fun because you know that the person sitting next to you was just at one last night. And, witchcraft! Because we can make up great stuff like not letting our kids read Harry Potter! Yes, preaching against these sin lists is basically trying to tell people to "get your act together so God will love you."
Yet, look what brackets these "sin lists". Verses 16-18 are all about walking by the Spirit. If we are walking in the Spirit, then we won't want to be exhibiting the behavior in the sin lists. The sin lists are to show us what we won't be doing, not to tell us what not to do. That's a big difference. If we want to be going out and sinning sexually (whatever that is) and having fits of rage, then we aren't walking with the Spirit.
Our goal shouldn't be to be trying to get our outside together and not live sexually immoral lives or not be jealous or not have fits of rage. We should be living in the Spirit, walking with Jesus, whatever you want to call it, so that our we don't want to live such sinful lives. And we're going to mess up, which is OK. But, the more we walk in the Spirit, the more we want to live better.
Instead, we should naturally show up what Paul talks about in verses 22-23, the fruits of the Spirit. OK, so they often don't show up naturally. But, these don't come about by behavioral modification, either. We become more loving, joyful, peaceful, etc. as we walk more in the Spirit. It's a process. And it takes time.
The thing is, though, that it is hard to teach people to live in the Spirit. It's easier to say, "Don't do all these bad things in verses 19-21!" It's also easier to see if people are doing all those bad things. We can measure sin management, but we can't measure walking in the Spirit.
We get taught all the sin management and behavior modification stuff because it's easy to see if we are "getting it right". But, God doesn't call us to the easy things. He calls us to walk with Him. How we do that isn't something that can be taught in three alliterative points on a Sunday morning. In some ways, it's easier. In some ways, it's harder.
Here's what I get from this passage of scripture. Walk with the Spirit - whatever that takes. I suspect it takes more reading the Bible, praying, doing what Jesus said (love people, feed the hungry, give to the poor, all that stuff), and participating in the Sacraments. The desire to do the bad stuff (i.e. the "sin list") will get less - except reading Harry Potter because it was never a sin - and the fruit of the Spirit will naturally get more. Give it time. Maybe talk with a trusted friend or pastor or spiritual director.
This bit of scripture is a lot less scary when read holistically. Jesus loves us and wants only our best. Keep walking with Jesus, living in the Spirit.