Well, I think I am finally starting to turn a corner with these Galatians. That last discussion I had with them about being free, I think it was starting to sink in. I kept stressing to them that they were free from the burden of trying to fulfill the law. More than that, they were free from having to prove their worth to God, free from feeling like they needed to earn God’s love, because, of course, God already loves them without strings attached. As a matter of fact, I told them that this love of God is what has truly set them free. Of course, all this talk of freedom has stirred up a whole other set of issues. They now want to know what to do with their freedom.
I had barely finished talking to them about their new found freedom in Christ when one of the Galatians came up to me and said, “Hey, Paul, does this mean that I can do anything I want?” I could tell by the smirk on his face that he didn’t have good wholesome ideas on his mind. Of course, I thought to myself, how sad. You give someone something that is wonderful and beautiful and he wants to turn it into something ugly. I just shook my head at this man.
“The answer to your question,” I said to him, “is yes, and no.”
“So, yes I can do something things I want, but no I can’t do everything I want. Is that what you are telling me, Paul?”
“That would be correct,” I told him.
“Sounds to me like you are trying to impose a new law,” he said to me. “Sounds like you are trying to give us a new list of do’s and don’ts.”
“Listen,” I said to him. “I believe very much that the freedom we have in Christ means that there are things that we should do. I believe equally as much that being free in Christ means that we should avoid other things in our lives. But, this is not about establishing a new law. This is about deciding who you want to be.”
“Let me give you an example of what I mean,” I told him. “When I am talking to people, I often use the image of running a race. If you want to be a runner then you have to make certain decisions about what you do in your life and about what you avoid in your life. If you want to be a runner then you do have to train on a regular basis. You do have to eat the right kinds of food to nourish your body. You do have to set your sights on the goal ahead of you. At the same time you have to avoid laziness. You have to avoid putting in your bodies those things that are going to keep you from your goal. You have to avoid being distracted from the finish line. These do’s and don’ts are not a law being imposed upon you, instead they are an indication of who you want to be. You want to be a runner then you do certain things and you avoid other things. It is the same thing with your life in Christ.
As I have said all along, you are free in Christ. But, what are you going to do with that freedom? You see freedom is not just about being set free from something. It is about being set free for something. It is about purpose. If your purpose is to live the Christian life, if it is to follow Jesus Christ, if it is to love God and love your neighbor then there are going to be some things that you do and some things that you avoid. So, to get back to the question you asked earlier about doing anything you wanted. The answer is still yes, and no. It all depends upon who you want to be.”
I think the man understood what I was saying to him, but I am not so sure he was happy with what I had to say. He just sort of turned and walked away. So, I turned to some of the other people who were standing around listening to our conversation. I said, “Brothers and sisters listen to me. You are free in Christ, but don’t use your freedom to live your old life of sin. Use your freedom to live your new life in Christ.”
“But Paul,” they said, “how do we do that? Do we just try harder to do what is right?”
“Well, the answer is yes, and no.” They all rolled their eyes at me as if to say, here comes another one of Paul’s yes and no answers. “Listen,” I said. “Living the Christian life is going to require some effort on your part. You all know what is sinful: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and orgies. I could go on for a long time. But, you already know that these things just don’t line up with following Jesus. They certainly don’t demonstrate a love for God and for your neighbor. So, yes you do need to put forth some effort to avoid these things. But, here is the thing. Your efforts alone are not going to be enough. You are going to need some help. That is where the Spirit of God becomes a vitally important part of your life. This is the “no” part of my answer. No you can’t just try harder. You need to be led by the Spirit of Christ if you are going to live out the Christian life.”
“What is the difference between doing it on our own and being led by the Spirit,” they asked?
Let me give you an example that I hope will help. Think about a tree, a fruit tree. On it’s own it can produce some fruit. The seed can take root in the soil. It can grow and blossom and finally produce some fruit. But, the fruit is just not going to be as good as it could be. Most likely there won’t be as much fruit as there could be, and the taste may not be as good as it could be. It’s not because the tree lacks effort or desire. It just simply needs some help. That is where a gardener comes in. A gardener comes along and pulls out the weeds and tills the soil, makes sure the tree gets plenty of water, drives away any pests that might attack the tree, clears out other encroaching trees so that sunshine can get in. When all of that happens then the tree produces fruit that is abundant and beautiful and delicious.”
“If you want to think about it this way, the Holy Spirit is like a gardener in your life. The Holy Spirit is there to create the conditions in your life whereby you can produce good fruit. In other words being led by the Spirit will allow you to fully live out the Christian life, to follow Jesus wherever he leads you. By the leading of the Spirit you will learn to love God and love your neighbor. So, to get back to this question you had about putting forth your own effort. I would say that the effort that is needed on your part is not so much directed towards the actions that you do to live out the Christian life as much as putting forth your effort to try and be led by the Spirit. In other words open your hearts to the Spirit’s presence in your life.
You need to be intentional about letting the Holy Spirit lead you. For example, when you wake up in the morning, after you have given thanks to God for the new day, ask God’s Spirit to lead you through your day. At the end of the day, when you are praying to God, think back over the day. Ask God’s Spirit to show you where you in fact did follow the Spirit’s leading. Of course you also need to ask God’s Spirit to show you where you didn’t follow the Spirit’s leading in your life. The more you put forth the intentional effort to be led by the Spirit, the more you will find yourself being led by the Spirit.”
“That sounds good, Paul,” they said to me. “But how will we actually know that we are being led by the Spirit?”
“Well, if you will allow me to return to the tree metaphor once more, then I will tell you that all you need to do is look at the fruit in your life.” They all looked at me with this puzzled look on their faces. “Listen,” I said. “You know how I said not to worry so much about putting forth all of your effort towards your actions, that instead you need to put forth your efforts towards follow the Spirit’s leading? The reason I said that is because when you do follow the Spirit’s leading, you actions are going to follow. When you follow the Spirit’s leading, certain things are going to happen in your life, certain results are just naturally going to occur in your life, like fruit coming forth from a tree. As a matter of fact, you could say that the fruit of the Spirit, in other words, the results of living a Spirit led life is that you will discover, in your life, an abundance of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If these things are coming forth out of your life then you will know that you are in fact being led by the Spirit. Being led by the Spirit also means that, yes you will do what you should do, and no you will not do what you should not do.”
“Just remember,” I told them. “You have been set free for a purpose, to follow Christ. You have been set free to love God and love your neighbor. This is going to require some effort on your part, the effort to intentionally follow the leading of God’s Spirit. When you are led by the Spirit, then love, joy, peace, and all the other wonderful fruits of the Spirit will naturally come forth in your life."