As a parent with young children, it’s no easy feat to get to church on time. This is especially true when it’s also your son’s birthday; you’re trying to keep the house clean for friends coming over later in the day; your spouse has already left for a meeting before church, and it happens to be raining. That was my set-up for a classic Spirit versus flesh battle one Sunday this past October.
All was calm until one child erupted into tears when it was time to climb into our minivan. There was a mixture of confusion and some misunderstanding, and my child lost perspective. It happens.
But in that one moment, I saw my well-intentioned plan to leave the house in a timely manner disappear in that rainy mist, and I lost perspective too. I heard the Spirit whispering inside of me, telling me there was a better way, reminding me to loosen my grip on the situation and serve my child with God’s love and gentleness, yet my flesh rushed in, and I’m not proud of the words that came out of my mouth or the angry tone in which I voiced them.
Yes, the situation and my child’s behavior needed to be addressed, but in a kind and self-controlled way and not in a sinful way. Thankfully our story didn’t end there. We sat on the couch, I confessed my anger, and I asked for my child’s forgiveness. We prayed for God’s help, then we got in the car and drove to church.
That Sunday morning wasn’t picture perfect. I sinned. We walked into the worship service after the singing started. But I believe the Spirit won a key battle inside of me.
What is your battlefield for the Spirit versus flesh war within you? Is it your temper? Depression? Desire to be right? An addiction? How does it affect your relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors? Think about it, because this is your context for Galatians 5:22-23:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Paul listed the “works of the flesh” only a few verses before, warning the Galatians that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:19-21). Now, the word “but” sets forth the fruit of the Spirit in stark contrast to the works of the flesh. They “are opposed to each other” (5:17). What are the works of the flesh that you fight on a daily basis? How do you “walk by the Spirit” so that “you will not gratify the desires of the flesh?” (5:16-17)
There are two big ideas for us to grasp. First, these aren’t our fruits. Second, these are the Spirit’s fruits.
Sound simple? Don’t be fooled.
Here’s the reality. While love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruits are pretty much universally recognized as desirable, to many, they seem unattainable. According to the flesh, that’s absolutely true. These aren’t our fruits.
None of us is good on our own. We’re naturally selfish, not loving. While we want these fruits, we can’t earn them by working hard, buy them with cold cash or good works, or achieve them if we just try harder or longer or apply a little extra effort.
We may affirm this at face value, nevertheless, many of us live functionally as though these fruits somehow depend on us. How often have we been short with a parent, spouse, or child and thought, “Next time I’ll be more patient.” When we do this, functionally we believe the lie that we can become more patient by our own willpower or effort.
Have you ever compared yourself to someone else and thought, “I’m just not a gentle person like she is.” If so, you might believe that this other person has something to do with her own gentleness. Remember, this isn’t about her or you or anything that either of you do or don’t bring to the table.
Maybe you’ve given up and thought, “I’ll never have self-control when it comes to food (or social media or you-fill-in-the-blank), so why try?” In this case, you’re excusing yourself on the basis of your own inability. It’s still all about you.
In a book that proclaims the message that we’re set free from the Law, Paul makes it crystal clear that our salvation isn’t won by our works or obedience or adding anything to what Jesus Christ has done for us. Similarly, we don’t create or will these fruits into existence. Jesus fulfilled and satisfied the Law, and these fruits are the product of his Spirit alone in our lives. Period.
Even so, all of these fruits are fully available to us by the Spirit. They grow inside of us, the fruit of the Spirit’s life-giving sap flowing freely through lives surrendered to God and inhabited by Christ. The Spirit offers us hope for our battles with the flesh.
I didn’t win my Sunday morning battle with the flesh. The Spirit did. The Spirit reminded me that there was another way. The Spirit convicted me of my anger and led me to repentance. He put me on a path of love and gentleness towards my child.
He wants to do the same for me today and when I wake up tomorrow morning. And he wants to do the same for you.