Learning How to Live Well #1: Growing

[The following is adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Learning How to Live Well.” Listen to the podcast here.]

The life well lived is not an impossibility.

Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and life to the full.” The Greek word used for “life” here is zoë, which has a spiritual element to it. It conveys a sense in which you’re not just healthy physically or mentally or emotionally, but at the very core of your being, in your very soul, you’re alive—you’re operating out of the depths of a groundedness, creating a life upon the firm foundation of Jesus Christ that’s going to stand regardless of the circumstances you may find yourself in, and even when your physical, mental or emotional health fluctuate, as they do and as they will.

In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul takes the two understandings of freedom—the world’s, which seeks to gratify what’s sometimes called “the flesh” or “the sinful nature”—that, sadly, is our inclination as fallen, broken, messed-up, sinful human beings; and God’s, which is about “living by the Spirit,” fulfilling our created intentions to be in right relationship with our Creator and with those around us—and Paul helps us here see what those things look like. He says:

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. (5:16-18)

So he lays them out very starkly, side by side: the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. But they aren’t just “do’s” and “don’ts.” It’s not just another checklist of things you need to do or not do in order to make it into heaven. I think The Message does a great job of bringing these words to life, though:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This is the “kind of life [that] develops out of trying to get your own way all the time.” This is what we see all around us—the reality of living by the world’s definition of freedom, which is putting self first:

  • families and relationships break down when people stop feeling it—whatever ‘it’ is;
  • we lose the concept of the common good and we act as if how we live our lives doesn’t impact others or the world around us;
  • constituents and consumers think purely in terms of what’s best for me, and politicians and advertisers help propagate the cycle;
  • companies seek only what’s best for their bottom line when that’s all their shareholders seek, and news channels only what’s best for their ratings;
  • we treat our world, our resources, our money, our time, as ours alone, to do with as we please—and to hell with the consequences.

Welcome to the world of “do what you want” gone mad, full of systems and structures that have been built up and reinforced and buttressed by continued habits of individuals who have put themselves—and let’s be honest here, ourselves, because we’ve all done this—and our interests before everyone and everything else.

And, Paul says, if we make—or continue to make—putting ourselves first into a lifestyle, if we consistently put our wants and needs above others’ wants and needs or reject what God tells us is what we were made for, we close ourselves off from the flow of God, from growing to be more like God, from being who we were created to be. And the consequence is:

those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (5:21)

It’s pretty straightforward, strong language. It’s pretty uncomfortable for us to hear. We don’t like hearing that there are consequences and cut-offs. But, if you think about it, this is merely a logical conclusion: if the kingdom of God is where God reigns and where his character is supreme, and if he is characterized by love, joy, peace, and all of the other things we’re about to talk about, then the person who consistently lives for him- or herself is clearly choosing the opposite. If you draw a shape with three sides, you have not drawn a circle, however many times you try to do it—that is a logical conclusion. And so, N.T. Wright concludes:

a society in which most people behaved in such a way is unlikely to be a happy or thriving place. What is more, when God finally establishes his kingdom, people like that will have no place in it; it would be very surprising if they did. That’s not the sort of place, and state of affairs, that God wishes ultimately to create.

And that’s not who God is. And if the life of faith is about life with God, about becoming more like God, then it makes sense that “those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God”—they are choosing to say no to Jesus, to the fulfilled life, to a restored relationship with the God who loves us.

This is the alternative:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (5:22-23)

We could easily devote a blog post (or book) to each of these (and maybe I will, one day), but in the interests of time I’m going to highlight three.

  1. Love—in the Greek, it’s the word agape—is not just having warm fuzzy feelings but seeking the good of the other in tangible action, putting them before yourself. That’s what it looked like when Jesus loved us: he put our needs before his own; and so he calls us to do the same for those around us. “Love your enemy”—seek the good of even those who despise you; that’s tough, especially when you operate in the world of politics, for example, where tempers fray and we say all sorts of awful things, throw all sorts of crazy accusations around, impute the basest of intentions to each other. How will you seek the good of even those who call you ‘enemy’?
  2. Gentleness is not a particularly hip word, is it? Some other translations say, “meekness,” which seems kind of soft! We live in a world that extols boldness and praises those who seize their opportunities, and we think of meek people as those who are submissive or easily imposed on—doormats. But in my dad’s commentary, he writes that neither “gentleness” nor “meekness” fully captures the sense of the Greek word. This term was “typically used to describe a person in whom strength and gentleness go together.” I hope you know people like that: who may be tremendously gifted and talented and capable but who are humble about it and who use their gifts to build others up; or who maybe exhibit a quiet confidence. They don’t need to prove themselves, they don’t need to draw attention to themselves; they just do what they do: they love and serve and give themselves for others.
  3. Self-control is the ability to not be ruled by our appetites and our impulses, to not just do whatever we feel like simply because we feel like it—whether that’s cussing someone out just because you’re angry, or having another drink just because it’s there, buying another gadget just because it’s new, or refusing to forgive someone and move on because the world has told you that you have the right to not forgive. Self-control isn’t just about not doing things; it’s about intentionality, whether it’s something you choose not to do or something you choose to do. It’s bending our wills, our minds, our bodies, our souls to the purpose for which they were created—to love and serve and be in relationship with God.

Paul uses the analogy of fruit very intentionally—just as Jesus did in Matthew 7, when he said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, and every bad tree bears bad fruit; you will know them by their fruits”—because we can’t just make fruit. Fruit doesn’t simply appear, fully formed and ready to go; it grows.

[Part 2 tomorrow.]

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC

Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

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