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Monday, July 30, 2012

Crucifying the flesh

When Paul lists the "fruits of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22-23, he follows the list with this cryptic statement:

"And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."

Take that verse out of context and you'll have most people in our culture thinking there's a problem with sex.  Somehow we've come to associate "the flesh" with sexuality.  Add a word like "passions" or "desires" into the mix and prudish Protestants know we're talking about sex.

Now, I live in a state that is currently going to war over a vote on a constitutional amendment to our state constitution to define "marriage" to mean one man and one woman.  A generation ago the populace would have expressed a collective "duh!" over this issue, but today we have to vote on definitions.  I will certainly not be quick  to make light of the many ways sexuality can lead us astray!

In context, however, Galatians 5:24 (quoted above) gets added on to a list of Spirit-given virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Notice that in each of these "fruits of the Spirit" the self takes second place.  "Agape" love (the Greek word used here) is love that sacrifices self for the sake of the beloved.  It is the highest form of love, exemplified by Jesus.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus "the man for others."  When we act in love toward a neighbor, our self-interest takes second place and we put the needs of the other first, not in a dysfunctional or codependent way, but in a healthy self-giving manner.

Joy is never focused on itself, or it descends into mere happiness.  Real joy is always focused on something outside the self.  The joy of a mother focused on her newborn, for example, is not about herself, but about the new life she is privileged to bring into the world and the possibility of relationship with this new little person.  The joy of a Christ-follower is focused on Jesus.  (By the way, this is one reason so many Christians fail to experience real joy in their lives.  We come to Jesus looking to gain advantage -- think salvation -- for ourselves, live a largely self-focused spiritual life, and then wonder why we don't feel much joy.)  Joy is the ecstasy of letting go of the self and being caught up in something larger, something that reflects in some specific way the nature and presence of God.

Peace is the opposite of worry.  Worry is self-focus, a vain attempt to control circumstances and outcomes for my own sake.  Peace is akin to trust, in which I release my need to control the results and simply leave my fate in God's hands.

Patience is similar to peace.  Patience releases my own need for a particular outcome and recognizes that I do not have ultimate control.  The self is set aside, especially in difficult circumstances or trials, recognizing that God will ultimately have his way and my call is to endurance.

And so it goes down the list.  Each one of these fruits of the Spirit demands that the self take second place.  These virtues fly in the face of my flesh, which is my self-interest, my demand to place myself above all others.  My flesh says, "If I don't stand up for myself and my needs, no one else will!"  The fruits of the Spirit say, "God is in control.  He will stand up for what is truly important.  I want to be part of what he's doing."  In the New Testament, "passions" are those self-focused fits of will in which we selfishly drive toward our own self-indulgent needs and desires.

So it is the most natural thing in the Spirit for Paul to follow this list of virtues with the statement that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Luther pointed out that the flesh -- my willful self -- rises from the dead like a zombie nightmare (not Luther's exact terminology) each day, and it needs to drown each day in the waters of baptism.

In some ways, fighting against spiritual powers is easier than the struggle against the flesh.  You can cast out a demon, but you cannot cast out the flesh.  This is part of yourself, and struggling against yourself -- your selfish self, your self-focused self, your my-way-above-all-else self -- requires great patience.  It is a difficult battle precisely because it is so daily, and you can't really "win" it.  Only by losing yourself can you "win," as your self-focus gets lost little by little in the purifying light of a greater focus on Jesus.

Too often we fall prey to the temptation to focus too much on the flesh.  We struggle mightily against ourselves only to find that we've been entirely self-focused the whole time.  In our victories, we become proud of how we're winning.  We become like the man who was glad that he was so humble.  But he was sad that he was glad that he was humble.  And so we get on the hamster wheel of self-focus.

The only cure for a focus on self is to lose ourselves in something greater.  This is why C.S. Lewish, in The Screwtape Letters, points out that real pleasures are a tremendous danger to the agendas of Satan.  In an honest pleasure (a cup of strong coffee on a beautiful summer morning, perhaps) we lose ourselves in a sense and are called beyond ourselves.  The ultimate crucifixion of the flesh happens as we focus more and more on Jesus and begin to experience the sheer pleasure of his presence and his lordship.  In that moment, as you forget yourself and leap to embrace him, little by little your flesh is left behind.  Your selfish desires are lost in a great desire for him and his kingdom.  Every self-oriented impulse we have fades the closer we get to the truth of Jesus and his love.

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