So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 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. 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. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:16-26 NIV)
It is easy to experience a level of disconnect between this biblical contrast between “law” and “spirit”, and the practical working out of our faith. One reason is because there are two contrasts at work, both of which are addressed in today’s passage.
The first contrast is between the “spirit led” and “sinful nature led” life. Before we come to Christ and are inhabited by His Spirit, we are controlled by our sinful human nature. This doesn’t mean everyone who doesn’t know Christ is a hardened sinner. In fact, some non-believers work hard to do what is right, as their understanding of morality and goodness dictates. Yet, even these are driven primarily by the drive to be a good person, which by its very nature can be ego-centric. Those who are led by the Spirit, however, not only seek to be good, but are constantly convicted and prompted by the Lord as they are conformed into His image.
The second contrast is between the “spirit led” and “law-led” life. As you might guess, Paul is drawing a correlation between our sinful nature and the law. At first glance this appears theologically unsound since the law was given to guide humanity out of its sinful nature. But I think Paul is trying to make a specific point in relation to how we pursue godliness.
No, our sinful human nature and the law are not one in the same. However, the mentality with which one pursues both is frighteningly similar. Our sinful nature must be fed by pleasures of the flesh, pride, and misguided ambition. And if we follow law, convinced we can justify ourselves and proclaim ourselves righteous, we tend to focus on the same things. In fact, there is nothing more prideful and abusive than a Christian who is captivated by his own perfection.
As I have aged, I have become more aware of how we use spirituality as a smoke screen for our human nature. We almost need a dictionary to keep things straight. A judgmental spirit becomes “discernment”, personal endeavors become things “God puts on our hearts”, and anyone who questions us is said to be “full of strife.” I don’t mean to suggest these statements made by believers are always misguided. It’s just that as humans we have an uncanny way of making our personal desires sound really spiritual.
I think this is the background behind the distinctions we see in today’s passage between the “spirit” and our “sinful nature” as it relates to the notion we can proclaim ourselves righteous. The true “spirit” led life will demonstrate the “fruits of the spirit”. And when we are filled with these, we don’t have to worry about making ourselves look good, or justifying our actions.
Dear God, help avoid the trap of self-righteousness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.