July is the time when we in the United States celebrate the freedoms associated with our democracy. Even as the political and ideological divisions in our country have received a good bit of attention and created significant distraction in our life as a nation, we have much to be grateful for.
We could say the same for the church. There are divisions over theology, faith and practice, and even politics. But again, we still have much to be grateful for. I hear quite often that “these days” are so much worse than those past. In truth, though, controversy and division in the church are anything but new. The writings of the Apostle Paul confirm the wisdom of King Solomon: There is nothing new under the sun. Believers singly and corporately have survived and even thrived in times of challenging disagreements.
It seems to me that the concept of freedom can help us to walk faithfully before the Lord even in these uneasy times. Please consider with me how Paul viewed Christian freedom in a time when slavery was widely if not universally accepted and oppression and a lack of freedom was the rule rather than the exception.
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:16-23.
We are unequivocally called to put aside the desires of the flesh and seek the work of the Holy Spirit as we work out our faith in this hurting and unbelieving world. For most of us, the more obvious desires of the flesh are reasonably easy to avoid. We do not commit adultery, cheat on our taxes, become addicted to illegal substances, throw parties characterized by ungodly behavior. But the pleasures of the flesh share a common denominator: they please our flesh because they enable us to feel good about ourselves as quickly and easily as possible, with little or no sacrifice and usually at the expense of others. The pleasures of the flesh can represent temptation that is both subtle and counterintuitive. If we want to use our freedom in ways that reflect and glorify Christ, I am convinced that how and why we do something is at least as important as what we do.
Please consider Jesus’s repeated warnings to and about the Pharisees whose status in the community became their idol and whose self-righteousness was about pleasing the flesh. They were so focused on following the Law—for their own advantage—that they were unable to love and serve the weak; worse still, they were unable to see God Incarnate when He was standing in front of them.
Paul deals with this side of serving the flesh in many of his epistles. His first letter to the Corinthian church gives us two excellent examples. The Corinthians were embroiled in tensions that arose as each sought personal status in which Christian leader he was following. The leaders in question—including Paul himself—were delivering the same message and were not in competition with one another. But the Corinthians were creating competition rather than following Christ in order to feel good about themselves. The Corinthians also created competition in regard to spiritual gifts, seeking status in manifesting the flashier gifts. So even though they were seeking the work of the Holy Spirit, they were doing so for their own fleshly purposes rather than actually walking by the Spirit. The result was controversy and division rather than the love and unity that the fruits of the Spirit would produce.
There is no way around it. If we genuinely desire to proclaim Christ in what we say and do, we must humbly seek the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts as we give up seeking to make our life of faith about us, to truly walk in the Spirit. Our sin nature objects! But please consider with me the overwhelming freedom that comes with a Spirit-filled and a Spirit-led life! We do not need to fix the world, or save it. Only Christ can do that. Instead, we can enjoy the freedom that comes with being redeemed by the blood of Christ. We have nothing to earn and nothing to prove. We have no need to settle for the counterfeit pleasures of our flesh. As we walk by the Spirit, He will bear His fruit in us: we will be able to walk before the Lord in faithfulness and manifest His goodness; we will know peace and joy; we will enjoy the benefits of self-control; we will be able to love others well and serve them with patience, gentleness and kindness. May we indeed use our freedom to participate in His redeeming work in us and through us.