We are born slaves, and religion can’t free us.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Galatians 5:16, ESV
What is ‘the flesh’? It is our basic desires, twisted. Good desires, created in us by God for a good purpose, but taken too far, or applied to the wrong things.
Paul makes this clear, by telling us what the ‘works of the flesh’ are:
The pleasure of sex was designed by God to bind a man and a woman together until death. Treating sex and sexual pleasure as the goal, leads to promiscuity and other harmful sexual behaviour. This is the desire of the ‘flesh’; not trusting God’s design, but luring us away from Him and His ways.
We chase other pleasures too. Creation is full of things God has made for our pleasure and enjoyment. He intends us to enjoy those things and live grateful lives, but we worship pleasure instead of God, forgetting the giver and caring only about the gift.
Some jealousy is right. If your partner is unfaithful, should you care? Yes, of course. But jealousy without reason? Paranoia? Obsessive, possessive ‘love’?
Fits of Anger
Jesus, the perfect man, was angry. Once he was even moved to violence; he turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Sometimes his frustration with the foolishness, and lack of trust, of his disciples, resulted in a sharp rebuke for them. But, ‘the anger of man does not result in the righteousness of God‘. People are not slow to anger, but tend to erupt unfairly, especially when we are in a bad mood.
Paul says “walk by the Spirit”, but how?
Not by living a godless life. This is how the Galatians lived, before they were rescued by the gospel. This is how people in Britain live today, having no understanding of what slavery they are in. Of course, people see the bondage of others; the hopelessness of addiction or poverty. But people are blind to their own desires which enslave them. Money. One-upmanship and social climbing. The desperate search for significance and meaning.
The Galatians were converted; their bonds were released, but to Paul’s horror and astonishment, they are now willingly being led back into slavery. The slavery of religion.
The shock of Galatians 4:8-9 is that having been pagans, and now falling into worthless religion, they are turning…
…back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Galatians 4:9b, ESV
“back again”? But they were not religious before! To Paul, religion is the same as a pagan life. And it is the same in this particular sense: Neither has any power at all against ‘the flesh’. No-one can please God by obeying law: “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”, “no one is justified before God by the law”, “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law”.
This is not just true of legal obedience to the law of Moses, but to any written code. Every system of law or morality is useless in promoting genuine righteousness. It merely becomes an opportunity for sin to show us just how sinful it is, by twisting every rule. Obeying the letter but never the spirit.
What a contrast with Paul’s solution:
“Walk by the Spirit” he says, “and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh”. You “will not”. Indeed, you cannot, because “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh”; they are opposite forces. The ‘Spirit’ Paul refers to is the Holy Spirit, the embodiment of the heart of the law Paul has just mentioned:
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Galatians 5:14, ESV
Is it possible to imagine a patient fit of anger? Or angry kindness and love, or rivalries and dissensions conducted with gentleness? If you walk by the spirit you cannot do the works of the flesh, and vice versa. This is starkly different to the law; letter-obedience with hearts filled with malice and hate is possible, and is the natural outcome of any system of rules that is forced on rebellious human hearts.
Every ‘walk’ starts with the first step. Walking by the Spirit is no different: the first step is trusting in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we see death every day — not just the untimely death of children or natural disasters, but the inevitable decay we all face — when we see death slowly consuming us, and those around us, we should also see the resurrection of Jesus: a living and vital promise that the curse of death has been broken. Trusting that promise is the first step, but Paul urges more:
If you have taken that first step of trust, you have eternal life. Isn’t it natural to continue to walk in the same direction? Take the second step: love. And if you love your brothers, your neighbour, and even your enemies, then step into the joy and peace of knowing you are friends with God, who rules everything. Keep going. Be patient, in goodness and faithfulness. Let your gentleness be visible to everyone. Control yourself. Crucify the flesh with its (twisted) passions and desires.