Our scriptures for August 30 are Galatians 5:13-21, Titus 2:1-14, and the stories of David from 1 Samuel, 24-27.
The "fruit of the Spirit" theme for this Sunday is self-control. It's hard not to wince a little, hearing that we will consider this theme, after all, it's something all of us "fleshy" people struggle with for ourselves. Struggles to eat less, drink less, exercise more, waste less time, speak up, stop talking, quit looking at internet junk, love more, complain less...
Isn't it funny (not haha funny) how thoughts of self-control easily go to a self-centred place? I want to be skinnier, healthier, loved by others...What about how the exercise of self control makes for a better community?
Isn't it funny, (again, not haha), how the idea of self-control feels like a list of "should nots?"
Paul is definitely not about should nots, but about true freedom. "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Gal.5:13) His definition of freedom is to give up those selfish desires or habits that enslave us (like alcohol for alcoholics, gossip for the idle or those of low self-esteem, junk food for the overweight...). Those habits are all things that start as self-indulgence, maybe even almost harmlessly so, but they easily grow to destroy individuals, families, and communities. We all have stories of hurt caused by gossip, jealousy and nastiness between siblings, quarrelling and cliques. (Interesting that jealousy and quarrelling are listed along with fornication and idolatry. All these things are dangerous, none are harm free!)
True freedom, Paul says is giving up those things that destroy us and others, and becoming SLAVES to each other. I highlight the word slaves, because the irony is so blatant. To be free, we have to be slaves to what is right, to self-control. Freedom is knowing that we do not have to live with the consequences of alcoholism, or gossip, or anger, because we have not indulged in them or have broken free from their control. We may still suffer as a result of these things happening around us, but we should not be the ones causing the hurt once we accept this new kind of freedom. Paul urges the use of self-control to stay away from that which harms, and then to rejoice in the freedom of good relationships, of loyalty and love. It's a radical view of freedom!
I think, however, that we might have to be careful with these lists of what to do and what not to do, Paul is not trying to set up a rigid set of rules for us to use to judge one another, to decide who has self-control and who does not. Rigid rules don't work. Andrew Prior (from an article on TextWeek on Gal. 5) warns that it can be easy for individuals and groups to become self-righteous about how they follow the rules, saying that :"rules and niceties can be the exact opposite of freedom in Christ." When the emphasis is on rules, he warns that our faith can be a pastel piety and a nauseous niceness! This is not welcoming for people who struggle and need help, for addicts seeking a faith home and support, for people who desire to be open about their problems and needs. Also, how often are we judgemental when we hear of someone who struggles with addiction and yet do not see the problem when we ourselves gossip about it in ways that are by no means redemptive, understanding, or constructive?
I find encouragement in Paul's belief that the people of the Galatian church are capable of freedom in Christ. (Quite a lot of the letter is chastising them, yet Paul is hopeful.) The church everywhere is full of real people. We all have real problems. All of us can find places where we indulge in the works of the flesh as listed in verse 19. All of us can find encouragement in the goal of true freedom, freedom to use self control to practise love for each other. A love that is characterised, not by judgement, but by encouragement, by love , joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. There are no laws against such things, and it's so freeing to focus of a healthy list of shoulds instead of on a restrictive list of should nots.