Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5.19-21)
As I recently finished a Church Bible Study on the book of Galatians, those verses inevitably caused some discussion.
I mean, we’ve all to some degree engaged in most–if not all–of the items on that list at some point in our lives, right? Even if you’re a Christian.
So what does it mean to say “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”?
As we discussed it, we arrived at the answer many of us come to if you grew up in the Church: these scary statements only apply to those individuals who have these “works of the flesh” as a pattern of their life to such a degree one might be able to say that the sins have “dominion” over them. That answers it, right?
Not really. Because there are Christians who find themselves in seasons–days, weeks, months, decades, even–where these sins are their practice over time, seasons where these sins have a very real sense of dominion over them and their lives.
And, this isn’t theoretical or theological for me. To be honest, I myself am coming out just such a time.
. . . . .
I wrote the above words a couple of weeks ago. Since then, I’ve only sunk deeper into the bewilderment of this season I’m coming out of. How does a Christian understand a period of time in which they’re given over so deeply into self-absorption, sin, and hurting of others? I’ve sat on this question, mulling it over, letting it ruminate within me to see what fruit it bore. I’ve wanted to figure out a nice, tidy answer to this post–for the sake of both others and myself.
And alas, I have been found wanting.
In the end, why do we/I ask such questions? Control? Minimizing our shame? Explaining our wrongs away? Emotionally masturbatory navel-gazing? Intellectualizing or theologizing sin so as to disconnect from the depth of pain that would come if we really saw ourselves and what we’ve done?
Probably all of the above (again, at least for me).
Ultimately, this walk with God isn’t that complicated. We’re called to love God and love others. We/I fail in that simple task repeatedly–even to dramatic, painful, extreme, and sustained degrees. And, yes, also to a million lesser, little degrees. In short: we’re terrible even at this grand, beautiful simplicity.
And that’s anticipated. Whenever God gives a law, he assumes failure, sin, and disobedience and provides a way to maintain relationship. This has always been the case with God, not just since all the Jesus stuff. Therefore even with the simple call to love God and love others, our failure is factored in.
But that’s just the divine perspective–how God might be thinking about the Christian who is in the fog of sin, failure, and weakness. To be frank, though: as beautiful as that idea is, it’s not exactly helpful to me in processing my own unique period of profound sin against God and others. For that, I turn to ground-level human stories of how people processed this as they related to God and themselves.
When you do, you see that over and over again people in the Scriptures just acknowledge and lament their sin, and ask God to move on their behalf. There’s no deep analysis of “why”, nor dissecting what was going on in the human heart, nor anxiety over what was theologically happening at the time.
It seems that those scary verses like the one from Galatians aren’t meant to guide your understanding while you’re in the midst of a season of profound soul-sickness, but to either prevent others from falling prey to such sickness or explain why others “died” in that sickness.
In other words, the identity of one joined to the life of God is not defined by whether or not they fail (even in big ways against others), but whether after that time of failure, chaos, and sin, they come back. If they at some point (even decades down the road) return to their senses, then I think we can say in hindsight they’ve belonged to God all along.
We see this throughout the history of God’s people. For example, Moses was no less God’s chosen and beloved deliverer of his people even as his anger and violence kept him from the Promised Land. Of course, the disciples themselves belonged no less to Jesus even as they denied him. Paul was no less joined to Christ even as he “did what he didn’t want to do and didn’t do what he wanted”.
But some of the other stories are deeply offensive. Abraham was no less chosen by God even as he distrusted God’s word and committed horrendous acts of sexual violence against an African slave-woman. Isaac was no less the son of promise even as he pimped out his wife to save his own skin. David was no less God’s own, even as he famously had an affair and killed the woman’s husband to hide it.
On one hand, I don’t like that. These men abused women and exerted their power and sexuality in a way that harmed others deeply and profoundly. On the other hand, what do I do when I act the same way? What do I do when I find myself at that place where I have done what I never thought I’d do? How do I process it when I find myself having crossed lines and committed injustices that I find so deeply unacceptable and offensive in others?
This story of belonging to God even during horrendous acts of pain against others has to be offensive, because at some point, we will act in a way offensive to many of our own most deeply-held personal convictions and sensibilities.
I say that not to be dramatic, but I genuinely think that all humans, at some point in their lives, will find themselves at that place of sitting among the ruins of former beauty asking, “what on earth have I done? Did I really do this? Is this even real?”
And when that happens (not if), a precise theological understanding of our soul’s state during that season is not what will sustain us. All we can do is confess, lament, feel the pain deeply without intellectualizing it, and ask for God to move on our behalf, knowing he probably won’t do so right away; there’s a strange alchemy that needs to happen in the soul during such a time. And it’s never on our timetable. All we can do, it seems, is follow the example of Micah 7:
I will look to the Lord,
I will wait for the God of my salvation;
my God will hear me….
I must bear the indignation of the Lord,
because I have sinned against him,
until he…executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall see his vindication.
While that doesn’t answer all (or really any) of my questions, it’s enough to help me go to sleep tonight and continue walking tomorrow into increasing light, freedom, discipline, repentance, and wholeness. And I think, at least for now, that’s enough. And for that, I’m grateful.
[images credit: “Zivot v kruhu / Leben im Kreis” Lithographs by Oldrich Kulhanek]