But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
– Gal. 5:16-25
How to Change (Pt. 2)
Hey students, we continue today with asking ourselves the altogether simple question, “How do I change?” and to answer that we are looking at one of the most famous passages in the Bible on change, Galatians 5. Last week we said that there is a difference between outward manipulation, and inner-transformation. We said that we can manipulate our “change” by 1) lying to ourselves, saying that there is nothing really wrong with us; 2) improving ourselves, trying to measure up to some standard through pride and hard work; 3) dying to ourselves, letting go of our innate desire to be the Lord of our own lives and submitting to Christ. This week we will talk about the nature of change.
Why do we need to know the nature of true, lasting spiritual change? Because understanding the nature of it will give us correct expectations and save us from a boatload of troubles. For example, if you don’t understand that nature of how to cook a pot roast, that it needs to marinade and cook slowly, then you will be extremely frustrated with the quality of the pot roast when you microwave it for two minutes. So too, if we don’t understand the nature of spiritual change, we will be constantly frustrated, confused and disheartened at the process. As we look at Galatians 5 we see four aspects of the nature of true change: True change is internal, symmetrical, gradual and inevitable.
When Paul describes the major effective work of the Spirit in our lives he uses internal character traits – habits of the heart. “Love, joy, peace, patience, etc.” Paul didn’t say that the fruit of the Spirit was spending thirty minutes a day doing good for others – rather, he says we should have “love”; he didn’t say we must laugh, smile keep a cheery demeanor – rather, he says we should have “joy: he didn’t give us a time allotment to endure frustrations – rather, he simply says we should be “patient”. Paul is not talking about external acts we do, but internal characteristics like “joy, peace, kindness, etc.” And that is entirely more difficult to command than just external actions. If your parents tell you to that you are going to do something and “like it!”, you probably will end up doing the thing, but you probably won’t really like it. Why? Because you cannot force someone externally to delight in something internally.
So you see how in one sense, it would be so much easier if Paul just gave us simple, practical rules to follow; things we could do to make us more loving, joyful, peaceful and patient, wouldn’t it? If God just said, “Okay, if you want to be a self-controlled person, then pray for fifteen minutes a day and read your Bible for fifteen minutes a day, then you will be self-controlled,” then that would be easy to do. Why? Because if transformation is reduced down to simple steps I can do, then I don’t have to change my heart, just my behavior, which is really just another way to say, not change at all. But Paul is explaining that we are not to merely do things externally, but fundamentally we are to be internally.
We see an example of this when Jesus was teaching his disciples about forgiveness. One of His disciples asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against them. Peter asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:21-22). Seven is the Biblical number of wholeness and perfection – when Christ claims that Peter must forgive seventy seven times, he isn’t giving him just a bigger number, he is saying that Peter must perfectly and totally forgive. Jesus says that the matter of forgiveness isn’t about conforming to some external quota, but by becoming a forgiving person. This is what we see with the fruit of the Spirit.
In fact, Paul begins with explaining that the work of the Spirit is primarily a work of altering our inner-desires. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the desires of the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal. 5:16-17). The Spirit’s primary work is in the transformation of our heart’s desires, not just our behavior. Now, when my heart truly becomes a patient heart, when I truly desire it, then that will most definitely lead to a transformation in my behavior; I won’t have explosive angry outbursts, or snap as easily, but it is because there first was an inner transformation, that led to an outward transformation. Jesus explains this to a group of people who believed that all that mattered was outer conformity, “Hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matt. 23:25-26). Jesus’ priority for holiness: First, clean the inside, then the outside will be clean.
It is possible for a person to look very religious and holy, but have a heart that desires very unholy things. That is not what it means to walk by the Spirit; it’s an inside-out change that focuses on transforming what our heart’s desire; replacing our “desires of flesh” with the “desires of the Spirit”.
Notice how Paul uses the singular “Fruit”, but then goes on to list a long list of traits. Many people unknowingly call them the “fruits” of the Spirit because of this. But Paul didn’t make a mistake when he made “fruit” singular. Here is what Paul is saying: Paul is saying that all nine of the traits are together the fruit of the Spirit. This means that as we grow in maturity, ALL of the fruit should be present. The fruit grows symmetrically, connected, together. Think of a net – a net is only really a net if it has a bunch of strings connected and woven together; if you only have a few of the strings, you don’t have a net. This is what the fruit of the Spirit is like.
However, what often happens is we will look at this list and see a couple of the traits very evident in our life, and others that are completely not there, and say, “Well, I have love and joy, but maybe not so much self-control or faithfulness.” Maybe you are naturally a really gentle person, full of love and kindness, but you lack self-control and faithfulness. Maybe you are extremely disciplined, peaceful and faithful, but you aren’t kind, you aren’t gentle. Maybe you find it easy to do good for others and love them, but your life is filled with anxiety and you have no peace or joy. What is that? What’s happening? Listen, if the fruit of the Spirit grows together, comes interconnected, then if I think I have a large amount of one fruit, but not of others, then the fruit I think I am strong in is really counterfeit fruit.
This is why it is so important for us to see the symmetry of the fruit of the Spirit, because we can easily confuse our temperament, our personality type for spiritual fruit. Let’s think about the nature of the interdependence of the fruit, how it interacts with each other like the strings of a net, by looking at two examples of the fruit, Love and Peace:
Love: what is love? Is love just fuzzy feelings I have? No, love is a radical, humble commitment to do good for someone, no matter what. Now, if that is true, then the only way that you can really love someone is to have faithfulness and self-control. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone requires you denying yourself, saying no to self-indulgence, or being constant and loyal, no matter how tough it is. So, if you see that it is easy for you to love, but hard for you to say no to yourself, then your love is a counterfeit love. Listen girls, if he says he loves you, but is constantly pushing you into a more sexual relationship than you want, then he doesn’t love you. Real love always has self-control and faithfulness present; fake love is self-centered – it is something you have picked up from movies and music, but it is not real love.
Peace: what is Peace? Is peace just never being upset about anything, never worrying about anything? Maybe you think you have peace because you are just a cynical person, you don’t care about things or people that much – is that what peace is? No, peace is the presence of such durable joy that nothing can sink you or throw you, so you can love others fully. Real, true peace never comes at the expense of joy, but bubbles up from it. If your peace has come at the expense of joy, then it is nothing more than a counterfeit peace.
This tells us that we are only as mature as our weakest trait. Do not confuse spiritual maturity with your personality quirks. Examine your life – what comes naturally to you? Are you accepting a counterfeit fruit as a mark of spiritual growth? As we look at each of the fruits in the following weeks we will be examining this more in depth.
So we see that the nature of true, lasting change is first that it is internal, and secondly that it is symmetrical, and thirdly that it is gradual. You notice the metaphor that Paul is using here to describe change: fruit. You know what takes a long time to grow? Fruit.
If I came up to you and said, “Man, I was scammed! Some guy sold me some apple tree seeds, I planted them, watered it, and made sure it got plenty of sun – but the next day I went out and nothing happened! No apples!” You may not be an apple tree expert, but I am guessing that you would have the common sense to say, “Marc, you’re being dumb – apple trees don’t grow overnight.” That is very obvious – and that is exactly why Paul is telling us that it is the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit grows slowly and gradually; it is not a microwaveable kind of thing.
And yet many of you are extremely frustrated that you are not growing faster. You want to be a mature Christian, but you want it to happen overnight. If you have the common sense to be aware that an apple tree shouldn’t grow overnight, then why aren’t you filled with the same confidence that spiritual fruit takes even longer? Spiritual fruit are inner desires of the heart that are honed over years and years of the Spirit working on your heart, rewiring your desires and leading you to let go of more and more of your flesh. God can work and does work miracles in people’s hearts overnight – but the normal process of growth is like an oak tree growing. John Mayer, the singer-songwriter has this great line in a song that I think is true for many of our hearts, “I can’t wait to find out what’s wrong with me / So I can say that’s the way I used to be.” We always want to talk about our flaws in the past tense, never in the present – and this is why we get so frustrated with the slowness of our growth.
You know, if I were to ask many of you if you feel faster, stronger or smarter than you were yesterday, all of you would say no. But if we could look at what how fast, strong and smart you were a year or two ago, and could compare it with you today, we would see a remarkable difference. All serious deep change takes time, especially spiritual change. So, struggling Christian, do not be frustrated so easily that you aren’t changing quicker. Rather than looking inward at how much you are growing, look upward to Christ and His mission in this world and make that your focus. And when you do that, when extending God’s mission to glorify His name here on the earth becomes what you focus on, in time you will change. And one day you will look at yourself and say, “Wow, I am way more patient than I was a year ago! Before, this scenario would have made me so anxious, so angry, but I am not!” This is the gradual work of the Spirit in us. And you need to know that so that we can endure the next point.
This point has an interesting double-meaning: one to comfort, and another to poke at something uncomfortable.
First, in the passage, Paul explains that this fruit in our life is the fruit “of the Spirit”, meaning that the production of this fruit comes from the Holy Spirit that is at work in us. We live by the Spirit (5:25), is another way for Paul to explain that the transformation that happens in us is truly the work of the Spirit, not of ourselves. If you have put faith in Christ, then God has promised that He will send His Holy Spirit to dwell in you and the Holy Spirit will work inside of you to transform you. One of my favorite passages that explains this is, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6) Or also, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Cor.3:6-7). It is God who gives the growth! And what God promises to do, He does. Take heart, struggling Christian – the Lord has promised that He will grow you.
Second, Paul also says something else in the passage. After listing the long list of the works of the flesh, Paul explains that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:21b). Now we know that Paul doesn’t mean that if we ever do any of things on the list we will be cast out of heaven or lose our salvation, because in the previous few verses (16-17) he spoke of the reality of the struggle we have with our flesh and Spirit (see also Rom. 7:21-26). When Paul makes statements like these (which he does often) he is saying that if we continue to live in a pattern of sin, in the flesh, and there is no desire for true, lasting transformation, if there is no struggle between the Spirit and our flesh, then that is probably because we have never actually had saving faith in Christ. Having saving faith in Christ always leads to an alteration of our desires. Henry Martyn, a translator and missionary described his conversion to Christ like this, “The whole current of my desires is altered, I am walking quite another way, though I am incessantly stumbling in that way.” What a perfect way to describe it. The struggle of our walk with the Spirit is not a call to be perfect, but it is a call to fight, we stumble and falter on the path, but we have resolved to fight. And if there is no fight, then we are probably still controlled by our flesh. Here is a question for you: How do you respond when someone confronts you with sin in your life? Do you try and justify it? Defend it? Excuse it? Do you just get angry at that friend and stop talking to them? Do you not even let your friends talk with you about your sin?
Can I tell you a story about myself being confronted on sin? When I was in high school I had done what many of my friends had done and begun to pirate movies, music and software – if you don’t know what that means, that means I illegally downloaded stuff without paying for it. And I felt justified in doing it because it seemed like everyone did it, even my Christian friends. So I downloaded everything I could get my little hands on, and before I knew it, I found out that I had thousands of dollars of stolen software, music and movies on my computer. One day, this really nosy youth pastor I had asked me how I could afford buying so much music on a high schooler’s budget. I then informed him that only chumps bought music when you could just get it for free. John, my youth pastor, then lovingly proceeded to remind me that I was very much breaking the law and was stealing. I threw up all the arguments that my friends presented, all of which sounded so much more convincing when they were explaining it to me but only sounded silly now, but John relentlessly showed me that I was walking in blatant sin, and that I needed to repent, stop downloading, and delete all of my stolen files. I put up a big fight and tried to accuse him of legalism and being ridiculous, but eventually, he won. And a few weeks after our conversation I went through and deleted all of my stolen music.
Now, listen carefully, when I started downloading illegal music, I didn’t lose my salvation or stop being a Christian, even though I was lying, stealing and being greedy. And I didn’t suddenly become a Christian when I deleted the music. No, rather the fact that I did repent was the evidence that the Holy Spirit was dwelling in me and leading me to change. But look, had I not repented, and continued to love and cherish that sin till the day I died, I would show that the Holy Spirit had never actually been present in my life, and I had never known Christ. When we come to faith in Christ, we still sin, we still slip and fall, any we may even live in that unrepentant state for a season – but we will repent and return, if we have actually put our faith in Christ.
If you are currently walking in the flesh, walking in a pattern of sin that you know is wrong, then repent! Ask the Lord for forgiveness and strength to turn from this sin, and to grow spiritual fruit in its place. And if you are aware that you have sin in your life, but you don’t want to repent of it, then please listen to me, I love you, but you have no reason to believe that you have any kind of relationship with Christ. When Jesus came to save us, He came to deliver us from the penalty and the power of sin; to break our enslavement to our flesh. Why not reach out to him now? Why not put aside the works of the flesh that lead to death and embrace the life offered to you in the Gospel?
How to do it
So how do you get that kind of internal, symmetrical, gradual and inevitable change in your life? Well it comes from a shift in desires. At the beginning Paul explains that our flesh has “desires” and the Spirit has “desires” – and the word for desires is actually better translated as “lusts”. There are lusts of the flesh and lusts of the Spirit – so the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what does the Spirit long for, delight in, desire, lust for? And because the Spirit is a member of the Triune God, we know that He is in love with God! The Spirit’s desire is for God! You may have been thinking “Wait a minute, I thought the Spirit’s desire was for me to bear fruit?” No, see, think about it: fruit is nothing more than the product of the root. Fruit is entirely controlled by its roots – loving, longing, desiring God is the root here, and love, joy, peace, patience, etc. is the fruit. If we want real, true change, we must share in the Spirit’s desire to long and love God. And if that is difficult for you today, if loving God is just abstract, difficult to get your mind around, hard to do, let me offer you this advice: look at the Cross. At the Cross we see the abstract God become personal, and display His love for us.
It’s prom season now, so that means that some of you have already been asked or will be asked or you have seen others be asked. And you know what guys do, they set up this big elaborate ordeal to ask girls to prom. And the funny thing is, and girls you can attest to this, but sometimes a guy will ask you that you don’t necessarily have any romantic feelings for, but he will ask you in such an elaborate, creative way that you suddenly find a desire to go with him anyways blossom inside of you. You think well, look at all of this! Think of how much work this must have taken, the time and energy – he must really care about me. Now take that principal and apply it to the Cross. At the Cross we see Jesus pledge His love to us, with the costly seal of his crimson blood. Jesus isn’t just asking us to some dance, He isn’t just saying He wants to be around us for a little while – but He is saying He wants us forever. It didn’t just cost Him time or some money spent at a craft store, it cost Him His life! When you stare at that, when you let the weight of what He did for you seep down to the bottom of your soul, it will stun you, and you will desire Him. And when you desire Him above all other things – you will change, internally, symmetrically, gradually and inevitably – you will change.