It’s taken me a long time to write this post. The enormous burden to communicate the heart of this passage has stifled me. In this passage, I believe, is the seldom understood reason why we bite and devour one another, and what we can do about it. While the answer may be obvious from the title, what it means to walk by the Spirit is less obvious, and much less practiced. In fact, because we do not keep a hold of our understanding, we often end up doing the very opposite.
Our understanding doesn’t hold together because of our cultural difficulty with context. We all too often lose the wonder of the forest in our desire to analyze the trees. We have made an art form of breaking it down, not realizing the deeper we dissect, the less we see of the body it was taken from. Death is necessary for anything dissected. It must be kept together to live
The Forest of Galatians
Galatians 3:3 (NAS): 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
The reason for the letter, which remains central throughout, is that the Galatians had been influenced to believe that having begun by faith, or by the Spirit, they would now be perfected by obedience to the law, or by the flesh. While they couldn’t be saved by their efforts to keep the commandments, they were bewitched to believe they could be perfected by keeping them.
The important connections Paul establishes between faith and the Spirit and between the law and the flesh, are held together throughout the letter. Having begun by hearing with faith is to have begun by the Spirit. And conversely, to be perfected by the law is to be perfected by the flesh.
The Desire of the Flesh
Galatians 5:16 (NAS): 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
That the desire of the flesh is to bite and devour one another is not hard to see. In contrast to biting and devouring, Paul offers the promise that if we walk by the Spirit we will not carry out the desire of the flesh. At minimum, we can indeed say that carrying out the desire of the flesh leads to biting and devouring one another.
What’s harder to see, yet vitally important, is the connection made between the desire of the flesh and living by the law. It’s important because, if true, our attempts to live in obedience to God’s law is precisely what Paul admonished as foolish, and will only lead to biting and devouring one another. Though it flies in the face of much of what we have been taught about the Christian life, I believe that’s precisely the heart of this passage.
I fully understand that a claim this big must be proven. How else can we be better if not by obedience? I also know that many will counter with the simple argument that this amounts to license to be disobedient, though nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t need a license to do what is our nature to do. Nonetheless, the burden is mine to prove.
Not Under Law
Galatians 5:18 (NAS): 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
Paul continues with an explanation for why the promise is true. If we walk by the Spirit, we will not carry out the desire of the flesh, because the Spirit and the flesh are in opposition to one another. They are not only passively against each other, but they both set their own desires against the other. The Spirit sets its desire against the flesh. And because we have both, and they are in opposition to one another, we don’t always do what we want to do.
So what are we to do? Though the flesh set its desire against the Spirit, the Spirit has also set its desire against the flesh. So Paul concludes in verse 18, as he did in verse 16, but with two differences. First, “walk by the Spirit” has been changed to “led by the Spirit.” Which seems to be in parallel and thus synonymous. Second, and in the same way, the “desire of the flesh” has been changed to “under law.” Which also seems to be in parallel and thus synonymous.
If I’m right, and I believe I’m on good grammatical ground, to carry out the desire of the flesh is to live under law. Just as to walk by the Spirit is to be led by the Spirit. If right, then Paul is arguing that our inability to get along is a result of our attempts to live in good relationship to God by obedience to His law. We bite and devour one another because we carry out the desire of the flesh, and we carry out the desire of the flesh because we are under law. The implications of that may be too big for one argument to be convincing.
No Law Against Fruit
Galatians 5:22–23 (NAS): 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Paul goes on to contrast the evident deeds of the flesh, with the not so evident fruit of the Spirit. It’s important to note that the flesh has deeds, but the Spirit has fruit. Deeds can be done, but you just can’t do fruit. Fruit must grow, and grow as a result of the Spirit. I believe the deeds and fruit contrast is purposefully chosen, because the works of the law can also be done, but it takes faith to wait for fruit to grow. We must wait in faith for it to grow in ourselves and in one another.
As wonderful as that thought is, however, I mustn’t get too far away from the point being made for those who desire to live by law. Paul is arguing that the deeds of those who desire to live by the law are evident. The strongest evidence for the connection between the flesh and the law is that we are free to bear the fruit of the Spirit because against such there is no law. While there is a law against immorality, there is no law against kindness. Yet tragically, we make it a law unto ourselves has we set out to do the fruit as if commanded.
How Then Do We Walk?
If we are led by the Spirit, we are not under law. While obedience is better than sacrifice and the blood of bulls and goats, it is not better than the sacrifice of Christ and the blood of the lamb of God. So we no longer walk by law, but by faith in the Son of God. We walk in faith that the one who began a good work in us, will finish it. He will finish it in us and in our brothers and sisters in Christ. So just as we stand in need of grace as the fruit grows, we extend much grace as the fruit grows in others.
People who have fixed themselves try to fix others. But the difference between the law and faith is the difference between being fixed and being forgiven. The way of the law is, “we can do better if we try harder.” The way of the forgiven is to walk in forgiveness. This walk is soaked in humility. This is not the deed of humility, it’s the essential nature that comes from reflecting on the truth of who you are in Christ and how you got there. We have all begun by grace through faith, and are being perfected by the same. This is what it means to walk by the Spirit.