Scripture: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I read a book called The Year of Less by Cait Flanders probably every year or two. It’s about how she one day realized that she had too much stuff, and bought too much stuff, and so spent a year not only getting rid of as much of her stuff as she could, but also not buying anything new (except, of course, food and other necessities).
And I come back to this book, not because of the stuff, per se, but because of what she realized once she stopped buying things and started getting rid of things.
What the year actually taught her was more than just how to donate her belongings and stop buying things she didn’t need. In this year, she had a break-up. She changed jobs. Her parents got divorced. And all of that forced her to see how she’d been filling holes with shopping, eating, drinking. Since she couldn’t shop, she was forced to see how she’d used shopping as a crutch in the past, and actually deal with her emotions.
And that is so relatable. How often do we do the same? I guess I won’t speak for you, but I know that I do this all the time. When I’m stressed, I’ll watch some TV so I don’t have to think about it; when I’m feeling extra sad, I’ll go buy myself a book or some yarn. When I’m feeling a little off, I want some ice cream or a visit to the library. Instead of feeling my emotions, instead of facing what’s going on, I want to do pretty much anything else to distract myself and feel a little better for a little while.
Paul tells us in Galatians that we are called to freedom, freedom in Christ. What does that mean? Look to list of works of the flesh to see the opposite of freedom: strife and jealousy, idolatry and drunkenness, envy and anger, and more. None of that is freedom. None of that is kindness or love.
But flesh isn’t wrong because it desires. It is not wrong to want food, or shelter, or friends. It’s not wrong, either, to want the comfort of a night in or a glass of wine at night. All of those things are things that we need to be healthy, and things that give us joy. Instead, flesh is wrong because it desires wrongly: that is, in it our deep desire for intimacy and connection with other human beings, we fornicate–we have one night stands or affairs–or we form factions so that we feel like beloved insiders and know that everyone is less important than our beloved group of “friends.” Sometimes when we long for joy, the only way we know to search for it is in partying, or drunkenness, or any other addiction that we have.
Just to be clear: I’m not saying that our bodies are inherently sinful, or the source of all our terrible desires. Neither was Paul. Paul uses the word “flesh” quite a lot, in our passage for today and in his writings in general. Often people have taken this to mean that our own flesh, our own bodies, are inherently sinful and terrible. That’s not true, and that’s not how Paul meant it. Instead, it’s a verbal shortcut, one that he uses repeatedly to refer to the ways of the world and worldly influences, everything from the worship of idols to a rabid desire for political power to, yes, things like drunkenness and promiscuity that are more directly linked to our bodies. But it’s much broader than that. It’s about all of the ways that we let sin take over, because it’s easier than facing ourselves. It’s all of the ways that we long for connection, long for intimacy, but don’t know how to do so, or haven’t done the inner work of being a good friend or partner, and so we treat the people around us terribly. It’s all the ways we are frustrated with our lives, or angry, or disappointed, but don’t know how to say it or what to do about it, and so instead we get angrier and angrier about all the little things. It’s all the ways we still haven’t faced our grief, or our hurt, or our own self-loathing, and so instead we eat our feelings, or numb them out with television every night. It’s every single way that we do things on auto-pilot because it’s easier than thinking about all the hard parts of our life–that, that, is how we are not free. That is how we have given up on our freedom.
It’s like Cait Flanders discovered: if we don’t pay attention, we will do whatever, and be left with a bunch of junk and memories that we never wanted in the first place. But it’s also more than that: because, in search for fulfillment or joy or peace or anything else in the things around us, in shopping and eating and drinking and relationships, we forget that it’s impossible. Jesus is the one who offers us freedom, and no one or nothing else truly does.
And because Jesus is the one who frees us, we know too that our freedom is about more than no longer going on shopping sprees. It’s about more than mindful consumption or being a better friend. Paul is pretty clear; “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” We are given freedom so that we can help and love others, so that we can stop getting sidetracked by our own baggage and instead see the needs of the people around us.
Through the grace of God, may we all find the freedom Christ offers us, and love those around us.