Reflecting on Galatians 5 15-23

How are we to put Paul’s insight about the “fruit of the Spirit” into practice? What is entailed in being “led by the Spirit”? This seems like a vital question in relation to Galatians 5:15-23, the text we are studying for Sunday, May 29. [Some notes on the text are here.] Before we delve into this practical question, however, we might want to spend some time on a couple of other preliminary questions:

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Do we understand verse 16 – “do not gratify the desires of the flesh” – to mean that we should not, for instance, eat when we are hungry or drink when we are thirsty, or adjust the thermostat when we feel too warm or too cold? [People have understood it this way.] Or do we understand it in some other way? However we understand it, what seem to be the practical implications of that understanding?

[More personal] What do we ourselves do to follow through on the practical implications of our understanding of this text?

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Verses 16-17 describe the problem facing the Galatians (and, by extension, other Christians, like us) as a conflict of desire: the “desires of the flesh” are opposed to the “desire of the spirit.” How do we understand this opposition?

What ARE the desires of the flesh, and how do we think they are related to the “works of the flesh” listed in verses 19-21? [It might be a worthwhile exercise to take the items on the list in verses 19-21, and see if we can see how they are related to some desire or desires. Does desire, or some desires, lead to, or produce, or result in, each of these works? Or, is desire related to these works in some other way?]

What IS the desire of the Spirit, do we think? How is that desire related to the “fruit of the Spirit”? [Again – can we understand the items on the list of “fruit of the Spirit” as the product of desire? What desire? Or, are they related to the desire of the Spirit in some other way?]

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Do we understand Paul to be telling us that gratifying the desires of the flesh interferes with life in the Spirit, and prevents the development of the fruit of the Spirit? Again, what seem to be the practical implications of this point of view?

What thoughts and feelings does Paul’s presentation here raise for us? Why is that? [For instance, do we agree with Paul here? Do we have objections to this way seeing things, or see any downside to it? Would we want to qualify or modify Paul’s statement here in any way? Why?]

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[Much more personal] Do we ourselves feel we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires? How are we ourselves doing, on that score?

Would we say we are working on that? How? Or, not? Why?

Would we say this is something to work on? Why, or why not?

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Image: “Figures in Conversation – Étaples,” Leslie Hunter, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

3 responses to “Reflecting on Galatians 5 15-23”

  1. I appreciate your questions; they give a useful approach to a difficult passage. I personally find Paul’s thinking perplexing here. He seems overly binary and more steeped in Platonism than Torah. “Sarx is bad” is not a Jewish idea. The physical is affirmed in Judaism. So why the shift here to an almost Manichaean dualism? What’s the deal, Paul?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Steve – appreciate it. I agree, and yet I think I was taught not to think Paul really thought this way – that is, that “we” over-read the binary into Paul – so, “he didn’t mean it THAT way.” Plus there is the whole problem of trying not to relapse back into the whole “Torah bad / faith good” dichotomy that Christians just seem to have been addicted to for so long … I love the fruit of the Spirit, but it is not really a simple idea.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well that’s why I wrestle with this passage. Am I imposing a binary that Paul didn’t intend or is Paul shifting his thinking? And you are absolutely right about avoiding the whole “Torah bad/faith good” dichotomy. I am so grateful for Amy-Jill Levine’s correctives in this matter. She has given me a whole new appreciation for Torah, an appreciation that was (perhaps somewhat oddly) reinforced by Ched Myers’ analysis of Mark in Binding the Strong Man. You’re also right that the fruit of the Spirit is a much more complex idea than a simple reading would suspect. Start with the fact that in the Greek it’s fruit, singular. Not fruits. Which is how we say it too— a collective singular as in “the fruit of the apple” meaning all apples. Where it get more nuanced, though, is that Paul goes on to name all the individual apples. Anyway, thank you for taking the time to respond. I always enjoy conversation with someone who is looking below the surface and weighing the words.

        Liked by 1 person

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