Metrics. Every organization, it seems, has them now. I’m not talking about kilometers, kilograms, liters, and degrees centigrade. We tried all that here in America in the late 1970s, and it never really caught on. No, I’m talking about the numbers that fill in the blanks of reports, the numbers that are used to assess performance, effectiveness, profitability, and other indicators of corporate functioning. Even my school, Ashland Theological Seminary, in compliance with the Department of Education, has gone far in the direction of creating metrics. We come up with percentages of students attaining this or that learning outcome, with measurements of student satisfaction, with measurements of graduation and employment rates, all for the sake of giving a snapshot of our performance to accrediting agencies and proving that we are doing some kind of assessment to ensure the quality and effectiveness of our educational programs.
These measurements—these metrics—provide hard data for assessing the performance and effectiveness of a given activity. But they don’t touch on (in any direct way at least) another set of measurements, metrics, that seem to matter even more for how God would assess the performance and effectiveness of a church and of each of that congregation’s individual disciples. Paul gives us one expression of these divine metrics in our passage from Galatians:
Make it a habit to walk by the Spirit, and you will certainly not fulfill what the flesh desires. For the flesh yearns against what the Spirit desires, and the Spirit against what the flesh desires, for these stand opposed to one another in order that you may not do whatever you might want. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you are not under Torah. And the works born of the flesh are clearly evident: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these. Concerning these things I tell you in advance, just as I warned you before: those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit produced by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance, self-control. Against such things there is no law. And those who are Christ’s own crucified the flesh along with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep falling in step with the Spirit. (Gal 5:16–25)
What is of paramount importance to God—so Paul seems to think—is whether our behavior, in private and in public, in our homes and congregations and workplaces, shows that the “flesh” is driving us or that the “Spirit” is driving us, that we are giving mastery of ourselves over to the “flesh” or to the “Spirit.”
By “flesh,” Paul does not mean the meat that clings to our bones. Paul uses this word to name the bundle of self-centered, self-serving impulses and drives that keep us falling short of God’s vision for us as God’s new creation—God’s vision for us as individuals and as a community of faith. The flesh is the “old person,” the person we once were, the person from whom Christ died to save us, reasserting itself, trying to stop the new creation from coming about in us because that new creation means the death of the old creature. It is the Ego with a capital “E,” trying to establish itself again on the throne of our lives because it doesn’t want to be denied and it doesn’t want to die. And Paul gives us clear metrics here. We know that the flesh is driving us—and that we are sowing to the flesh—when we see its works in us and among us. And these works are, as Paul says, obvious indeed when they show up: “sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these.”
The alternative to dredging up these flesh-driven works is to keep handing ourselves over to the Spirit, to become soil that is continuously cultivated by the Spirit such that the Spirit can produce its fruit in and among us. By “Spirit,” Paul is not talking about our rational or better self, but the Holy Other who is wholly other—the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God’s Son, who has invaded us in our baptism and seeks to pervade us in every situation, so that we are both driven and empowered by this Spirit to do and to become what is righteous and beautiful in God’s sight.
Paul introduces today’s reading with a marvelous promise: “Keep walking in line with and in the power of the Spirit, and there’s no way that you’ll bring what the flesh craves into being” (Gal 5:16). Christ did not die on our behalf to leave us caught between two opposite but equal powers, to be torn and continue to vacillate between the two. Christ died on our behalf to gain for us that divine power that could break the hold of the flesh over us and over our interactions together. God has put it within our grasp to live out there—and to live with one another in here, even in our committee meetings!—in such a manner as consistently manifests the fruit of the Spirit, such that we continue to allow God to clothe us with love, joy, peaceful relationships, patience, generosity toward others, goodness, steadfast reliability, forbearance, and self-control. If we all together seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for whatever ministry, committee, or group of which we are a part here—the leading of the Holy Spirit, not the leading of our own inner sense of what needs to happen and our frustration, then impatience, then anger with the other people here who get in our way—the outcome must be that we will proceed in all things together harmoniously.
This post is adapted from In Season and Out: Sermons for the Christian Year by David A. deSilva (Lexham Press, 2019).