When I was in Bible college, I took a course on Biblical Greek. It was not required. I could have graduated without it (although, for the record, I would have then received a B.S. in Pastoral Ministry, which just didn’t seem like a great idea). And to be honest, I seriously contemplated not taking it so I could pursue a minor in computer science. Four semesters of studying dipthongs and conjugations later, though, that class was probably the single most significant learning experience in my life. Certainly, it was the most significant learning experience in my college career. And probably the single most significant learning experience of that Greek class, for me, was the fourth-semester major hermeneutics project we were assigned. I was assigned Galatians 5:16-26, and as I studied and translated and dug into it, I began to realize some of the astounding depth, nuance, and implication which Paul’s words to the churches in Galatia represented. Ever since then, it has been quite possibly my favorite single passage of Scripture. And when I began my word study of “joy,” even before I ran the first searches that would define the course of my search, I was very much looking forward to revisiting the passage to see what I could find. As I encounter it today, I find the entire passage challenging. And here’s why.

My natural desire is to do things that are directly contrary to experiencing real, lasting joy. In vs 17, we see that “the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh.” The flesh was, to the Greek-speaking mind, the essence of humanity. Broken. Flawed. Weak. Sinful. And the Spirit, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit, the third Person of our triune God. My essence as a human desires things that are contrary to the things that God wants for me. In other words, since I know that God wants me to have life abundantly and what’s absolutely best for me, and an integral component of each of these is joy, I want things which will naturally inhibit joy. But it’s not quite that neat. I mean, if it was simple resistance to joy, it would be like a little friction. You can overcome it if you work hard enough and still get to joy. But that’s not what Paul says. He says that “these are opposed to each other.” The Greek word rendered by the HCSB “opposed to” can actually be translated “warring against.” It means that the two are mutually exclusive, but also that they are actively trying to destroy the other. In other words, the stuff my body and I naturally want are constantly trying to overcome, expel, and eradicate what the Spirit wants. So the stuff that I am naturally inclined to do is completely contrary to a life of joy. But what kind of stuff is that?

Fortunately, Paul provides a list of behaviors which are included in the “works of the flesh.” In fact, he classifies them as “obvious.” The list includes “sexual immorality,” which, for the record, included in Paul’s mind any sexual activity outside of the bounds of a marriage between one man and one woman. In case that wasn’t enough, he added “moral impurity,” which would include, according to Strong’s “impurity of lustful, luxurious, profligate living,” “impure motives,” or physical uncleanness. Not in the sense of getting muddy, but in the sense that you’re doing things that make you unpresentable to God. Then there is “promiscuity.” “Idolatry” would include making anything more important than God. “Sorcery” would cover incantations and such, but also a lot of drug use (which was a common component of sorcery). “Hatred, strife, jealousy, [and] outbursts of anger” seem plain enough. “Selfish ambitions” is where you pursue what you want over anything else. “Dissensions” is where you argue just for the sake of arguing. I.e., you’re a contrary person. “Factions” is similar, but where you escalate it to recruiting a team to do it with you and pick a fight with others. “Envy” is the decision that you want something that belongs to someone else, and you’re going to get it one way or another. “Drunkenness” is blatant. And “carousing” is defined by Strong’s as “a nocturnal and riotous procession of half drunken and frolicsome fellows who after supper parade through streets with torches and music in honour of Bacchus or some other deity, and sing and play before houses of male and female friends.” In other words, it’s drunken, riotous, revelry. A.k.a., partying.

Here’s what gets me, though. This list is not exhaustive. In fact, if we read verse 21, Paul added this to the end of the thing just to make it clear: “…and anything similar” (HCSB). That is a powerful reminder that Satan doesn’t need to haul us off into the land of the utter “sinner” to sideline us. I mean, I know that I’ve been guilty of many of the things on this list, but this last bit – “anything similar” – reminds me that, if my actions and attitudes and motives even have things in common with this stuff, I’m in trouble. My joy will be sapped. No, opposed. Warred against. And frankly, that’s a bit scary.

Fortunately, though, Paul doesn’t believe we must be dominated by these desires and works of the flesh. Instead, he starts verse 22 with a powerful word: “But…”

All this is true, but there is hope! There is a chance! There is an alternative to these desires and works of the flesh which war against God and life and joy!

And that alternative is “the fruit of the Spirit.” Every time I read that phrase, it strikes me. Because every time, I am reminded that this is a singular thing. It’s like an apple has a peel, the actual meat of the fruit, the core, the seeds, and the stem. The fruit of the Spirit has nine equal parts: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self control.”

In other words, if I will allow the Holy Spirit to have complete control over my life – to push back and overcome the desires of the flesh – then joy will be the fruit. The product. The natural outcome.

Because isn’t that what fruit is? It’s the natural outcome. The apple tree doesn’t have to be taught to bear apples. The cherry tree doesn’t have to be coerced to produce cherries. The orange tree automatically makes oranges. Yeah, it might take some time. That’s certainly true. But sooner or later, an apple tree just bears apples, a cherry tree just produces cherries, an orange tree just produces oranges, and a life yielded to the Holy Spirit just yields joy.

If I want to maximize my joy, then, I need to oppose at every turn the desires of the flesh and yield at every opportunity to the Holy Spirit. Paul described it like this: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Crucified. Talk about an absolute stance. That stuff has to be dead. And we have to be the ones to kill it. And then he adds, “We must follow the Spirit.” It means obedience to the things of God. It means inviting the presence and power of the Spirit. It means remaining in – and in relationship with – Jesus. It excludes conceit and pride. It expels provocation and anger and gossip and more. And it has nothing to do with envy or any of the other works of the flesh.

If I want joy, I need to get rid of all that other stuff and do everything in my power to open my life and heart to the Spirit. Because just like an apple tree doesn’t produce cherries or oranges or pickles, none of that other stuff can bring joy. Only the Spirit will bring real, maximum joy. So if I want joy, I need more Spirit. End of story.


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