Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I’m going to hurt as many people and do as much damage as I can”, unless they are mentally deranged. Usually we don’t even think about how we are going to live our day, but if we did we’d think something like “I’m going to try to be nice to people, to do my job well, to keep the environment safe”.
Yet if we look back at the end of a day we are more than likely to think “I wasn’t very nice to X, I did that bit of work badly, I didn’t need to drive so fast”. And most like as not, we would then justify our actions in our head to make us feel better, “He caught me at a bad moment, I was late for lunch and wasn’t given time to do a good job, that idiot in front of me was dawdling and I needed to get home.” But we have let ourselves down. We have not been the person we want to be, or could be. And when we find ourselves doing the same thing every day we avoid thinking about it, and are likely to get angry if someone points it out to use.
There is a better way. There is a way to be the people we want to be. And it starts with understanding what’s going on. An ancient letter written by Saul of Tarsus helps to enlighten us:
Within us we have two ‘natures’. We have our ‘sinful nature’ and we have our ‘spirit’.
Out sinful nature is that part of us which clamours ‘me, me, me’ all the time. Its roots are in the animal instinct that successfully evolved us to survive when everything else was out to eat us, and where if we didn’t grab something for ourselves then something else would. It is the instinct which leads a lion to defend its territory, the instinct which leads a gerbil to eat its young if there is not enough food, the instinct that leads the black widow spider to eat its mate. It is the instinct that leads us to crave riches, to accumulate wealth beyond what we can ever use. It is the instinct which says that the human beings in my tribe are more important than the human beings in yours.
And then there is our spirit. Our spirit is revolted by the idea of eating our young; we know that we should not eat our babies. It is our spirit which leads us to help and to make sacrifices for those who are suffering: looking out for those shielding in the Covid crisis, giving to food banks, marching in Black Lives Matter rallies, campaigning to save the environment. Our spirit calls us to love, and to goodness.
The ancient letter describes the consequences of following each ‘nature’. Obeying the spirit leads to life and peace. But giving in to our sinful nature leads to death; death of love, death of peace, death of goodness. We become filled with anger, guilt, bitterness, self-pity, depression and despair.
We are slaves to whatever we choose to obey. But many are not willing to make that choice. We flip flop between doing what we know is right and good, and giving in to our selfish ‘lusts’. And we live in a constant state of dissatisfaction and guilt. We strive for more wealth, but it doesn’t satisfy. And at the same time we wish that injustice would go away; “how can we have food-banks in our country?”
Even if we were to say ‘I choose to obey the spirit, to love and to be good’ we would still find ourselves failing. And at the end of the day we would be full of guilt and shame, and like as not we would give up. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. We need help.
And there is help available, and hope. If we have made that decision to obey the spirit, and we do sinful or selfish things then the ancient letter tells us that it is not us that does them, but the sinful nature within us. It is just that our spirit is not strong enough. We need to strengthen our spirit, to resist the temptations to give up. And we can do that.
The spirit within us is a bit like a battery, it has power but only a limited amount. We need to plug into the mains. We need to connect our spirit battery to the mains supply of the spirit that is called the Holy Spirit; an inexhaustible supply of love and goodness – God. Then the power of sin can be broken. And how do we connect? We ask. We speak with God; we pray.
And we also need to reinforce our decision by focusing on what is good, by giving honour and praise to goodness and love – resisting out sinful nature telling us not to be a ‘goody-goody’. We remind ourselves of the importance and value of self-sacrificial love. In a word, we need to worship love and goodness.
We may still do sinful things, but we can plug back in to the mains, pick ourselves up and start again. We do that by ‘repenting’; an old fashioned word that means wishing that we hadn’t done it and committing to try again. Part of repenting is accepting and confessing that we’ve sinned. Then we receive forgiveness for what we did wrong and be re-energised to follow the spirit again. We know that we receive forgiveness because Jesus – God – said that we are to forgive, and so we know that he will forgive us. And if we are particularly stubborn about accepting that love and goodness (God) would forgive us, then we look at Jesus’s crucifixion; he gave himself as the ritual sacrifice that the Jewish people believed carried off their sins. And we look at his resurrection – showing that those sins had been dealt with.
When we deliberately choose to obey the spirit, it is empowering. We do things that please the spirit, and it makes us feel alive. It brings us peace. We take joy in the good that we do, and we are able to actively love others.
Think of people you know. Can you recognise any who are obeying and following the spirit? It is written that “By their fruit they will be known”. Fruit that you might look out for are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Wouldn’t we all like to be like that?
We can be!