As I mentioned last week, the Bible is full of agricultural images, beginning with God as a joyful Gardener. Paul picks up similar metaphors to describe our life in Christ.
Our new life begins with the planting of the Seed, that is Christ (Gal. 3:16). This ultimate Gift is given us at Baptism, but like all the gifts received through the Sacraments, we must cooperate with them, or in theological language "be disposed" for the grace of the sacraments. We must cooperate with the gifts God gives us for this Seed to "be activated," to leave its latency and become the mature Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) which we can harvest and share (Gal 6:6-9).
This supernatural process (like the natural one) can only come fully and fruitfully when something dies. Jesus states it succinctly "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and DIES, it remains alone, BUT IF IT DIES IT MUST BEAR FRUIT" (John 12:24).
Let me make it more personal. You have heard the phrase "everything I ever needed to know, I learned in kindergarten." I remember when I was instructed to bring three beans to class for a special experiment. They were unremarkable beans, ones you can buy at any grocery store in an ordinary bag. By all appearances, they are dead - hard and dry. My teacher provided a little Styrofoam cup and some soil. I planted my lima beans in the soil, placed it in the sunny window seal and attentively watered the proper amount at the proper time. To my delight, a little green shoot appeared. They were magic beans, I thought, just like Jack and the Beanstalk. How else could life come from that hard and dry bean?
Something like this happens in the spiritual realm. Christ in us is like the latent life hidden in that seed that is activated by the proper conditions and will burst the dry husk to grow with gusto. But if it is to come forth and flourish, the husk of our old way of life and thinking must fall away. Paul clearly describes what that husk looks like in the chapters leading up to the characteristics of life in the Spirit. He calls that old shell of a life, that husk, the "works of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).
Let’s consider Paul’s context and language here, especially in comparison with the Fruit of the Spirit. Listen to Paul’s description,
"Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:19-21).
Maybe, like me, you are tempted to treat this as a checklist, quickly ticking off all of the sins that you are not guilty of committing. Sometimes a different translation that simultaneously gets at the heart of the original language of the text and puts it into a clearly modern vernacular, can reach us in ways that others cannot.
Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation of these same verses,
"It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn't the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God's kingdom. "
While I didn’t see much of myself in the first list (I am not a sorcerer, for example), I do find myself wincing at Peterson’s translation. It convicts me of the many ways I may not cooperate with the Holy Spirit. It’s worth reading slowly and reflectively. I find it a helpful examination of conscience.
Let me say a word about the phrase "works of the flesh." The fact Paul uses the plural "works" versus the singular "fruit" of the Spirit is significant. "Works" are purely human activities, and not only diverse but divisive (divisions were a very real problem in the Galatian Church and the direct result of living according to the flesh and not under the control of the Holy Spirit). On the other hand, there is a single fruit to emphasize unity and the intimate connection of each of the characteristics in the Spirit-filled life (more about this later).
The term "flesh" in Paul’s writing is significant. There are two Greek words Paul will use that are translated "flesh" in our English Bibles. The first is "soma" and is generally used to describe our physical bodies. The second term "sarx" is most often used to describe a life that ignores or resists the freedom God offers us in Christ. The term "sarx" literally means the pieces of skin that were stripped from a dead animal. To help me remember this, whenever Paul uses the term "flesh" in Galatians 5, I cross it out and write "carcass" because that gets to the heart of Paul’s usage. He is not referring to our physical bodies, but the part of us that resists grace - the dead, stinking part of us. That part of us has to die for the fruit of the Spirit to reach its full maturity and be harvested and shared. This part of us doesn’t die easily. The quickest way to eliminate it is to cooperate with the Christ life within us.
Let me give a personal example. Growing up with a verbally abusive stepfather, I developed a deep anger and resentment towards him. I couldn’t love him or even respect him. When I became a Christian in my early 20s, I returned to live with him for about 6 months. God began to convict me of my long history of hatred and the still-present resentment of my stepfather’s behavior. I knew it was impossible for me to love him, but my faith taught me that God loved him without condition. If that God lived in me, then he could love my father through me. That became my prayer, "Father, I can’t love him. You love him beyond measure. Please, love him through me in concrete ways, and help me to grow in my love for him." Within a few months, I was able to fully and truthfully love my stepfather. It completely transformed our relationship. He treated me with respect and our relationship continued to grow over the next decade until he died. As I cooperated with the new life in me, the old ways of thinking and behaving fell away.
This is how we experience the true freedom that the Spirit-led life can offer. In our next post I will give some tangible ways to cultivate the Seed of Christ within us, providing the optimal conditions for growth.
Thomas Smith was a Protestant minister who was received into the Catholic Church in 1996. Thomas is a repeat guest on EWTN and Catholic radio as well as a sought after parish mission and conference speaker, and an international presenter for the Great Adventure Bible Timeline. Smith is the former Director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and the Denver Catechetical School and now lives on his family ranch in southeastern Idaho where he farms and writes.