“Called to freedom” (August 6, 2023)

How do we know we're doing good? Rose Schrott Taylor looks at Galatians 5:13-26.

Outlook Standard Lesson for August 6, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Galatians 5:13-26

55 burgers

In my younger sister’s role as my cultural translator for Gen Z, she recently turned me on to “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson,” a Netflix sketch comedy with 15-minute episodes of absurdist (at times, obscene) humor.

An episode from the latest season opens with Robinson picking up his order from a fast-food drive-thru. As he checks out, he offers to pay for the person behind him. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe it will catch on.”

Cut to Robinson racing, tires screeching, around the building. Arriving at the microphone box, he screams his order: “55 burgers, 55 fries, 55 tacos, 55 pies, 55 Cokes, 100 tater tots, 100 pizzas, 100 tenders, 100 meatballs, 100 coffees, 55 wings, 55 shakes, 55 pancakes, 55 pastas, 55 peppers, 155 tater tots.”

He paid for the meal of the man behind him to start a pay-it-forward chain — and then attempted to use it to his advantage.

The scene devolves as the driver in front of Robinson realizes the plan. But I thought of this snippet as I read today’s passage in Galatians. As adults, we know that our decisions have consequences. But how often do we think about the motivations behind our actions? Even acts of kindness, like a pay-it-forward chain, can be used in a way that is self-serving. Using the language of Paul, how can we tell the difference between freedom and flesh? Sometimes, they appear the same.

Self-sacrificial freedom

I struggle with today’s central verse: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another” (Galatians 5:13, NRSV).

The word “slave” carries deep meaning for us — we can’t help but see the word through the lens of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the history of White supremacy. I find Eugene Peterson’s modern translation to be helpful at getting to the heart of Paul’s message: “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.”

In America, we associate freedom with independence. However, the freedom Paul writes about here is different. It’s more honest. True freedom is impossible. We all have goals or values that govern our choices. In large strokes, Paul is communicating that we can either seek to love others or love ourselves. When we choose to put ourselves first, we follow what Paul calls the “flesh” — a term indicating the parts of the self that function in opposition to God (compare Galatians 3:3; Romans 6:12-14; 7:5, 18).

Yet, Paul writes in verse 15, when we seek freedom by doing solely what benefits us, we will experience corruption that creates a chain of destruction (compare Proverbs 30:14; James 3:14–4:2; Psalm 14:4; 57:4). The only way to live a life that truly generates goodness is to follow God’s way, which is a way of love (see 1 John 4) — and therefore, self-sacrifice (see John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 13).

Because we live in a world where God’s kingdom has come but is not yet complete, we will fall short of the lofty goal of aligning our desires to God’s. Luckily, we can trust the Spirit to regenerate our hearts (see Ezekiel 36:26-27), placing them on a path in tune with God’s character and desires. Remaining on this path is a matter of consistently doing life together with the Spirit, learning from and being empowered by God to follow our Creator (compare John 14:16-17; 15:1-8; Romans 8:5-17).

How do we know we’re doing good?

Choosing to live a life aligned with God’s desires requires constant discernment — are we starting a pay-it-forward chain because we want to benefit or because we want to share God’s mercy? One tool of discernment that Paul suggests (following Jesus’ example in Matthew 7:16-20) is to look at the fruit of our actions (vv. 24-25). A life that bears fruit reflecting God’s character is a life lived by the power of the Spirit.

I would add an additional, more contemplative way that I’ve found to be helpful in my own life: St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen. Ignatius, a 16th-century Catholic priest, acknowledged the basic human need to seek meaning. He suggested we can discern God in the ordinary with the help of two daily questions: Where did I experience God today? Where did I feel God’s absence?

Thus, with patience, with observance, with introspection, we may begin to pick up on the minute, spectacular movements of God all around us – beckoning us to come and join in the divine work of creating goodness.

God doesn’t expect perfection from us — after all, that would make us God and not human. But I think it brings God joy when we demonstrate intentionality. Are we aligned with God? Do we generate goodness? What do our actions show? Perhaps a little reflection here will lead to greater wisdom and with that wisdom, true freedom.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Where did you experience God today? Where did you feel God’s absence?
  2. Compare the freedom that’s referenced in American culture to the freedom Paul writes about. Where do you find the truth?
  3. What are some other ways that we can align ourselves to God’s spirit?

Want to receive worship-related content in your inbox on Mondays? Sign up here.