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The Spirit's Opposite
June 29, 1980

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


I imagine all of us here this morning want to be happy. I doubt if there are too many of us here today who do not want to be happy, although there are many people who structure their lives to make happiness impossible even though consciously or out loud, they say they want to be happy. With this almost universal desire to be happy, are there times when you look at yourself, or your marriage, or your family, or your job, your vocation, and you feel depressed, discouraged and disillusioned? Then you ask, “What happened? I wonder what happened.” 

Perhaps you are using the wrong methods, and the wrong goal. In our Epistle lesson today from the fifth chapter of Galatians, Paul lists what the Holy Spirit brings into our lives, qualities that most of us want—we want for ourselves, we want for our homes, we want for our marriages. Listen to this list: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self control. A person with those qualities must be happy. A person with those qualities must know contentment and fulfillment. Imagine what our home would be like, imagine what our marriage would be like with love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, kindness, trustfulness. What happens? Why do we not achieve these things? Why are they so elusive? Why don't they just happen? Why aren't they more present in our lives? Why? 

Perhaps we're using the wrong methods. The Spirit of God is not the only force at work in our lives. There is an opposite force. Perhaps sometimes we get the two mixed up. Imagine taking out the map and following all the roads to get to Sacramento, and when you get to Sacramento, you're very unhappy, because where you really wanted to go was Fresno. You get discouraged, depressed and frustrated. What happened to my life? All I wanted to do is go to Fresno and I end up in Sacramento. Or you plant a lemon tree. You water it, fertilize it and nurture it and expect to get oranges. How upset, how frustrating, how discouraging and depressing it is to pick lemons when you really wanted oranges! 

How often the things of God that we desire—happiness, joy, peace and fulfillment we want out of life—and we get discouraged, upset and frustrated when we don't get them because we had the wrong roadmap. We had the wrong goal. We used the wrong method. You can't get orange juice out of lemon trees. You can't get to Fresno when you take the road to Sacramento. 

Well, what is the opposite of the Holy Spirit? What is the Spirit’s opposite? Why do we have so much in our lives, in our homes and in the world that we really don't want? Paul tells us in Galatians 5:17. Self-indulgence is the opposite of the Spirit. The Spirit is totally against such a thing. It is precisely because the two are so opposed, you do not always carry out your good intentions. Good intentions are not carried out and are not fulfilled because the roadmap you’re taking is to yourself and not to God. Self-indulgence is the opposite of the Spirit. The Greek word is “sarx”. In the various Bibles it's translated differently. The King James version translated it as the “lust of the flesh”. Lust of the flesh is the opposite of the Spirit. The Revised Standard Version translates this word as the “desires of the flesh”. The Good News translation uses the phrase “desires of our human nature”. But the Jerusalem Bible, which many scholars today feel is the most correct translation we have, uses the phrase “self-indulgence”. Lust of the flesh or the desires of the flesh are old ways of saying self-indulgence. An even more updated colloquial, relevant translation would be “me first”. Someone said Americans used to cry, “Give me liberty.” Now too many of us cry, “Give me!” “Look out for number one. If you don't, nobody else will.” Look out for yourself. The first question asked, the first response given to any question or challenge is what’s in it for me? 

Me First, Paul says, is the root opposite of the Holy Spirit. Me First is what is bringing down upon us, 5:19: sexual irresponsibility, feuds, wrangling, arguing, jealousy, bad temper, quarreling, factions, envy, drunkenness, and so forth. You wonder why you find in yourself, you wonder why you find in your home or in your marriage, jealousy, wrangling, arguing, fighting divisions, factions, sexual irresponsibility, drunkenness and so forth. You wonder why they are present? Self-indulgence, Paul says. Do you believe that the concept of Me First is the root of all our troubles, the concept of Me First is the root of sin? How many nations in the world practice Me First! And we see the results. 

Taylor Caldwell in her novel Bright Flows the River has a good description of what a person is like who practices, who is caught up, who's victimized by Me First. Taylor Caldwell is not a favorite author of mine, I need to say that in parentheses, she makes me too angry. But she does have a good definition of self-indulgence. She writes, “Fools are concentrated on themselves. All the rest of the world is only a reflection in the mirror of their profound self absorption and belief in their own importance. Nothing authentic exists for them. They have no values, no dedication beyond their own walls, no meditations, they aren't alive.” That's a very extreme case of Me First—a person who can only think of himself, a person who cannot identify with another person, whose conversations are always superficial and shallow, a person who cannot relate to another's pain or another's anguish. And when someone around them suffers, when someone around them hurts, they look at it solely in terms of what will that do to them. What will that do to my situation in my future? They look completely at the world through the lens of Me First. That's a pretty extreme case. 

Let me tell you about one that perhaps relates more to us. I remember having a conversation with a man in his mid 40s who was going through the midlife crisis. He didn't know it, but he was going through it. Many men, if not all, go through midlife crises and look back on their lives, and wonder what they've accomplished. They wonder what the future is going to be. They wonder what they're doing, where they are. Their whole life's in turmoil. Many times that's when they get divorced. They have affairs and they make fools out of themselves. This man was going through this kind of a struggle. He was particularly concerned about his work, his marriage and his family. He said, “I'm just not happy. I'm just not happy anymore.” So we talked about his teenage children—what responsibility he had to them. He said, “I know all that.” But then he asked this very pathetic question, “Where do I fit in? When do I do something just for me, just for my pleasure?” What a pathetic question. 

When you're married, when you have a wife, when you have children, you are not first. You’re probably third, fourth, fifth, way down the line. If you don't want to be third, fourth, or fifth, don't get married. If anybody wants a wife and children, don't expect to be first. Don't expect to do things just for your own pleasure. God is first, your wife is second, your children are third. Somewhere responsibility to the job and the vocation has to come in there. But, way down the list is you. Hopefully in a healthy marriage, the wife also realizes she's not first, she's not second, that she's third and fourth, or fifth. When you have people working together who put the other one first, then you have your needs met. When together you’re serving Christ, then you have your needs met. Hopefully in that whole process of negotiating, of seeking to meet one another's needs, one's own fulfillment and satisfactions are met. 

Self-indulgence, says Paul, Me First, is what causes jealousy, envy, anger, arguments, quarreling, disruption and destruction. And so Paul says, “Let the spirit direct your life.” Verse 16, “If you are guided by the Spirit, you will be in no danger of yielding to self-indulgence.” Then you will “serve one another, then you will love your neighbor as yourself.” In Romans 6:16, Paul describes the relationship, “You know that if you agree to serve and obey a master, you become a slave.” 6:22, “Now, however, you have been set free from sin, you have been made slaves of God, slaves of God.” That ancient imagery isn't too relevant to us in 20th century America. We don't have masters and slaves. 

I find more meaningful the image of priorities. Get priorities straight. Decide in your life who is first. When Christ is first, then the Spirit can direct. In every decision, ask the question, “What does Christ want me to do? What is the Christian thing to do?” And then ask, “How can I best serve my wife, my husband, my family?” Then ask about yourself. Hopefully by that time that question is irrelevant because in loving neighbor, serving one another, and serving God, one's own personal satisfactions and needs are met. What has resulted is love joy, peace, gentleness and kindness. 

Let the Holy Spirit direct your life for if me is first, you get what you ask for!

© 1980 Douglas I. Norris