Saturday, January 30, 2010

"What are the things of the Spirit", continued

Matthew Henry’s interpretation worries me, because I don’t know that my thoughts move most often with pleasure to the welfare of my soul and the concerns of eternity. When I was in high school and liked very much to read plays, it was really a terrible difficulty to me, the thought that to really give my heart and mind entirely to Christ I would need to give up thinking about and liking Tom Stoppard, because I would just need to think about God all the time. When I am at work with a lot of manual labor to do in which my mind is left to its own devices for a couple hours, I could pray or listen to sermons or sing worship, but to be honest I don’t usually want to do any of those things, and would rather listen to novels. Does this mean that I am not setting my mind on the things of the Spirit? Is it evidence that my flesh is not being conformed to the life of God, that the graft is not taking?

It might, but I think that here we run back into question 2, about whether “walking according to the Spirit” consisted of discrete thoughts and actions. And I concluded that it does but it doesn’t… the actions and thoughts are the outward signs of the inward life..essentially, the only importance of a thought or action is in its motivation, from or against God. And so, if I read Tom Stoppard because I love God and want to further appreciate the depth of His creation and the beauty of His order, I am still setting my mind on the things of the Spirit. As Matthew Henry says, “Which way go our plans and contrivances?” It’s the direction of the action that matters, not the action itself.

But this doesn’t bring us any closer to answering the question of “what are the things of the Spirit?” I don’t know if it can be answered, because the Spirit is a Person. I think I can only know what they are by knowing Him and asking Him all the time. This makes sense with the interesting phrase, “walk according to the Spirit,” and with the beautiful image in Psalm 119 of the law as a path. When you walk “according to a path” you “set your mind on the things of the path” in that you don’t just start at the beginning, have in your head an idea of the end, and think about it. You pay attention to where the path is going during the whole journey. To “set your mind on the things of the Spirit” is to know the Spirit, and ask Him, where do I go and what do I do?

But this is kind of simplistic, because we all know that we can’t usually just ask him, Spirit, what’s the direction, and we hear a voice in our ears saying, go left. And it’s way better than that too! Because I really do believe that as he works in us, we are transformed. I think if I study and obey the word, and as I ask him where we should go and do it, by his mercy I really am a little bit changed into the sort of person whose will is in line with his and who wants what he wants… that is, my mind becomes a little more set on “the things of the Spirit.”

So here we are again, just like on question 2! I started out with works, but ended up with grace! Yes, to set our minds on the things of the Spirit is something that we do and needs conscious action and intention on our part, but its source and direction is this abstract and incomprehensible gift, the gift of life through the Spirit.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Question #3: What are the "things of the Spirit"?

Those who are in the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are in the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

This is stated like a natural law, almost. But what are those "things of the Spirit" to which we should (or, if you read it like that, DO) set our minds? Here's what Matthew Henry has to say about it, in his commentary on Romans 8:

"The favour of God, the welfare of the soul, the concerns of eternity, are the things of the Spirit, which those that are after the Spirit do mind. Which way do our thoughts move with most pleasure? Which way go our plans and contrivances? Are we most wise for the world, or for our souls?"

More on this later.

Question #2: How are we different from the world?

#2 is a hard one. My initial thought was that the difference between walking according to the flesh vs Spirit was, “do I live to satisfy myself and nourish myself, or do I live for another object, such that self is secondary?” But, there are many people who don’t know God who live very unselfish lives for some cause or other—say, the environmental movement. This presents a difficulty for me, because if, as I think, to “live according to the Spirit and set your mind on the things of the Spirit” is a deliberate and conscious thing, it is made up of conscious thoughts and actions. But one’s thoughts and actions can be turned from “the flesh” (if you define things of the flesh as being things which please and benefit oneself) by other things than God. To take the environmental example… is a person who takes the bus instead of driving, or eats less, poorer and more expensive food because they want to use less of the world’s resources, “living according to the flesh”?

Now, here’s an interesting thing… sometimes, a Christian and a non-Christian are both driven to perform the exact same conscious action. Taking the environmental example… the environmentalist wants to use less of the world’s resources because he feels it to be more just to the powerless in other countries, while the Christian does so for the exact same reason, and ultimately because he knows that the poor and powerless are loved by God, and he is moved by the Spirit inside him to love them as God loves them. And yet, I think the Bible says that one is living according to the flesh and setting his mind on the things of the flesh, while one is living according the Spirit and setting his mind there.

The solution that immediately presents itself is that “God cares more us than what we do.” He loves the action of the Christian not so much because it takes care of the powerless (He can do that Himself, though that’s another can of worms I don’t want to open), but because it brings the Christian closer to Him and in line with the law of the new life He is preparing him for—ie, in my favorite metaphor, it means the graft is taking. I don’t know how He feels about the action of the environmentalist. I think He loves it in so far as it brings the actor closer to loving Him and knowing Him, and hates it in so far as it distances him from Him.

Question #1: What is "walking according to the Spirit"?

The language, at least in my translation, suggests that walking according to the spirit can’t be an unconscious change that happens without your knowledge or your trying. This is because of the words “walk” and “set their minds on” (that said, the NIV leaves it way more ambiguous, saying “have their minds set on” and “controlled by the sinful nature”). So then, it’s something conscious, that we choose to do when we receive the Spirit. I am guessing that the free gift of grace is that the Spirit is in us, in spite of our sin, guiding us as to His purposes and forgiving us when we fail to do what we should and transforming our hearts to want what he wants.

This would be, in my plant metaphor, like the branch being grafted on. It’s an opportunity that we don’t do anything to deserve and can’t do anything to help besides accept the gift. As far as that's concerned, it's a bit of a mysterious process that we can't do anything to help along. But after the graft comes the slow process of the branch rejecting its old nature and accepting the new. The gardener grafts you on, but your actions and decisions determine whether or not the graft will take. Every part of you needs to be transformed, and your actions and choices do allow the transformation. You "set your mind on" the things of the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-6...How to walk according to the spirit?

But getting down to what this means in practical terms. I think that when you try to walk according to the spirit and set you mind on the things of the spirit, you (or at least I) usually have a pretty good instinct of what that means in particular cases, but no idea in general. A couple of questions that I think are worth answering:

1. Is “to walk according to the Spirit” something we try to do and can succeed, something that we try to do and fail (but God’s mercy still regards us as his children), a free gift of God that we don’t have much to do with, growing in us and changing us, warring with and transforming our old nature, or just an name for the way we are once we accept Christ?

2. What does a life “lived according to the Spirit” look like? How is it different from the lives of moderately unselfish people with good intentions who don’t know God? Can it be made up of discrete actions (when I made my bed I was living according to the Spirit, but not when I put the extra sugar cube in my tea), or does it refer to a sort of abstract process, qualitatively different from our stream of actions and consciousness?

3. What does it mean to “set one’s mind on the things of the flesh/ spirit”? What are these things?

"I am the Vine, and you are the branches"--Romans 8:3-6

3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

I like plant metaphors!
To have the life of the Spirit is, I think, another way of putting the same truth that’s expressed by saying you’re part of the Body of Christ or you are a branch on the vine. The sap that runs through you belongs to a larger organism than yourself, a complete function of itself, of which you aren’t the whole but to which you wholly belong. That function or direction of the larger organism is to be completely your function; ie, if you are a leaf on a plant you are entirely given over to producing photosynthetic material, to the greater end that the plant might flourish and produce fruit. Such is the law of the plant—what happens to a living leaf, just by the nature of the way things are. To the extent that you’re not doing this, you’re not acting like part of the plant and you’re in enmity to it—you’re a parasite and a disease. And if the sap isn’t in you, you’re not part of the plant and as far as the plant is concerned you are dead.. You might still perform actions suitable to not being part of the plant, such as cell breakdown and getting eaten by bugs, but you’re not part of the greater life anymore. And you’re really pathetic, and you’ll die really soon. Such is the law of decomposition—the way nature works on a detached leaf. I think John 15 is talking about this. In this way, the law that brings death is actually the same law that brings life.

But that’s a passive metaphor… you’re part of the plant, its sap circulates through you, etc. What I like so much about Romans 8 (or maybe it’s just this translation) is its combination of active and passive words. When you’re in the Spirit, you are “walking” according to the Spirit, and you “set your mind” on the things of the Spirit. That’s what bothered me about this passage; because it makes it seem like once you are, through Christ Jesus, filled with the life of the Spirit, you will automatically be transformed into a creature that is free from the ways of the flesh and doesn’t follow them anymore. This doesn’t go along with observation, either of myself or of other people. It’s way too easy to sometimes have your mind on the things of the spirit and on the things of the flesh.

Martin Luther says that Romans 8 “gives comfort to those who are engaged in this warfare (struggling against the flesh, I think), and says that the flesh shall not condemn them.” That is, that as long as they are struggling against it and towards God, in Christ Jesus they are pleasing to him even as they fail and fail. We are children of God as long as we strive to put the flesh to death. So my plant metaphor breaks down a bit here. Not really, though. Life is just a very long wait to see if a graft will take or fail, assuming that the severed branch has some choice in the matter of whether it will be transformed to the new parent plant or remain itself.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Romans 8:1-2

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

What is this "Law of the Spirit of Life"?

Here's what my friend Andrew has to say about life:
Life is a real, solid thing, even though it is a spiritual thing. It is the power that makes us perform the action of living. Life is not just something that we experience: it's not only a series of events, or actions of breathing or eating. Those are merely signs of the life within us. ...So when Rom 8 talks about life, it's talking about that spiritual, animating, kind of life. "The Lord God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being."

In Rom 8, Paul explains that there are two of these "life"s; there is 1) our own life, which is in our bodies naturally and is vulnerable to judgment by the Law of Death, and 2) there is the life of Jesus Christ.

Now, we know that the Law of Death condemns all life which is not the very life of Jesus Christ:

(2:12) [...] as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.
(3:23) [...] all have sinned [...]
(7:9) [...] when the Law came, sin revived and I died.
(v3) For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.

Fortunately, we are offered the very life of Christ, and this life will free us from the Law of Death. This life is so real that Paul says it is for our physical bodies.

(v11 para) The Holy Spirit will give the life of Jesus to your mortal bodies through his Holy Sprit within you.
(v10 para) If Christ is in you, although the spiritual "life" of the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit becomes your real life, because of Jesus' righteousness.
(v2) For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and death.

So now Paul argues in (8:9, 12, and 13) that we must choose. We can either cling to the life which we have naturally-- the life which is condemned to death. Or we can cling to the life that is ours in Jesus. We cling to it by the Holy Spirit. Here's my amplification of v13:

(v13) For if you live according to the flesh you will die. But if you stop claiming the life of the flesh, and choose instead the Life of the Sprit, you will live.

Much more can be said, especially on how to do that practically.