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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Why does Paul talk about keeping in step with the Spirit?

I really think that the issue here for Paul, in the earliest of his letters, is the basic difference between the teachings of Jesus over against the beliefs of the Pharisees. Remember that Paul got his religious start as a Pharisee who was murderously against Jesus and his followers. I am sure his recollections of his days as the chief enforcer against the church were populated with memories of debates about law and how what Jesus said—and did—never measured up to the demands of holiness expected of real Jews. And forgiving people—what was Jesus thinking?!

It was all about power to obey. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were all for righteousness. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus recognized the pathetic inability of his hearers—all people for that matter—to live out the righteousness of God’s law. Hard as it is to believe, Jesus knew his hearers could not do what he was teaching them to do—to obey his commands.

I find that this is often overlooked in the way we think in the church. We look upon the commands of Jesus as completely doable and many believers deeply desire to do them. Except that each of Jesus’ commands overtaxes our abilities.

Take for example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45 NIV) We all think that we love our enemies, but there are people you know that you do not love—you don’t need to search your memory to know this is true. For some, it’s the abortionists who routinely rob babies of their future life. For others, it’s the LGBTQ advocates who demand full acceptance of their lifestyle, even to the point of intruding into their child’s bathroom. What about the atheists who actively work to remove Christianity from the public square? What about the people who make up ISIS? When they cruelly and casually kill people, is your first thought to love them? And what would that even look like to love them?

Yet God so loved the world! Everyone was his bitter enemy, living out a life that shouted denial at God’s right to reign over those whom He created. But instead of mass destruction, God came near, lived among us as a human and died for the sins of the whole world.

We all know this. But we don’t know how to do this. And the power to actually love in this kind of way is quite beyond us all.

This is why Jesus promised that God would send us the Spirit. We needed power we did not have. This is what sets the gospel of Jesus apart from the teaching of the Pharisees. And this brings us back to why Paul is talking about the Spirit.

Because of his own experience, Paul was concerned that the Galatian believers were going to be under the curse. “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10 NIV)  He points out that the law curses you if you fail to keep it, instead of you living in freedom. Deep anxiety is ahead. Feelings of alienation from God will mark you. Fear and failure will dog your steps if you try to do in the flesh what the Spirit only can do for you.

Are any of these emotions part of your experience with God? Do you suffer anxiety, fear or sense you are alienated from God? I did. I remember the years I spent preparing for ministry, first at Bible college followed by seminary. I wanted to be used by God. I studied hard the biblical languages, interpretation, preaching and all the other subjects that would be useful for teaching people how to know God’s Word. But in my personal time with God—well, I didn’t really have a personal time with God. I was afraid of Him. When I did get before Him, I groveled. I expected judgment because I was not measuring up to what I found in the Bible and how I was urged to live by men and women older than me.

I lived as if I was under the curse. But I did not have to be. And eventually, as I trusted in the power of the Spirit, my relationship with the Father changed from unhealthy to whole. And I now understand why Paul was so exercised over the misdirection that the Galatians were receiving. There is nothing freeing about depending on one’s own strength to keep even the best of rules.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is our only hope for freedom.

-Steve Smith