Galatians 5:1, 13-26
As I have pastored churches over more than two decades, I have learned to pay attention to what psychologists call core wounds, early traumatic experiences that keep playing themselves over and over throughout our life. Many conflicts and hurts that happen between people in church get provoked by core wounds. Sometimes we over react to something someone says or does because we’re reacting to an earlier grievance. It keeps happening in church. I got served less food than the person in front of me and it makes me furious, because I was always the one who was served less growing up in my family. Don’t ask me to help set up the chairs, because I was always the one asked to do the menial tasks in my family. I thought about core wounds this past week as I was doing my personal preparation for the mutual ministry review. Some people leave the church because they won’t examine their core wound, and are sure that they’re being mistreated.
To one degree or another most of us have core wounds. According to psychologists, healing the core wound comes from gaining awareness of and insight into it. By becoming aware, people can choose to change their lives. It’s painful, but it’s a pain that needs to be felt, faced, soothed, grieved, and healed. The pain has been there all along, and has been controlling our life at an unconscious level. In order to change and recover, we must face the wound, and commit to staying aware of it.
But as we keep working on those tasks, at some point a shift needs to take place that empowers us beyond our own willpower to accomplish it. The only place from which the shift can is the realm of the Spirit. It’s not enough to tell wounded people they need to suck it up, face the pain, understand their wound, and let go of defense mechanisms that they no longer need. That’s just another list of things we need to do to save ourselves. Paul calls that "submitting to the yoke of slavery."
Paul's tells us instead to "Live freely, animated and motivated by God's Spirit. Then you won't feed the compulsions of selfishness. There is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical." So for Paul, selfishness is a compulsion. Compulsions are defense mechanisms that we learn in order to survive the traumas of growing up in an imperfect world. The only way to let go of them is to realize we no longer need them. We get defensive when someone accuses us. So we have to choose between the way of love, which gives us space to face our compulsions, and the way of legalism, which accuses us and leaves us defensive. Either love touches the core wound and heals it, or moralism paints over it and leaves it throbbing underneath. Moralism judges people's behavior, and asks them to face their pain, before giving love an opportunity to heal the wounds that block the fruit of the Spirit in us. We are unable to love not because we lack strength, but because we think we have to protect ourselves from accusations. Moralism doesn't accomplish the goal of calling forth love because it leaves our wounds untouched. That is the core difference between the way of the flesh and the way of the spirit.
Father Greg Boyle wrote a beautiful book about gang life, entitled Tattoos on the Heart. He gets this. He tells story after story of healing core wounds through the Spirit. He shows how love and affirmation are the instruments of transformation. He tells the story of taking Memo and Miguel, two older homies from rival gangs, to help him on a speaking gig in Mobile, Alabama. After they spoke, someone gave them a tour of a community. For two hours they drove and walked around the poorest place Greg had ever seen in the US. Hovels and burned-out shacks and lots of people living in what people ought not to live in. Memo and Miguel were bug-eyed as they walked around, meeting people, and seeing a kind of poverty quite different than the one they knew. Later, when they were packing, Greg looked up to see Memo standing in his doorway, crying. This is a guy who was a big shot in his barrio, and who feels a lot of shame for things he had done. But he’d been deeply wounded as a child - torture, unrivaled betrayal, chilling abandonment. But now he was weeping for some thing else: "That visit, to Pritchard - I don't know, it got to me. It got inside of me. I mean, how do we let people live like this?" He pauses, then, "G, I don't know what's happening to me, but it's big. It's like, for the first time in my life, I feel I don't know, what's the word... I feel compassion for what other people suffer."
Father Greg writes, "gangs are bastions of conditional love - one false move, and you find yourself outside. Slights are remembered, errors in judgment held against you forever. If a homie doesn't step up to the plate, perform the required duty, he can be relegated to the 'no good' status. It is a state from which it is hard to recover. Homeboy Industries seeks to be a community of unconditional love. Community will always trump gang any day... Homies who used to work at Homeboy often return on their days off or on their lunch break. A homie once said to Greg once, 'I just came by to get my fix.' 'Of what?' I ask him. 'Love,' he says. Everyone is just looking to be told that who he or she is is right and true and wholly acceptable." (p. 94-5)
This’s exactly what Paul is getting at. The only law that matters is the law of love, the law of community: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But the only way we can even fulfill that simple law is to live by the Spirit rather than by the flesh. I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul's sample list of works of the flesh. It's worth hearing: "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."
It's not that we're such bad people. It's simply that it's how we end up acting when our core wound isn't healed by love. Paul then presents the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; and adds that there is no law against such things. He doesn't want people to keep rules of goodness. He wants people to change through new relationships with God and each other, so that goodness is a consequence of their being. Goodness as it develops on the inside generates goodness on the outside. Love generates love.
Paul argues that a life lived on the basis of God's love declared in Christ and lived out in a community that incarnates that love will produce behaviors that flow from those relationships. Paul urges the Galatians to keep focused on relationships. They won’t love authentically because they should love, or because they fear the consequences of not loving; they will love because their being is undergoing change by being loved unconditionally. To seek to subdue sin by means of the flesh is like trying to put out a grease fire with water—it only makes matters worse. There is nothing wrong with commanding people to love. It's just that it doesn't work most of the time, because there are things that block people from loving, and until those are dealt with, their default position will be "not love ", or love only by big effort. There is no law against love but there are plenty of examples of best intentions gone terribly wrong.
Some people in this church criticize me for being too soft-hearted, and for not demanding that people behave better. They may be right that I’m too soft-hearted. But the reason I don’t just tell people what they should do - like come to church on time, or take their turn fixing breakfast, or coming to meetings - is that I don’t want people to do things just because they feel guilty if they don’t. That may get a few more breakfasts cooked, but it won’t last very long, and it will never transform us into a loving community. Like Paul, we need to understand what really changes people and what matters most to God. Fear based religion damages people. Love based religion makes them well. Paul sees that clearly and is not willing to accommodate the abuse of bad religion in the name of not rocking the boat. Do we see that?