This post contains the basic message I gave at Irvington Covenant Church in Portland, Oregon on the morning of August 25, 2013. The church has been going through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. While drawing from other portions of Paul’s letter, I give special attention to Galatians 4:21-31 (the text for 8/25) in what follows.
Have you ever felt trapped in the past, that you could not get loose from the chains that grip you, the patterns and ruts and the memories that haunt you? The Gentile Christians in Galatia were starting to turn back to what they saw as the basic principles of the world (Galatians 4:9-11). They were trapped. What traps us today? What keeps us from living into the relational freedom we have in Christ, the basic principles of the kingdom of God?
Self-righteousness and self-condemnation are two sides of the same self-oriented coin. When we play into one or both of them, and they often play off of one another, we end up getting trapped and bound again and again and again. We must live into the freedom that is ours in Christ. We were born free in Jesus by faith. Let’s live into it rather than promote ourselves based on our works of the flesh or put down ourselves based on the failure to perform well.
This is easier said than done…
When I am asked to share my testimony, I will often say that I went from being Jim Morrison of The Doors to Jim Elliot who passed through the gates of eternal splendor. During my last year or two of high school, I worshipped Jim Morrison of the rock group, The Doors. Through a close call where I almost met my end, I came to trust anew in Christ and rededicated my life to him. During my Christian college years, I became impressed with the life of Jim Elliot, one of the missionaries who was martyred in Ecuador in 1956. Like Morrison, Elliot was not satisfied with coasting through life. He was always breaking on through to another side. The difference between the two of them concerned the focused destinations they were breaking through to in their lives. Enthralled with the example of Elliot, I graduated from my Christian college as someone who was expected to do great things for God. What I often omit when speaking of transitioning from Jim Morrison to Jim Elliot is that when I returned home from my out of state college to my old stomping grounds where I grew up, I was overwhelmed with thoughts and experiences of the past. It was if I had come to “The End” again. I went from being out of state to being out of my mind! I felt enslaved in my thinking, that my past had returned and was here to stay. I thought that the only side I could break through to now was the dark side of the force. No gates of splendor, only the gates of hell. A sense of unworthiness invaded my soul. I felt paralyzed and enslaved and condemned to my past. Thoughts of suicide tempted me. I had been born again free, born from above, but memories from my past were binding me and dragging me down.
Perhaps it was the case that all my attempts at being like Jim Elliot were simply a cover for trying to attain a sense of worthiness by Christian works and religious bravado. Self-righteousness and self-condemnation go hand in hand and they often feed on one another.
Perhaps you can relate? Whether they knew it or not, the Galatian Christians should have been able to relate. They were being led to believe that faith in Christ was not enough. They felt that they needed to add to faith; otherwise, they would not be found worthy. After all, they were lowly Gentiles. The irony is that if they were to now pursue worthiness by works–by being circumcised–they would then be found unworthy, and Christ would no longer be of value to them (Galatians 5:2). Instead of depending on the one who is worthy and faithful, who through faith in and from him makes us worthy, they would be depending on themselves and could never attain worthiness.
As I said above, these Galatians, these Gentiles, were now in the process of going back to their former ways–living according to the elementary principles of the world (Galatians 4:9-11) and the works of the law (Galatians 4:21) rather than living according to the promise by faith (Galatians 3:11). In the course of making his plea to the Galatians to live into the freedom that is theirs by faith in the promised one, Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:15-18), Paul makes use of the story of Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31). Let’s read the text of Galatians 4:21-31:
21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:
“Be glad, barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
shout for joy and cry aloud,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”
31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
As Paul makes clear, he is speaking figuratively here (Galatians 4:24). Hagar represents life according to the flesh whereas Sarah represents life according to faith. Abraham’s son Ishmael through Hagar was born according to the flesh, whereas his son Isaac through Sarah was born according to faith in the divine promise (Galatians 4:23).
The point Paul is making is not to demean the slave woman and her son back then, but to contend that none of us are slaves. All of us belong to the free woman, Sarah, who with her son Isaac are living signs of the promise. God took care of Hagar and her son and made Ishmael great as well (Genesis 17:19-22; Genesis 21:8-21), but Isaac alone is the Son of the promise (Genesis 17:15-22)–fulfilled in Christ, to whom Ishmael and all of us can belong through faith in him (See Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:7-9).
So why does Paul make use of the story of Sarah with Hagar if he is not seeking to demean Hagar, the slave woman? While Paul is speaking figuratively, he bases his theological conviction on the historical narrative in Genesis: Sarah like Abraham were the ancestors of the family of faith who live by faith in the promise, even though Abraham often waivered, just like the Galatians were wavering now. Paul would never demean Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation and the family of faith, but he does draw attention to the fact that Abraham had two sons by different women. Of course, in his day, many men had many wives. But what is striking in the Genesis account is that Abraham grew tired and weak and wavered in waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled that he would have an heir through Sarah, who was well advanced in years. So, he took matters into his own hands, along with Sarah. Sarah gave him her slave girl as a wife so that she could bear him a son who would be attributed to Sarah (Genesis 16:1-2).
Not only was that not what God had in mind, but also the plan backfired! Have you ever tried to help God out by getting ahead of him? I do it all the time. God never shows up late, but he never shows up early either. He always shows up just in time. Prayer and waiting on God is key. But Abraham and Sarah, just like us, took matters into their own hands. The result was that Hagar began despising her master’s wife, Sarah, since she had a son and Sarah didn’t. It led to great upheaval and divisions in the home (Genesis 16:1-6). As a result, God had Abraham send Hagar and her son, Ishmael, away. God took care of them–abundantly so, but the point Paul is making here is not about what happened to Hagar and Ishmael, but about what happens when we try and mix faith and works. Of course, faith involves works: true faith is active and obedient to God; but seeking to live by faith and by works where we find our identity by way of what God has done for us and by way of what we can do for ourselves always backfires. Life according to faith in the promise and life according to works cannot live together. One of them will end up getting kicked out of the house!
What causes people to try and combine them? In the case of the Galatians, I believe they were led to think that they were not good enough and so they tried to attain their righteousness by what they could do through such things as being circumcised (faith plus circumcision equals salvation, so some thought) rather than by faith in the one who loved them. As I stated above, self-condemnation and self-righteousness go hand in hand.
Hagar experienced self-righteousness and boasted in her having given birth to Abraham’s son Ishmael. Sarah, who with Abraham, was supposed to be the one who lived by faith in the promise that God would give her a son beyond the age of hope (Genesis 12:1-5; Genesis 15:1-6, Genesis 17:15-22) faced self-condemnation as a result. It was a huge mess. That’s the way it will be in the church when we live by works (such as seeking to attain righteousness through circumcision and its modern day parallels) rather than by faith in the promised one. We end up measuring others and ourselves based on how we measure up rather than based on the measureless overflow of God’s love in Christ and our identity in him.
Paul, like many other Jews, was concerned for family lineage and pedigree. Who’s your daddy? Who’s your mommy? Abraham and Sarah, not Abraham and Hagar! Abraham and Sarah are the parents of all who live by faith in the promise given to Abraham, the first Jew, who was a Jew by faith before he was a Jew by circumcision. Even so, Abraham faltered at times, just as we all do. Abraham tried to take matters into his own hands by trying to have an heir through Hagar since Sarah was well-advanced in years and supposedly beyond the age of childbearing. Knowing this about Abraham should comfort us and give us hope that even when we fail to live by faith our God who loves us will forgive us and lead us to respond by faith in his love anew.
In keeping with Paul’s line of reasoning, those who live according to works such as circumcision and the elementary principles of this world act as if Hagar is their mother. The results of trying to mix faith and works is disastrous, just as it was for Abraham and his household. If we try and live by works, we won’t experience the riches that belong to us by faith in the promised one, who is Christ Jesus. The irony is that by seeking to keep the law the Galatians and the rest of us fail to obey God, who called the Galatians and us, just as he did Abraham and Sarah, to obey him by living by faith (Galatians 5:7).
We belong to the family of the promise by faith, not the family of works by works. You and I belong to Abraham and Sarah by faith, not Abraham and Hagar by works. Don’t renounce your family of origins! Hold on to your birth certificate! We were born free. Live free! Live as the children of the free woman. Live as the children of the promise.
So, what bearing does this passage have on us here in our context in Portland, Oregon? Do we view and treat one another as slaves of this world system–the city of the world–or as citizens of the city of God, all of whom are born free and who live free together?
While Portland is a great city, it has a long way to go if it is going to move beyond being a city known for tolerance (which often masks indifference) to being a city known for sacrificial love. Its racialized structures of the past and its gentrifying ways of the present will not help the city get to where it needs to go. What about us? Where are we as the church? Can people find in the church such love, such unconditional love that motivates and mobilizes people to live by faith which leads to works of love?
Three places where people hope to find an identity outside of the enslaving structures in society that shackle them and put them down as insignificant and worthless are the home, the church, and the pub. So many people fail to find acceptance and belonging at school or the workplace or neighborhood that they hope to find it in the home and the church, but often end up resorting to the bar instead. In Christ, there is no division between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Galatians 3:28). Since this is so, why do we often find just the opposite in the church?
The father of Black Theology, Dr. James Cone, writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that the African American community sought to attain freedom or at least relief from the updated slave laws of Jim Crow legislation in the home (at least in his family’s case, for he experienced security as a result of his parents’ sacrificial love and protection), in the church, and at the pub while playing, singing, and dancing to the Blues. The same may go for the rest of us. And yet, at least as it relates to the church, we sometimes bring the laws of segregation into the church with us.
How is it that we bring the updated laws of slavery into church with us–those of race and gender and class or other kinds of status divisions? All such divisions are rooted in the attempt to objectify one another so as to gain the upper hand.
When we lack security in Christ and the freedom that his love brings to the life of faith, we enforce high security prison systems within our hearts’ walls and also the walls of the church. Security in Christ leads to humility, which involves opening the doors to our hearts so as to let others in. Friend and fellow church member, Kari Dixon, shared with me the following reflection on Facebook in an exchange on the relation of self-condemnation and self-righteousness:
“But self-abasement is just inverted egoism. Anyone who acts with genuine humility will be as far from humiliation as from arrogance” (Stephen Mitchell). “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is – is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything. It is in this sense that humility is absolute self-effacement” (Dag Hammarskjöld).
Insecurity leads us to value one another based on our status as “Jews” or “Gentiles” or performance or failure to perform. Do we see one another for who we truly are–children of Sarah, the free woman, and as the people of the promise? Only this realization leads to true security and unity in the body.
Dr. John M. Perkins has exclaimed that the Black Church is the creation of the White man’s oppression. Whites need to stop oppressing and Blacks need to stop returning the favor. The repentance must start with Whites like me, since we have imposed structures of systemic oppression. Still, all of us must repent and move forward together, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). The church belongs to the city of God, not the city of the world system, so let’s not operate according to its dehumanizing laws that cause us to objectify and enslave one another. Let us live into the promise of our future which has dawned in Christ Jesus, for we are already born free and belong to the city of God, the new Jerusalem that is from above.
So, how do we get there together? By realizing together that we are already there.
So, how do we live in view of the fact that we all belong and only and always by faith and never by works of self-righteousness and self-condemnation? By realizing together that Jesus alone is worthy and that he makes us worthy and by encouraging one another that we are worthy in Christ. Self-righteousness and self-condemnation involve playing the field with “Hagar” rather than staying true to “Sarah”. It involves demeaning Christ and demeaning his church, his bride. May we cherish Christ and one another. May this be the place where we can find acceptance and belonging from the laws in our society that would divide us and build us up only to tear us down. We need one another to help us live into the fullness of who we are in Christ rather than live the lie that we are on our own and we have to do it on our own.
I could have never made it on my own when shackled by the chains of of self-condemnation bound up with painful memories from my past. If it hadn’t been for dear friends and mentors like Pastor Samuel Mall and Dr. Philip Lueck, I don’t know if I would have made it. Just like my parents, they loved and accepted me and told me to rise up and get back on track, for Christ would not be enslaved to my past. Their Christ-centered confidence in me energized me to find new confidence in Christ.
We cannot make it on our own. You as my church family have helped my family and me find greater security in Christ. You have welcomed and embraced us and made us feel at home. May we continue to provide that love and assurance to one another and those who enter into our midst. Together, let us live free by faith in Christ through his love, for we are born free to love one another as equals with the eyes of Christ by faith.
We were born free in Christ, so let’s live free: ”It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.