Recently I’ve become re-enamored with Eugene Peterson’s The Message. His contemporary paraphrase of the Bible turns 15 this year; when it was completed in 2002 I was between a pair of stints working in Christian bookstores from 2000-05, which can be plenty good at making one jaded towards anything that sells, even the Bible itself. But I’ve found myself returning to it over and over again these last few months.
The Message is and isn’t the Bible itself. But I think it’s at its best when it helps us re-examine the scriptures in a way that makes them not just easier to read, but easier to relate to.
One of the best examples of this I’ve come across is in the well-known works of the flesh/fruit of the Spirit passage in Galatians 5. The first part reads in most Bibles like a to-don’t list:
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
Because the list starts with things that sound worse than what we would call our own sins (fornication!) and includes things we’re pretty sure we’re steering clear of (sorcery!), it becomes easier to dismiss the whole thing. Let’s be honest: I don’t even know what licentiousness is. Google says it’s lacking legal or moral restraints, especially sexual restraints. I’m just trying to pronounce it correctly.
The things in here we’re more comfortable saying we struggle with – jealousy, anger, even drunkenness – come so late in the list, we can already convince ourselves the whole thing is for someone else. Someone worse. Sure, envy’s bad. We’ll work on it. But at least I’m no carouser, and things like these.
Peterson’s Message takes a list easily ignored and stabs me in the heart with it:
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: 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.
This is January 4, which means maybe you resolved some things at midnight and by now perhaps we’re wishing another midnight was available. Christmas and Easter may fill the pews, but we’re all a little religious on January 1. It’s grace on a calendar page, thin on theology but strong in the force.
Maybe Peterson’s list includes some things you resolved not to be, or at least be less of this year.
Now, the second part of this – the fruit of the Spirit – the traditional reading still sings. It ain’t broke: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is comfort in familiarity and, more importantly, hope that God has planted something within us. Something life-giving and good. Something to be tasted and seen. And, in the very nature of fruit, something with the seeds for reproduction within, so we might share it with our world.
I do love how Peterson finishes the passage in verses 25-26:
Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.
In this new year, I hope we find the fruit-bearing grace of God ready and willing at all of our midnights. I hope we taste and see that the Lord is good. And I hope we have far more interesting things to do with our lives.