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Ordinary 13 Year C
Freedom and self-control

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. -- Galatians 5:13

One of the saddest things about the public image of Christian teaching is that so often people are led to believe that the Christian life is one of following many restrictive rules. It is typical of the media and popular entertainment that loyal church members, priests, pastors or representatives of the church are presented as rigid adherents to rules which make people less than human. How often have you seen a little human warmth presented as a triumph over such inhuman restrictions? So we are often told 'It is love the matters, not the rules'.
Now that is very strange, because it is exactly what St. Paul said -- you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters ....

Or at the beginning of the chapter:

The struggle for freedom

Paul had been fighting a battle with traditional teachers who wanted to have new Gentile Christians placed under the strictures of the old Jewish law. It was the critical point of dispute that had to be settled as the church expanded beyond its Jewish origins. It gave rise to some sharp words between Peter and Paul and to a special conference in Jerusalem -- the first ecumenical council which we read about in Acts 15. The problem was that some people thought it meant taking on another set of rules.
The readiness of the Galatians to submit to the Jewish law instead of working out their own way of life in freedom was a cause of exasperation for Paul, who cried out in his letter to them:

The old moral and religious law was seen by Paul as a thing of the flesh while the new freedom that comes through faith was a thing of the Spirit. That is very interesting. In popular romantic thinking, as in the entertainment industry, the flesh is not contrasted with the spirit but with the moral law. It is popular to make the law yield to the desires of the flesh rather than to see both as having the same effect. The old law and the flesh were similar in their capacity to imprison people. Both were contrasted by Paul with the freedom of the Spirit that comes through faith.
Liberation was a very powerful experience of early believers, just as it has been the experience of new converts in recent times when people, for example in Papua New Guinea, have been liberated from fear of witchcraft and evil spirits which had previously dominated their lives.
I have heard accounts recently of the same kind of freedom from fear given by one of our present day missionaries, Rosalie Rayment, a Uniting Church minister from Victoria, who was then serving as in Thailand with the local church. It is a great freedom for new Christians there to be able to name the name of Christ as their own in defence against the fear of evil spirits.
These accounts of spiritual liberation with faith remind us of the experience of the Galatians to which Paul could appeal in his desire for them to rely on faith:

They knew that knowledge of God through Christ was a powerfully liberating experience, but they were in danger of falling back into their old ways. So are people today in danger of falling back into to the old kinds of slavery to 'elemental spirits' and the things of the flesh. Indeed modern pagan spirituality has much in common with the old bondage from which the early Christians were released, as new believers are still today.

The results of self-indulgence and the fruits of the Spirit

When we talk about being enslaved to the things of the flesh we are not only talking about sex and other bodily desires, although it does include slavery to those desires and practices. For Paul it was any kind of self-indulgence: ... you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love ...

The Spirit desires love in the service of one another, while devotion to the flesh is self seeking, as exploitative aggressive manipulation tends to make people damage each other. The flesh understood in this way is clearly opposed to the Spirit:

While freedom in the Spirit leads to fulfilment and maturity in community, self-indulgence leads to destruction of the person and the community. That is what is happening today in the worship of the flesh.
So we have the great contrast of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit:

What are called works of the flesh are largely acts of self-indulgence and those that are the fruit of the Spirit, bringing liberation, include self-control among other signs of thought for others. The point is that self-indulgence limits our human capacity and results in strife of various kinds, while the life of faith, in the power of the Spirit, is liberating and fulfilling -- in that way we have power to become what we have the potential to be, children of God, children who are free citizens of the Kingdom and not slaves -- it is a destiny that is shut off from us while we follow the limiting ways of self-indulgence.
So it true after all, self-indulgence and the like are to be avoided. They stand in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit. Far from being expressions of freedom, they represent imprisonment to desires and spiritual forces which limit our development as children of God. People still need to be liberated from these false gods. It is one of the saddest aspects of life in a society that values freedom so highly that this message has been abused to the point of being turned up side down. The way of slavery has been taken up as the way of freedom, and the way of freedom has been represented as limiting the full development of the person, while the opposite is true.

Fruit of self-control

According to St Paul, one of the fruits of the spirit is self-control.  It is an expression of freedom; and that fruit itself has fruit in human well-being.  There is very good scientific evidence for this, and I would like to share some of it with you.  I don’t favour the teaching of psychology as if it were the gospel, as some popular preachers have done.  It tends to suggest that wisdom of man is needed to prove the wisdom of God, and there is always the temptation to compromise the teaching of the church to accommodate popular opinion.  But today I would like to share with you some of the results of research that I have written about in the book I am now completing in my university work.  I do this because there are popular opinions about what makes for a good life that are not supported by scientific research, and because, as I have been saying, there is a serious distortion of Christian teaching in popular opinions about personal freedom.

Self-control, or what psychologists tend to call self-regulation, is an aspect of the ways in which we can take control of our own lives, to be self-directed and exercise personal freedom without being blown about the changes and chances of everyday life.  It is a key factor in the beneficial effects of religious faith and practice on human health and well being, and there is scientific evidence for those benefits.  In other words, apart from miraculous individual healing events, there is good evidence that people of faith live longer and enjoy better health and general well-being than do people who pursue a materialistic way of life.  When Jesus said to the woman who reached out and touched the hem of garment, “Your faith has made you whole,” he not only encouraged her, but all humanity to persist in faith. 

Le me give you a few selected pieces from the last chapter of my book on cognitive motivation which is concerned with things like curiosity, achievement, and self-efficacy, and particularly with how we make sense of things.  That includes making sense of life in general, and so developing a meaningful life.  One of the things that people of faith often say is that their faith gives meaning and purpose to life.  Some psychologists have written recently of religion as a system of meaning. There is plenty of evidence that the pursuit of a meaningful life is good for people. 

First some evidence on mortality and longevity.  In one study of the causes of longevity (McCullough et al. 2000) which brought together the evidence from 42 independent research projects with a total of 125,000 participants found that people with above average levels of religious participation were found to live longer than others. The rate of survival from initial to follow-up studies at various later intervals of time was 29 percent higher in those rated as having greater than average religious participation.  That does not necessarily mean that if you go to church you will live longer.  Other research has shown that the effects of religion on well-being depend upon an intrinsic faith, that is, on something that belongs to you personally and is not only a matter of outward conformity. It is personal, but not only personal – you also need to be involved with other people. Indeed public evidence of faith was a better predictor of survival that personal reports of belief. The benefit of religion seems to come from self-regulation, in which what you believe actually guides your behaviour.  One study that included research on processes in a part of the brain that we know is important for self-control, concluded that, “Prayer, meditation, religious imagery, and scripture reading all appear capable of serving self-regulatory functions” (McNamara 2002) p. 85.  Remember too that the self-regulation is an expression of freedom.

Let me give you, a different kind of example that shows a more psychological kind of healing.  I have mentioned the importance of having a sense living a meaningful life. (Emmons and colleagues) in a study of personal loss, found that recovery from psychological trauma such as the death of a loved one, or a broken intimate relationship, or loss of a job, was positively related to recovery of personal meaning (Emmons et al. 1998).  In this process of recovery, people who endorsed goals relating to intimate relationships (being close to children and family, having a secure family life), or spirituality (experiencing personal growth, pleasing God), and stayed with those goals rather than changing them under stress, were likely to say that they had found meaning in the event of loss.  In contrast, goals such as looking young, and being popular, were associated with poor rates of recovery.  Among the strongest factors that went with recovery were “the spiritual goals of achieving salvation, pleasing God, and engaging in religious traditions.”

On the opposite side there is very strong evidence for what the researchers have called “The high cost of materialism” (Kasser 2002).  In a number of investigations Ryan and others found that people who focused on money, image, and fame reported less well-being, less self-actualization and vitality and were more depressed and anxious. They also reported more headaches, sore throats and other symptoms of physical distress.  Regardless of age or wealth, people with highly central materialistic values reported lower levels of well-being. In one study adolescents who wanted to be rich, to wear expensive clothes, and to be pretty or handsome were compared with those whose priority was “to be a really good person,”  “to understand myself” and “to do what God wants me to do”.  Those who admired materialistic values were found to be more likely than the others to be diagnosed with mental disorders. The general finding about materialism and well-being have been reported from research in many countries, including Denmark, Germany, India, Romania, Russia, South Korea, China, Turkey, Australia and Canada (Kasser 2002).  All over the world a strong relative focus on materialistic values is associated with low levels of well-being.  In other words, self-indulgence, what St Paul called the way of the flesh, does you no good, but fruits of the spirit, including self-control are likely to make you a happier and healthier person.  So says scripture, and so says science.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. Galatians 5:13

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