When I was growing up, I used to cause my mother a little consternation by reading Mad Magazine, a satire magazine that catered to young teens. Looking back, I can’t say there was anything objectionable in those magazines, but my mother was always concerned whenever I did anything that looked dangerous, even if it was actually safe.
Those were the days of the cold war, so Mad Magazine ran a series of cartoons called Spy vs. Spy. Even though the two spies were nearly identical in appearance, you could tell them apart because the good spy had a white hat and the bad spy had a black hat. That cartoon only followed our natural tendency to divide people up into good guys and bad guys. So when we read the following passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we take it the wrong way:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.
—Galatians 5:19-24, NIV
We think that Paul is describing two groups of people, the good guys and the bad guys. We mull over the list of vices in verses 19 through 21 and decide that they don’t apply to us, at least not all of them, and certainly not at the moment. If any of these sins apply, we think of the mitigating circumstances and let ourselves off the hook. However, we can think of a number of people who vex us in everyday life, and they certainly fit the vices in this list, so we very enthusiastically consign them to this category. Then we turn to the list of virtues in the verses 22 through 24 and very generously attribute them to ourselves. Of course, the fact that we are reading the Bible at the moment helps to color the results of our rather generous self-appraisal—for surely bad guys don’t read the Bible. So we decide that we are definitely one of the good guys, and if we have anything in common with the bad guys, it lies safely tucked away in the past and under Jesus’ blood.
Our judgment is wrong and our results are evil! We judge ourselves as individuals, but others go the group rate. We are lenient and understanding with ourselves, but we are quite strict with other people. We exonerate ourselves, because not all the vices apply, but we condemn others if even one vice applies. We place the crown of life upon our own heads and upon the heads of our friends, but we cast everyone else into the outer darkness!
But Paul was not talking about two groups of people. For we read a few verses earlier:
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.
—Galatians 5:16-17, NIV
Paul was speaking to Christians who are torn every day by an inner conflict between the Spirit and the flesh. So we have to take back all those white hats and black hats and put them back into their boxes. We have to reconsider our view of the world, and more importantly, our view of our own souls. For in truth, if we can find any evil in the world, we can also find it in some stage of incubation within our own souls. As Christians our duty is not to let it come to fruition within us.
What are we doing when we pass out black hats to the people we call ‘bad guys’? We are esteeming ourselves better than others, in violation of Philippians 2:3. We are bragging to God that we are innately more righteous than others, when Romans 3:23 says we are equally deep in sin. We are judging the world, in violation of our Lord’s command, thus robbing Him of His divine prerogative! Our very act of self-vindication becomes an act of self-condemnation, because in order to show that others have sinned, we must sin ourselves. We would never dream of impersonating a policeman to slip a counterfeit traffic ticket under the windshield wiper of a rival’s car, yet in our arrogance we impersonate the Lord of the Universe and cast counterfeit judgments down upon our peers!
We do these things, not just because we are evil, but because we strongly crave God’s love and it is for this reason that even in our sin God can redeem us. We do these things to conceal a desperate inner struggle, which heretofore we have kept secret even from ourselves! We have been deceiving ourselves that we are righteous. We have been denying what has been true all along—that we are sinners and that our daily life is a struggle against sin. But after reading this passage from Galatians, we see there is no longer a need for self-deception. There is no longer a need for us to overlook our own sins or to find excuses or mitigating circumstances or to discover how others are worse. We can look into our own souls and gaze upon our own motives with honesty, facing whatever horrors we find there. For if it is true that Jesus died to save sinners, what have we to fear when we discover that we are sinners? If Paul called the Galatian Christians saints, what would he call us, who have the same internal struggle?
If you become sick at work or at church or in some other public place, you conceal the symptoms as best you can until you return to the privacy of your home and there you deal with them. This is only good etiquette and common decency. But at the doctor’s office, you conceal nothing! In the doctor’s office, you make no attempt to hide your limp or conceal the severity of your cough. In the doctor’s office, you give a full accounting of all your symptoms, aches, and pains, in a way that would offend propriety at a dinner party. Even a worldly person knows that it is uncouth to disclose symptoms at a dinner party, but foolish to conceal them at the doctor’s office.
Learn wisdom from worldly people. Let the light of your spirituality shine before men, but do not deceive yourself in private that you have no sinful side. When you go to the Great Physician, confess all your spiritual aches and pains and struggles.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
—1 John 1:8-9, NIV
Then use your new-found spiritual health to love others, as Jesus loved you.