Give to me, Lord, a thankful heart by Caryl Micklem
Read Galatians 5:13-25. Consult as many versions as you can, but do not be led astray by the Good News Bible, least of all in verse 24. Finding words with which to think about how God interacts with human lives is made easier or more difficult according to how we think of God himself.
If we think of him as somehow “out there”, like our next-door neighbour only bigger, we can use words like”approach, ask, pray” and expect a response in terms of “gifts, help, command, instruction” and so on. Our devotion finds expression as everyday transaction writ large.
If, on the other hand, we are trying to be Christians “come of age” (in Bonhoeffer’s phrase), and to replace the cosmological crudity of an “out there” image of God with something more inward, such as “ground of our being” or “the beyond in the midst” (Tillich), the transactional words become inappropriate unless, in using them, we are all the time aware that they are at a double remove from what we are really trying to say.
Why “double”? Because even “out there” talk is metaphorical, not literal. A “gift” from God stands for something analogous to human giving. We don’t expect to unwrap it and put it on the mantelpiece. Even the basics of address, such as “Father”, or “Mother”, are analogies not literal descriptions.
Oddly enough, the fact that the “transaction”—words always were metaphorical anyway, may make it possible for us to go on using them at a double remove after all. We may need to do this because of not being able to find any others. But we shall have to be very careful to remember, and to explain to others, what we are doing, if the words themselves are not to master us and mislead us.
Are there other words, to match the new insights better?
The Bible uses the idea of God’s breathing on us and into us (cf. Genesis 2:7 and John 20:22, together with Ezekiel 37) and of this breath within us giving us not only our physical livingness but our ability to live our lives in the way God wants them lived. This metaphor enables us to think of God as getting right inside us and being part of us.
The Hebrew and Greek words for “breath” are mostly translated as “spirit”. Whether in the original or in translation, it’s an idea that soon creates its own theology. In the beginning it may seem that everyone has God’s spirit simply by virtue of being human, but before long we find that some have it and some haven’t. In our passage from Galatians, and elsewhere in the writings of St Paul, it is set over against something else which is at odds with it. This something is expressed by the Greek word SARX, whose literal meaning is “flesh” – the stuff our bones are covered with.
Unfortunately, if one sets “spirit” over against “flesh” this lends countenance to the idea that everything to do with our bodies is evil. It is difficult to comprehend how such an idea can co- exist with the assertion that God’s Word became flesh; but it often does, even among the well- meaning (see my warning, at the beginning, about the GNB translation of Gal.5:24).
In an effort to avoid this dualism which denies the reality of the Incarnation, the makers of the New English Bible translated SARX as “the (our) lower nature”. This not only failed to solve the problem, but introduced the idea that everyone has a higher nature whether or not they also have “the spirit”.
The Revised English Bible wriggles out of that new difficulty by making SARX “our unspiritual nature”,which seems to turn the argument into a circular one, and leaves us asking “What is ‘spiritual’ anyway?”
I believe it’s a question of whether or not our human nature is trying to focus on, trying to be open to, the loving influence and intention of the God within us. If we can’t quite put it that way to ourselves, I should say that someone who is sincerely trying to live up to the highest he or she knows has “the spirit” in the sense of this Galatians passage, and will yield a harvest of qualities accordingly. To be “unspiritual” is to stifle and ignore this “highest”, shutting oneself against it, and regarding love as weakness and self as paramount. In my hymn I try, by speaking of “heart” and “mind” and “strength”, to indicate that although I am using transactional verbs like “give” and “help”, I am actually invoking the God within, and seeking, as I sing, to open myself more completely (and asking “the world” to do the same) to the persistent promptings of the divine love which will not take No for an answer. If my heart kindles within me as I contemplate these things, I am experiencing foretastes of a homecoming which I dare to believe is in store for me.
(Note: for “your way of righting wrong”, cf. Romans 1:17 and 3:21-22 New English Bible)
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