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The Secret to the Adventist Life Style

This commentary is wrapped in autobiography and sins against the quarterly by snitching verses 13-15 from last week’s lesson to add to our passage for this week. So we’ll be working on Galatians 5:13-25. 

The autobiographical part came several years ago when I was locked in a sporadic but contentious email exchange with a former student. Feeling the need of a Sabbath truce one Friday afternoon, I went looking for the fruit of the spirit passage, intending to use it as the basis of my appeal. I don’t recall any great breakthrough in the resulting dialogue, but I did discover some very good things in Galatians 5 that have stayed with me ever since.

In the first instance, I rediscovered something that I’m sure I knew before but forgot, namely, that the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is singular. The love- joy- peace sequence doesn’t represent a basket of nine different fruits. It’s just one fruit. In other words, one may expect the Spirit to guide God’s children into a experience marked by all nine traits.  

The second startling discovery was that Paul, like Jesus in Matthew 7:12 – “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” –  summarizes the “law” in terms of Jesus’ second command, not the first. That wouldn’t be surprising in a crowd of left-of-center Christians who generally are much more eager to talk about duty to humans than duty to God.  But to see both Jesus and Paul zero in on the human side of things somehow seemed surprising to me.

Modern liberals, of course, depart far from the New Testament model when they subvert the divine in order to exalt the human, a move undoubtedly triggered by exasperation with those conservatives who diminish the human in order to exalt the divine. It is interesting to note that early in her experience Ellen White actually seemed to side with those conservatives. “Human love,” she wrote in 1877, “is a sacred attribute; but should not be allowed to mar our religious experience, or draw our hearts from God.”1 But by the time that she was writing the Conflict of the Ages series she had seen a clearer vision: “Love to man is the earthward manifestation of the love of God”2 and “It is the fragrance of our love for our fellow-men that reveals our love for God.”3 In short, love to God and love to our fellow humans are not competing forces. When we love people we are loving God.  That idea lies at the very heart of Paul’s message in Galatians 5. And that was an essential part of my third discovery. For there I saw that anything driving a wedge between us and those around us is of the “flesh,” and “flesh” in Galatians 5 is much broader in application than just sexual sin, a point that is illustrated by his laundry list of 15 “works of the flesh.”  Using the words from the NRSV, we can cluster these fleshly works under four headings.  Sexual sins do in fact head the list: fornication, impurity, and licentiousness. The second category involves religious perversions: idolatry and sorcery. The third category includes a hefty list of 8 items that we could put under the heading of “contentious behavior”: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. The last two items on Paul’s list, drunkenness and carousing, are similar but could be called “disruptive contentious behavior.”

In one sense or another all 15 items involve relationships between people. But that big chunk under the heading of “contentious behavior” really caught my eye.  I suppose I could lock myself in my house and let those nasty behaviors unfold or explode. But that’s not what usually happens. They describe unhappy relations between people.  Paul then takes us immediately to the “fruit of the spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Here again is a list that almost always involves relationships between people.  I know what kind of world I want to live in. But then the hard question: How does my behavior contribute to one or the other of these two worlds, one marked by the works of the flesh, the other by the fruit of the Spirit?  And asking that question helped me realize that this passage contains the secret to Adventist life-style, a secret which greatly simplifies the issues at the same time that it greatly complicates them. It simplifies by asking the question: Does a particular activity, behavior, or line of thinking contribute to the works of the flesh or to the fruit of the spirit? Painfully simple.   

The complications come when I realize that my list of acceptable or forbidden behaviors may not be the same as yours because they don’t affect me in the same way that they affect you. Furthermore, my strong convictions about important things, both in and outside the church, so easily run afoul of the works of the flesh. “Righteous indignation,” for example, does not come under the heading of “fruit of the Spirit.” “Do you have a right to be angry?” God asked Jonah. “Yes,” groused the prophet, “angry enough to die.”  Think again, Jonah, and think in terms of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness….”

As I have reflected on my Adventist upbringing, I have realized that most of our life-style issues focus on things I shouldn’t do in connection with food, recreation, dress, or life in general. Usually, however, a list of negatives does not readily contribute to love, joy and peace. Mark Twain, hardly speaking as a Christian or an Adventist, highlights the problem with this grumble: “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”  Is that unhappiness somehow linked with the early results of the Loma Linda health study  indicating that Lacto-ovo vegetarians live 10 years longer on average than either the vegans or the carnivores? The extra dose of self-denial in a vegan diet may be telling. Some foods no doubt  contribute to an early death. But worrying too much about food in general may accomplish the same deadly result. “If you are in constant fear that your food will hurt you,” Ellen White once counseled a sister, “it most assuredly will.”4 She also said: “It is important that we relish the food we eat.”5  

Now I know that conversion often triggers remorse for a promiscuous and hedonistic life style and can result in the opposite extreme of a rigorous asceticism. All that must be factored into the life of the Adventist community if we are to grow together towards God’s kingdom. But it is too easy for us simply to compile a deadly list of negatives.  Should we then simply dump all our “negatives”? Hardly. The last item in the fruit of the Spirit list is self-control, implying limits of some kind on certain ways of thinking and doing. In other words, a negative. But if my “negatives” are motivated out of love for other people, they are blessed by God. This illustration from C. S. Lewis isn’t a very Adventist one, because we don’t know much about the difference between high church and low church. But in his Screwtape Letters, Lewis uses that high church/low church tension to illustrate the proper role of “negatives” in the life of the believer. Screwtape, speaking on behalf of the demonic realm, makes this point to Wormwood, his devil-in-training nephew:

We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials – namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the “low” churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his “high” brother should be moved to irreverence, and the “high” one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his “low” brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that, the variety of usage within the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.6

When the limitations that I place on my behavior out of respect for others lead to love, joy, and peace in their lives, there can be a reflex reaction on me in the same direction. And that’s why this passage in Galatians 5 holds the key to Adventist life-style issues. I’ll illustrate with a “secular” example and a “religious” one.  

On the secular front, it was an eye-opening experience to me to learn from a colleague the positive role that sports played in his early life. For him, the benefits were positive. My problem is that I am so terribly competitive that any form of competition does not contribute to love, joy, and peace in the world, not in my world or in anyone else’s. I can turn anything into a game with winners and losers. Who has the most watermelon seeds…  Let’s guess how long it takes before the light turns… And on and on.  If the stakes are high for major sporting events, my response is not likely to contribute to love, joy, and peace. Some softening has come with age, to be sure, perhaps illustrating what Dr. Charles Wittschiebe used to call “sanctification by senility.” Still I have to watch my behavior.

On the religious front, my sense of idealism is so high that I have to be careful about attending certain church functions. I have not been to a General Conference session, for example, in my adult years. It’s much safer for me to go to Scotland to pray. I’m grateful for good people who can help guide the church through troubled waters. But I know my vulnerability. In that connection I am haunted by Ellen White’s counsel to A. T. Jones, a real firebrand of an Adventist: “We long to see reforms,” she noted, “and because we do not see that which we desire, an evil spirit is too often allowed to cast drops of gall into our cup, and thus others are embittered. By our ill-advised words their spirit is chafed, and they are stirred to rebellion.”7 I must admit that I know far too much about that.

Finally, I must note that Ellen White’s amazing “diversity” quotes have helped me be less judgmental about others. The opening lines of the chapter “In Contact with Others,” in The Ministry of Healing are particularly helpful. In post-modern style she affirms: “Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experiences are like in every particular.” She goes on to spell out the implications: “The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.”8

Others will not react to the Super Bowl or to the General Conference in session in the same ways that I do. Their battles may lie elsewhere.  But instead of making one master list for all, let’s recognize that the bottom line is what counts: a community reflecting the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-discipline.” 

By God’s grace we can help each other build that kind of community.


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