There are several references in the Lenten readings to Ol’ Scratch and temptation:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
I keep a folder of hate mail that people send me informing me that I’m going to hell (in loving, Christian terms, of course), so I understand why some progressive Christians are allergic to the language Paul uses above. “Following the desires of flesh and senses” sounds like Puritan condemnation of sex, chocolate, beer, and dancing, and “the ruler of the power of the air” like fundamentalist obsession with the devil.
By the way, the Greek words for “trespass” and “sin” here literally mean “falling down” and “missing the mark.” In the Greek philosophy in which Paul was steeped, the passions were like wild horses which, without a skilled driver in the chariot, would gallop to destruction. The will, human reason, was the driver who directed the passions toward their proper goal. Paradoxically, we are not truly free if we give our passions free reign. Seeking life, we become dead. Our passions become our masters.
But Paul makes a break with Greek philosophy here. We do not overcome the passions by exerting the will or employing our reason. We are made alive by the grace of Jesus Christ:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Lent is not about controlling our passions with willpower, but opening ourselves to grace.
It is easier to believe than ever, I think, that there are forces of systemic evil in this world led by ego-centric human passions: xenophobia, greed, racism, and superficial status. “Children of wrath” seems apt. Paul says all of us were once this way, immature in our actions and thinking, following a “spirit of disobedience,” a power as invisible and pervasive as the air.
What sets us free is grace. It is not earned or achieved by force of will. There is nothing to be smug about. So, if we’re inclined to tsk-tsk at the state of the world, we remember that the only thing that will save us is not our own enlightenment or force of will, but the action of God in Jesus Christ.
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
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