A Heart of Thankfulness
In Galatians five Paul contrasts works of the flesh with fruit of the Spirit. He frames them as adversaries, contrary ways of living in this world: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (5:16). For those guided by the truths that issue from the Holy Spirit, strength and wisdom are given to avoid indulgence in sinful lusts. This is the ideal life.
But we all experience a more troubling reality which Paul next addresses: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” (5:17). This is a condensed statement of Paul’s later discussion of the battle in Rom 7:13-8:11, wherein he notes: “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (7:22-23). This struggle elicits Paul’s famous cry, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24).
Back in Galatians Paul, not to leave the matter vague, gives a sample listing of both attitudes and behaviors that are characteristic of carnal, unregenerate people: fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries and the like” (5:19-21a). God’s laws specify and prohibit such because of their destructiveness both to the individual and society and especially one’s relationship with God.
To be equally clear, Paul then lists markers of a Spirit-driven disciple: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. He then observes, “Against such there is no law” (5:22-23). What does this mean?
Interestingly, commentators tend to avoid this phrase. Perhaps their prior commitment to salvation by “faith only” or a mental acceptance of Jesus as their “personal Savior” – without any corresponding actions – causes them to shy away from the phrase. But it can be challenging to properly understand Paul’s references to “law” in Galatians (and Romans as well).
Paul has earlier observed in Galatians:
“But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith’” (3:11).
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law” (3:13).
“If there had been a law given which could have given life, truth righteousness would have been by the law” (3:21).
“The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (3:24-25).
“You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (5:4).
But then Paul says, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word … ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14).
Is this a contradiction? If we are not saved/justified by law, why is Paul concerned about fulfilling the demands of law by loving our neighbor?
While justification, or the state of righteousness before God, cannot be achieved on the basis of merit-based obedience to a law system (such as the law of Moses), this does not mean we are under no moral obligations whatsoever. We are not free to do as we wish while hiding behind some divinely assigned status or privilege. Our faith, which is imputed or credited to our account as righteousness (Rom 4:22-25; cf. 3:28; 4:1-5), must be a faith that is active, that seeks God’s will, that suppresses the carnal appetites and endeavors to think and act on a higher, spiritual plane.
We strive to adhere to God’s own character and expectations, which Paul condenses into “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14), even while acknowledging that such efforts do not justify one who has already sinned and thereby earned the wages of death (Rom 6:23).
So, what does this have to do with thankfulness? There are some attitudes that are holy as long as they are kept in check by godly impulses (anger is one of them). But when Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit, he summarizes them by saying, “Against such there is no law” (Gal 5:23b); i.e., there is no prohibition or warning to be issued against overindulging in them. And even though thankfulness is not specified, it is surely included in the phrase, “against such things as these.” No law curbs or condemns such, Paul says.
What is the point about thankfulness – a frame of mind culturally celebrated in late November but beneficial year-round? The point is that thankfulness cannot be overdone; it is impossible to be too thankful and thus sin via one’s gratitude. No law limits one’s amount of thankfulness.
Thankfulness, like joy, is a chosen frame of mind. It is, in other words, detached from outward circumstances. Thankfulness is created by a connection with God that is informed and shaped by our knowledge of Him – not our assumptions, but a familiarity with what God actually says about Himself and how He governs the world. To understand that our existence itself is attributable to God (Ac 17:26-27; Eph 4:6); to learn that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (Jas 1:17); to recognize God as our heavenly Father who loves all His creatures but especially those of faith and to know what price God paid to redeem us from sin and death (Jn 3:16); to realize that God not only wants to spare us from eternal condemnation but offers us a place in His presence (Jn 14:3; 17:24) – that kind of knowledge creates a gratitude and gladness of heart that reviling, prison, chains, illness, tragedy and even death cannot touch (cf. Rom 8:31-39).
At some point each day, especially when hearts are burdened and spirits are low, we should stop everything, sit a while in solitude and reflect on the blessings that God has showered upon us. We should also meditate on those who love us, who have served us, taught us, inspired us and made our lives better just by being our friend or parent or spouse. And when we learn to focus on and express our thankfulness, burdens will be lifted, anxieties eased, purpose restored, joys enriched and peace affirmed (Ph 4:6).