This summer has been a struggle. If I haven’t been browsing places I shouldn’t browse on the internet, I’ve been thinking things and saying things and even doing things I shouldn’t as well. And when I think back through all those things that I’ve done or said or watched or thought, I feel incredibly guilty. Sometimes the guilt is so heavy that I feel like I am incapable of changing, unable to stop doing sinful things. If I let the feeling fester and grow, though, it gets even worse. When you start doubting your ability to change, you start doubting if it’s even worth the effort. And when you’re at that stage, it seems like there is nothing that will change your mind.
I’ve been at that stage several times this summer. Some of the things that I do are so deeply engrained in my habits that it feels impossible to uproot them. But as I read tonight in the book of Galatians, Paul gives a simple exhortation; “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” (5:16). This sounds like the cliché phrase, “Focus on the good, not the bad,” but I think Paul’s words go a step beyond that. He’s not saying focus on the good things in life and let the bad fade away; he’s saying focus on the perfect Being in life and let the temptations find someone else to control.
When I read this verse, I’m reminded of my golfing days back in high school. You see, golf is a 90% mental game; you’re only going to do as well as your mind allows you to. If you doubt your ability to hit a clean shot, if you start thinking of the places not to hit your ball, or if you carry the bad shots from the previous hole with you; you’re not going to do very well at all. A very simple way to counter these negative thoughts is to focus on your targets. When approaching the green the worst thing to do is to focus and dwell on the bunkers on the sides or the pond in front. If you focus on the places you don’t want to hit the ball, chances are you’re probably going to hit it there. But if, instead, you focus on the green and where you want to place the ball, those hazards aren’t going to be as much of a problem. You don’t want to ignore them entirely, but you don’t want to focus on them. There is a difference between acknowledging the risks and focusing on them.
I have found my walk with Christ to be much like a round of golf. If I think too much about the temptations in my life, the hazards around the green, I usually end up giving in to them. But if I learn from the exhortation of Paul, to walk by the Spirit, though overcoming temptations is still a hard task, it’s proven to be a lot less stressful. I am able to focus on placing the ball near the cup instead of merely avoiding the dangers of the sand traps or water hazards.
Our lives, Paul indicates, are not about sin management or temptation avoidance; they’re about living like Jesus. We’re not walking around the golf course thinking of what to avoid, but rather finding the most strategic spots to make the best shots possible. Walking with God, like playing golf, is a step by step, day by day, year by year process. If you carry the bad shots from the previous hole with you in your head; you’re not setting yourself up to succeed. But if, like Paul says in Philippians 3:13, you forget about the bad holes and walk by the Spirit to make the most of the hole before you, your chances of failure drop dramatically.
Side-stepping temptation and keeping our sins to a minimum are Godly things to do, but they are not meant to be the center of our lives. We were made to reflect God’s image every single day, not just one or two days of the week. Once again I think of a round of golf: the whole point is to get a low 18-hole score; not a good score on one or two holes. Just as Christ took upon our every sin, so also are we to dedicate our every day to live and honor and reflect His name and His image. And as Paul says here in Galatians 5:16, we’re more able to reflect that Image and honor that Name when we’re walking by that Spirit. Focus on the Spirit.