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  • Writer's pictureSteven Marsh

Joy–The Debt to the Spirit is Life and to the Flesh Death: a Reflection on Psalm 86:1

Failure to thrive? Not here. Not now. The Spirit sets us free from the oppressive thumb of the flesh. Brenda Salter McNeil, the author of Roadmap to Reconciliation, writes, “Sharing stories is a central skill in community building…The ability to self-disclose and listen empathetically is…essential.”[1] David, encountered by the story of God’s redemptive love intersecting his story of brokenness, recounts in Psalm 86 that he wants to be taught by God, walk in God’s truth, and have his divided heart revere God’s name.

The guinea worm is a parasite found in certain areas of central Africa. It begins its life as a larvae…in a millimeter-long crustacean. When a human drinks water from a stream, the crustacean enters the stomach where gastric juices make short work of [it]. The larvae of the guinea worm, however, are not destroyed. The worms poke holes in the…intestine and go for a swim. After about three months, the male and female larvae get together. About one year later a full-grown guinea, the width of a paper clip wire and up to three feet long, begins to move through the body…causing tremendous pain. Finally, the worm pokes out of the host’s body probably through the foot. If not removed, the parasite will eventually lead to its host’s death. Once the worm exposes itself, it can only be removed a few centimeters a day. Otherwise the worm will pull apart and die, resulting in infection and possibly death…Sometimes the painful process takes weeks or months. The guinea worm is like sin in three important ways: First, sin is easy to get involved in. Just like drinking the water from a stream seems simple and harmless, so often does sin. Second, sin is difficult to get rid of once it has taken hold. When…we recognize it, we should act. Forgiveness comes quickly, but many times the process of getting free from [sin’s] pull is slow and agonizing. Finally, like the guinea worm, sin, when left unchecked, can kill you.[2]

Your story and my story are similar, yet different. Each of us can disclose examples of the highs and lows of life with their accompanying exhilarations and debilitations. When we tell our stories, we can help one another understand better who we are, particularly if we have accepted the gift of Jesus the Messiah. In Romans 8:12-25, Paul makes it clear that in Christ, we have a new identity. God gives us the ability to live in the tension between what God accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection and the not-yet of God’s complete redemption of all creation. We aren’t “broken,” but we are “broken.” We are to live in the “now” of God’s faithfulness, while waiting in the hope of God’s promises. When we live in the Spirit, we can patiently endure the serious character flaws of ourselves and others, because we know that character flaws do not have the last word. When we live in the Spirit, we are grateful for our adoption into God’s family. We do not choose God. God chose us. In the Spirit, we can love what is genuine and hate what is ingenuine. As we obey the One who gathered us into his family, we can be “…patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, offer hospitality to strangers, bless those who persecute us, and perhaps hardest of all, ‘live peaceable with all.’”[3]

To live at least 51% of the time in the Spirit, we must experience reconciliation at many levels and on an ongoing basis. Brenda Salter McNeil writes, “Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.”[4] The gift of reconciliation is the Christian’s mission. We have great news to share with people who are stuck in brokenness. As our stories authentically intersect the stories of others, we will be givers and receivers of joy. The good news has and continues to defeat the guinea worm of sin.

Together, we will thrive. The Spirit gives us assurance. It is the Spirit’s presence that is the pledge of what is to come.[5] The choices we make matter, for we will either be indebted to the Spirit’s work or that of the flesh. We pay back gratitude or ingratitude. Such are the stakes.

[1]Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 112.

[2] Kevin Bidwell provides this story and interpretation as adapted from an article in Men’s Health (December 1999).

[3]Blair Alison Pogue in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 257.

[4]Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation, 22.

[5]Ideas in the previous two sentences are gleaned and adapted from Blair Alison Pogue in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 259.

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