Galatians 4: Training Wheels

Training wheels.  When my kids were little, we got them bicycles.  Do you remember getting your first bike?  Freedom!  The only trouble is, most kids have a hard time getting the balance idea down, especially when they are going slow or turning.  Our freedom rides suddenly become death traps.  Like a lot of parents, we threw some training wheels on the back of our kids’ bikes.  Magic.  Suddenly they could zip along and get the feel for the ride.  From the very beginning, however, we told our kids that the training wheels were temporary.  When the time was right they would be coming off.  The Law – as well as rituals and religious practices – are like training wheels.  They are helpful.  They keep us from falling over.  But sometimes we forget that they were meant for a time – the rules and rituals are a means to an end and not the goal themselves.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul used the example of a mentor assigned to help a child (Galatians 4).  Eventually, the child outgrows the mentor and enjoys adulthood.  The mentor lasts only for awhile – not his entire life.  The Law was meant to be like that – guiding us like we need in childhood.  But we’re supposed to mature beyond the need of constantly gauging our lives by legalistic measures.  There is a better way – that way is faith.  The Galatians had learned to ride a bike unencumbered by training wheels, they strapped on a pair at the behest of the Judaizers.  Not good for literal bike riding, and really bad for metaphorical ones, too.

In another analogy, Paul referred to the founder of the Jewish faith: Abraham.  Abraham and Sara believed that God was calling them to start something new.  They believed God had told them to leave the homestead of Abraham’s father and start fresh.  They believed that God had told them that they were going to have a big mess of kids to insure the future, too.  So they left on faith.  After awhile, however, their faith began to wane, and they took matters into their own hands.  With Sara’s blessing, Abraham took her maidservant, Hagar, as his wife.  Nature took its course and along came Ishmael, Abraham’s first son.  Theirs was not an act of faith but of taking control of the situation the way they knew how.  It led to lots of problems for the rest of their days and into the days of Israel up to this day.  After many more years, Sara became pregnant – a miracle, really, given her old age.  Isaac was born – a child born of faith.  He was the child who would receive the greater blessing of God.  The child born in faith was the one God was going to build his people through.  Because faith is what it’s all about.  Paul’s use of this allegorized story is simple: we are meant to be “Isaacs” (faith-founded and motivated) but we tend to choose to be “Ishmaels” (taking matters into our own hands which nearly always means a return to Law).

We kind of like training wheels – putting things back to a measure of control even though we know they slow us down, making us less capable of making the turns we need to take, etc.  We don’t like not feeling in control, even if the feeling is really a false reality.  We like things neat and clean, not gray.  We like the Law more than grace because we can measure the law and judge with the law in ways we cannot with grace.  We like feeling like we’re in and others are out.  We like feeling like we’veearned our keep, our reward, our position in life, even if our feelings are pure fantasy for us (and nightmare for others?).

Putting the training wheels back on hurts all the way around.  It hurts our individual relationship with God because it takes the focus off of love and onto merit, which undermines the whole thing.  Community is also jeopardized because we tend to assess others according to what we think is right (because if we’re right and others disagree, it must mean they are wrong).  When we put the training wheels back on, it obviously compromises our capacity to serve.  Our motive is shot, and so is the very message we promote – both predicated on merit.

How do you know if you’ve put the training wheels on?  Religiosity is one great indicator – when we focus more on “right beliefs” instead of believing in the right way of love and grace.  It leads us to judge others, and even demonize those who don’t agree with us.  Politically we do this as well.  When we get to a space where we cannot see any good whatsoever in the leaders of the “other” political party, something has gone awry.  This is happening a lot right now, and the result is ravaged relationships, a deepening divide in our country, and binary thinking which has no room for actual dialogue.

I don’t care if you are Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Green or…  But if you call yourself a Jesus follower, I am calling you to follow.  Jesus is our standard, not political leaders.  The mode of Jesus in everything is love – both the means and end for Jesus was always love.  As you are tempted to join in on the discussion, how do your attitude and behavior reflect Jesus?  If it’s not love, you may need to do some reflection.  You may have put on some training wheels unawares.

Review of Galatians so far…

Galatians One: Backstory.  In this introductory chapter, Paul set the stage for what is to follow.  He was deeply disturbed that Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came into the region of Galatia at some point after him with an addition to the Good News: grace is great, but once you receive it, you also need to follow key Jewish customs, including circumcision.  Paul reminded them of his testimony of being one of the most highly educated people in his age group on Judaism.  If he, of all people, did not adopt the Jewish rituals, that was significant.  This chapter calls us to consider our own backstory, asking why we believe what we do, querying into who informed what we think and believe and do.

Galatians Two: Chicken and Waffles.  The second chapter of this letter finds Paul continuing his backstory, recalling to mind a meeting he had with the highest leaders of the community of Jesus followers: Peter, James, and John.  They agreed that Paul was teaching correctly; the only encouragement was that he keep providing for the poor a top priority.  This was significant because when Peter arrived in Galatia, and found himself under the watchful guise of the “Judaizers”, fear got the best of him (he was a chicken), and he waffled, distancing himself from the Gentile believers and favoring the Jewish Christians.  Paul held him accountable for his cowardice in front of everyone.  Paul then encouraged his readers to realize that when we add anything to “grace alone”, we actually undermine and eventually replace it with something much less.

Galatians Three: You Belong.  In the third chapter of this letter, Paul deepens his argument regarding the fallacy of gaining God’s love through works by appealing to the story of Abraham’s faith.  It was Abraham’s faith – not what he did – that changed everything.  Everyone belongs in God’s family – there are no second-class citizens based on religious practices.  The whole point is to embrace what is simply there (God’s love) and move forward, allowing it to shape everything about you. 

Galatians Four: Training Wheels.  In this chapter, Paul continues trying to help the Galatians understand why moving from grace to Law is such a mistake.  First, he uses an analogy regarding children.  Until they are old enough, they were under the care of others to guide them.  Once they were mature enough, however, they knew who they were and how to behave, and no longer needed the others’ constant guidance.  The Law acted as a helpful guide for the Jewish people.  When Christ came, however, grace became the means of understanding God’s love and also the new guide to live.  Second, Paul interpreted the story of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac as allegory to illustrate the fact that choosing the law over grace was a step down from the higher aim of embracing love and grace.