Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted. Friends, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong. You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them. It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.Galatians 4:8-4:20 (NRSV)
Years ago, I used to smoke. Regularly. You might say I was enslaved to the little death sticks. And each year at New Year’s, sometimes maybe during the rest of the year, I would make the declaration that I was done, finished with this nonsense. And quitting might last a few days, maybe a few weeks, but then I would return to smoking with a renewed sense of passion, almost like I had to make up for those days or weeks without.
This is because all of my momentary changes were based on external stimuli, either others telling me it was necessary to quit, or hearing more news about the dangers of smoking, or cultural pressures that made sure to make you feel bad for doing so. It wasn’t until I had that moment of clarity, that moment of disgust that made me want to quit for my own reasons that I finally kicked the habit. The motivation came from within, rather than without.
In a sense, in this passage, Paul is questioning how deep the motivations of the Galatians lie: “how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” Especially, since the whole reason that they had left these things in the first place was because they had “known God.” Or rather, they had been “known by God.” The distinction is one that Paul wants to clarify in their own minds. The Galatians had known God, and in return been known by God. This was an active, living relationship, not one that grew out of blindly following rules and regulations. They had been known by God, and yet, they still returned to the old ways, the way of the Law, which prescribed behavior, rather than dealing with the relationship of being known by the God of Love. What could motivate them to leave that relationship for the legalism again?
A few weeks ago, I sat with a couple around a fire, and we were discussing God and religion. The conversation turned to what Christians were supposed to do, and what they were not supposed to do. My response was, “if your faith revolves around what is allowed or not allowed, then you’ve missed the mark. Your faith should be about the relationship with God.” I then drew a comparison between their own relationship and how they probably don’t have rules for each other to follow, but rather have expectations. And if one of them failed to live up to those expectations, there wouldn’t be punishment, but rather a conversation, since the idea was to strengthen the relationship, rather than punishing one for failing to live up to the other’s standard.
If the Galatians would rather just have a list of things that they could do, and could not do, and would rather just have a a menu of behavior that was deemed acceptable, then that rightly made Paul fear for them, that his work for them might have been wasted (v.11) If they would rather have a list of prescribed behaviors than a relationship with God, then that meant that they had chosen the easy path, the easy way out.
Paul reminds them that he gave up this legalism in order to preach the Gospel to them, because if he had been following the prescriptions of the law, he wouldn’t have even been able to eat with them, much less spend time speaking with them. Instead, he didn’t allow himself to be hamstrung with rituals and childish ideations so that he could form a relationship with them, and show them how to form a relationship with God.
And this relationship that Paul has with the Galatians is what allows him to tell them the truth. Real friends do not shy away from telling each other the truth. But the truth is not always easy to hear, so the Galatians have branded Paul their enemy. And it is for this reason that Paul calls them “my little children.” It is not just to remind them of the relationship he has to them, but more importantly, to remind them that they are behaving as children, because they have not yet come to understand the freedom in Christ that comes with a relationship with God.
Mike is a jack of all trades. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023.