Does absence make the heart grow fonder, or does distance breed contempt? Maybe both are true. In this part of our exploration of Galatians, Paul gets personal. Behind his words are the realities of closeness and separation. As we said early on, as harsh as Galatians may be, it is not a letter of rejection but a longing for renewal and for them to hear Paul’s warning.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things, for I have become like you Gentiles—free from those laws. You did not mistreat me when I first preached to you. Surely you remember that I was sick when I first brought you the Good News. But even though my condition tempted you to reject me, you did not despise me or turn me away. No, you took me in and cared for me as though I were an angel from God or even Christ Jesus himself. Where is that joyful and grateful spirit you felt then? I am sure you would have taken out your own eyes and given them to me if it had been possible. Have I now become your enemy because I am telling you the truth? Those false teachers are so eager to win your favor, but their intentions are not good. They are trying to shut you off from me so that you will pay attention only to them. If someone is eager to do good things for you, that’s all right; but let them do it all the time, not just when I’m with you. Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. I wish I were with you right now so I could change my tone. But at this distance I don’t know how else to help you.” (Galatians 4:12–20, NLT)
Let’s break this section into four parts. Each unique but also connected by the recognition of connection and separation.
Paul appeals to them as family and reminds them how freedom encourages relationship. “Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things, for I have become like you Gentiles—free from those laws.” Law-keeping tends to divide; folks either follow the rules or they don’t. Those that don’t are punished with some measure of separation. But our life in Christ is not about how far we can push others away but how we can love and encourage one another.
Paul next recounts his first time with the Galatians. He reminds them of his illness and how they accepted him in spite of it. The Galatians expressed care and concern for Paul. We can speculate about Paul’s illness and that it may have been some sort of eye problem; the important part, however, is that Paul was not perfect. He had his problems the same as they did, and he didn’t hide them. The acceptance and empathy of the Galatians in that first visit are demonstrations of closeness and relationship. But as Paul writes his letter, their acceptance of him is nearly gone and Paul wonders why they consider him to be an enemy.
Paul next observes, “Those false teachers are so eager to win your favor, but their intentions are not good. They are trying to shut you off from me so that you will pay attention only to them. If someone is eager to do good things for you, that’s all right; but let them do it all the time, not just when I’m with you.” False teachers will always seek to separate folks from their family, friends, and other influences. There are many examples of various cults and false prophets doing exactly this. Even well-meaning churches can fall into a milder form of this trap. Call it the “we’re the only ones who completely understand what God wants” attitude.
One way you can tell a good ministry from a bad one is how their leaders expect to be treated. It’s one thing to expect respect; it’s another to demand obedient and unwavering adherence to their teaching. All churches and ministries (including Lambchow) have errors. Sometimes that error is intentional, but it is most often unintentional. I’m sure that there are things that we’ve written and published that aren’t quite right or are unbalanced in some way. Neither is Lambchow meant to be your only source of spiritual nourishment. There are more ways to tell good from bad that we’ll address another day.
According to Paul, the trials of his relationship with the Galatians are like the pain of childbirth. “Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. I wish I were with you right now so I could change my tone. But at this distance I don’t know how else to help you.” Paul is trying to tell them that, even though there is pain a the moment, it is for the purpose of developing Christ in their lives. In some ways, the Galatians thought they had it all figured out, but Paul is shouting, “you’re not done yet.”
Lastly, Paul recognizes the physical and emotional distance between them and how that is affecting this letter. He knows he is being harsh, and his tone would be different if face to face. There is also a distance between us. I’m on the other side of the world from many of you, and we have a basketful of cultural differences. But what draws us together is our love for Jesus Christ, the truth of God’s Word, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. My hope for you and me is that we will continue to learn and grow until Christ is fully developed in our lives.
It hurts when people turn their backs on us and prefer separation instead of trying to work it out. In those circumstances, it is important to forgive and to honestly consider our own failings. Others may walk away, but we as Christ-followers need to keep our doors open. In this, I think of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. There was separation, but he never gave up hope that his son would return. It’s not easy and it doesn’t seem fair, but that is the road of love.