Have you made a gut decision? You know, saying “I’m going with my gut here.” Or experienced a gut check moment? Or maybe you’ve experienced butterflies in your stomach. That’s the way we often describe feeling nervous. One of the things we’ve learned over the last couple of decades is that our abilities to think and employ solid reasoning are owed at least in part to the health of our digestive tract. We don’t normally think of digestion in these terms, but there’s a body of evidence to support the idea.
Some scientists call the 100 trillion bacteria and 100 million nerve endings in our gastrointestinal tract our second brain. This “brain” communicates with an interface known as the gut-brain axis, which explains why gut health can help with conditions like Alzheimer’s or depression. People often associate chemicals like serotonin with the brain, but most of our body’s serotonin and GABA, two neurotransmitters that improve mood, are actually located in our guts.
On the flip side, other studies have shown a relationship between imbalances in gut bacteria and a rise in neuroimmune and neuroinflammatory diseases. But the good news is that there are established practices that we can do to promote gut health. If the conventional wisdom is right, you may not exactly be what you eat, but more what or how you digest.[i] We each have a sort of a “second brain,” and its health impacts more than most people think. The gut serves as an internal guide to our health and vitality in many ways, and impacts our ability think and reason.
Well, in a similar way, those who place their faith in Christ and follow him have an internal guide and teacher: the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is absolutely vital for living an authentic Christian life. The problem is that most of us aren’t all that in tune with what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives, because so much of what he is doing is below the surface and behind the scenes. He’s doing the long, drawn-out work of transforming us into the image of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 St. Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” That’s the big picture panoramic view of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of all who call Christ their Lord and their Savior. And life in the Spirit is the big picture topic St. Paul addresses in Romans 8. We’ve spent the winter months walking through the middle chapters of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians in a series called “Deep Grace,” and right now we’re in Romans 8 and we’re talking about life in the Spirit, living lives that are empowered by the Holy Spirit. You know, in the first 7 chapters of Romans, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit just twice. In those chapters he’s really laying the foundation for life in Christ by describing our brokenness and sinfulness, our painful and spiritually deadly separation from God. But now, as he moves from what we are apart from Christ to what Christ has done and is doing on our behalf, the Holy Spirit is his main topic. In Romans 8 alone Paul mentions the Holy Spirit 20 times, after only mentioning the Spirit twice in the preceding seven chapters.
So what does this life in the Spirit look like? That’s the question we’re going to be asking over the next few weeks. Turn with me today to Romans 8:14-17 as we look at the real freedom we have in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean to be “led by the Spirit?” A lot of people think of it as guidance in day to day living. You know, like “Who should I marry?” and “Which job should I take?” and “Which car should I buy?” And the Holy Spirit does sometimes lead us in those areas, but things like that are really modern constructs. When Paul was writing this, most marriages were arranged by the parents and pretty much everyone did what their parents did as far as their life’s work goes. People didn’t typically look to God for guidance in those areas because they believed God was using their parents and extended families, their elders, to guide in those areas. We have a freedom to choose our spouse and our job and our house and our means of transportation today that was unheard of, undreamed of, at the time Paul was writing. So what kind of guidance from the Holy Spirit was he talking about?
For St. Paul and the other New Testament writers, to be “led by the Spirit” was to heave the overall direction of your life as a whole directed by the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t so much about what you did as it was how you did what you did. It wasn’t so much about daily guidance in every little decision of life. It was about what kind of person you were becoming. To be led by the Spirit is to be living rightly. To have the fruit of the Spirit, the products that the Spirit brings out in us, growing in our lives. So if we’re being led by the Spirit, submitting ourselves to the Spirit’s leading in our lives, we will be growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The problem today is that we’re far more concerned with God providing us with the right car and the right home and the right job for us, but we have little of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives. In fact, most people in the world today wouldn’t even think about asking God for things like cars and homes and jobs. They’re more concerned with feeding their families.
Or there are those who will say that they’re “feeling led by the Spirit” to say something. That’s usually code for “You aren’t going to like what I’m about to say, but I don’t care, because God is telling me to say it.” Now, again, there are times when that happens, but far too often its just an excuses for ME to say what I want to say and blame God for it if it doesn’t go well. That isn’t being led by the Spirit. That’s doing what I feel like doing. The life of a disciple of Jesus who is being led by the Spirit is a life marked by observable increases in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In one of his recent books, Ken Boa compares disciples of Christ learning to be led by the Holy Spirit to a soaring eagle:
God seems to like eagles. Thirty-three Bible verses mention them! Eagles are true flying birds, meaning they get off the ground by flapping, but they soar by thermals. Eagles begin flight training around four months old. But even before that, at about two months, they stand up in the nest and spread their wings when they feel gusts of wind. They’re training to know the thermals! Thermals are the columns of air formed as heat rises from the ground. Because heat rises, these air columns push up and up, displacing the cold air around them. By staying in the warmth of the thermal, the birds continue to soar. Eagles become experts in this.
In this magnificent aerodynamic action, gravity isn’t deactivated—it’s still at work—but the higher principle overcomes gravity. Eagles drop down when they step off a branch. Then, they start flapping like crazy. Once they’re in the air, though, their wings don’t have to work very hard, and while soaring, they use a small fraction of the effort required to rise. They’re almost at rest and can just enjoy the pleasure of flight.
When we first begin following Christ (or practicing a spiritual discipline) we’re like eagles spreading our wings. Once we start flapping, though, we lift up. Maybe after a few tries we’re back down on the ground. But through repeated practice, we finally soar. Also, in Greek, the Holy Spirit is called pnuema, which means “current of air.” Think about what this means for us! We flap and flap, but eventually we catch the current of air, and we soar. This is how the Holy Spirit works with our training. He’s not only our coach; he’s the power behind everything we do.[ii]
Now, according to Paul, the Holy Spirit does something really specific here. Look at V. 15. The Holy Spirit actually makes us children of God. When we admit that we are sinful and place our faith in Christ and receive the forgiveness God offers us in Christ, the Holy Spirit actually makes us children of God. And the image Paul draws on to describe this truth is the image of adoption. The Jews didn’t really practice adoption, but the Greek-speaking world did, and Paul is pulling this image in from that culture. When we place our faith in Christ, God adopts us in to his family and, through the Holy Spirit, we become his children.
Today, adopted children sometimes feel “less than” their siblings who are the biological offspring of their adoptive parents. Sometimes their skin color is different than that of their parents and that makes them really feel like outsiders. Plus they sometimes deal with feelings of rejection from their birth parents. But in the ancient world, the opposite was true. Adoption was viewed as an incredible honor, a means of taking someone who wasn’t naturally born into that family and moving them into a position of incredible status and privilege, with all of the rights and privileges of the parents’ biological children, including rights of inheritance.
Paul specifically used the word for “son” here, and he did that not because he was talking about just male children, but because he was bringing in an important concept from the Old Testament. You see, in the Old Testament, the Jewish people, the nation of Israel was often referred to a being a child, a son, of God. Not in the sense of Christ being THE Son of God, but in the sense of being God’s possession. In Jeremiah 31:9 the prophet says, “I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” He was reminding Israel that he had not let go of them. They still belonged to him. When God used father-son language to refer to his relationship with Israel, he was telling them that they belonged to him. That they were his special possession.
When I was 6 and my brother was 4, my parents adopted our sister, Sarah, as a newborn infant. She was tiny when she first came to live with us, and as is typical there was the initial “foster to adopt” time period. And while we were still in that phase, before the adoption was finalized, Sarah developed a very serious medical condition that she deals with to this day – hydrocephalus, which results in increased pressure on the brain. So before she was legally my sister, Sarah was in the hospital in NICU in a coma, and she had major brain surgery. It was during this time period that the caseworker asked my parents, “Do you still want her?” Of course, they did, and she is my sister to this day.
There have been times over her life, though, when Sarah has felt less than. Like she wasn’t as important as Brad and I. Mostly because Brad and I were trying to make her feel that way. You know, sibling stuff. Well, there was one day when Sarah, in deep hurt and frustration, yelled out “I’m not as much a part of this family as you guys are!” Of course, at that point we stopped tormenting her and I said, “Sarah, mom and dad are stuck with Brad and I. They have no choice in the matter. They wanted a family and we’re what came out. But you? They went shopping for you. They picked you out. And even when given the chance to back out, they didn’t. They’re stuck with us. They picked you. As children of God, we belong to God. We are God’s own. We belong to him.
And not only does the Holy Spirit do the work of making us children of God through Christ, he also makes us aware of that truth. Look at V. 16. It means that over time, it really sinks in to OUR spirits that we really are God’s children. That we belong. That we are accepted. That we are safe in his hands as his children, protected from anything that can ever eternally harm our souls. It sinks in. But something else is happening here too. In the world Paul knew, two witnesses were needed in court to establish something as fact. In this case, those two witnesses are our own spirits and the Holy Spirit crying out together that we are children of God. It is established. It is fact. It is truth. It is real. We belong.
Now, check this out. Look back up at V. 15. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and in our English translations only a tiny handful of words have been left untranslated. Usually its because there really isn’t a great equivalent in English that really captures it. The word “Abba” is one of them. The closest we can get to the sense of the word is something like “daddy.” This isn’t father. That’s too strict and rigid and imposing, although that language is often used of God. It isn’t even dad. It’s daddy. It pictures a small child running into her daddy’s arms. There’s intimacy and connection. There’s trust. There’s security and a sense of safety. There’s total dependence. There’s also excitement and joy and pleasure. And the daddy brings himself down to her level, to meet here where she is, to wrap her up in his arms and hug her tightly. To toss her into the air in play, always catching her securely. Never letting her fall.
But here’s the cool thing. This is the word Jesus called his heavenly Father when he prayed IN THE GARDEN OF GESTHEMANE. In his darkest hour, in his moment of greatest need, Jesus prayed to God not as Father, not as Lord, not as God, but as Abba. As daddy. He wasn’t looking for power and authority. He was looking for reassurance. And because we too can cry, “Abba!” our relationship with God can be just as intimate as Christ’s was. Our relationship with God is like Christ’s. Not that we’re divine. We aren’t. That’s the point of the adoption language. But we can come to him, run into his arms, just as Christ did.
And as God’s children, we are also God’s heirs. Look at V. 17. So what do we inherit? We inherit all of the fulfilled promises God has made to his people, and they can all be summed up in two words: eternal life. We are children of God now, in this broken, fallen, sinful world. We live as his children now. We enjoy the benefits of access to our “Abba” now. But the full inheritance is yet to come. Disciples of Jesus tend to focus solely on the inheritance, we call it “heaven” and forget about the privilege of living as God’s adopted children here and now. But the truth is, we are living in the Kingdom of God now as his children, and we will enjoy our full inheritance with him in eternity.
But there’s a thorn in that promised inheritance. “We suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” There’s a beautiful truth of God’s kingdom here: glory comes through suffering. Suffering in this world, yes. But glory in the one to come. No promises that we’ll never get sick, that we won’t feel pain. That we won’t struggle or cry out in anguish. That we won’t feel confused and afraid. Just the promise that we are so united with Christ that our participation in his death and resurrection on our behalf is also participation in his suffering, and we will at times experience that suffering, suffering for good, suffering because of sin and evil and brokenness here in this world. But always with the promise of glorious inheritance in eternity with Christ.
Oswald Chambers, author of the devotional classing “My Utmost for His Highest, said “The Spirit of God is always the spirit of liberty; the spirit that is not of God is the spirit of bondage, the spirit of oppression and depression. The Spirit of God convicts vividly and tensely, but He is always the Spirit of liberty. God who made the birds never made birdcages; it is men who make birdcages, and after a while we become cramped and can do nothing but chirp and stand on one leg. When we get out into God’s great free life, we discover that that is the way God meant us to live “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”[iii] Let us pray.
[i] Lucille Tang, “How the Bacteria In Your Gut Affect Your Mind and Body,” ABC News (2-12-19)
[ii] Kenneth Boa, Life in the Presence of God (InterVarsity Press 2017), pages 129-130
[iii] Oswald Chambers in The Moral Foundations of Life. Christianity Today, Vol. 32, no. 13.