Let's talk about sex. And drinking. And arguments. On the surface, this text looks like Paul is advocating for a life free of these things. But I want to make the argument that these things are not inherently evil, nor was Paul trying to dissuade people from living fully and having a backbone.
Let's take sex, for example. Sex is as much a spiritual experience as it is a physical one. It's one of the reasons parents try so desperately to encourage their teens and young adults to wait, or at least to be sure they've chosen a partner wisely. It's because the spiritual nature of sex bonds people in a way that can never be broken. The breakup of a sexual relationship is far more painful that the breakup of a platonic relationship because sex unites two spirits. When a breakup does happen, it rips apart the spirit of both. Conversely, two people in a healthy sexual relationship become partners in a way no two in a platonic relationship can do.
So, then, what is Paul talking about? He's talking about the frivolous, thoughtless behaviors that lead to damaged relationships. Sexual exploits that do not bring people together, but instead tear them apart. Drinking behaviors that lead to addiction, broken relationships, lost jobs, and social embarrassments. Arguments that seek, not to learn and grow, but to destroy and damage. Paul knew that people living by the Spirit (including the spirituality of sexuality, the social bonding over light drinking, the growth in knowledge over healthy, respectful debates) were living according to the will of God. People living by the flesh (adultery, sex without meaning, drunkenness, addiction, brawls and slander) were living contrary to God's will. Take any of the things on Paul's list, and you can see he's speaking against that those things that lead to division and strife, and in favor of things that lead to respect, honesty, bonding, and love.
Narrative Lectionary Text: Galatians 5:16-21
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.