“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
This passage follows a discussion of the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh. The works of the flesh are dangerous to our relationships. The people we hold near feel the stabs of the barbwire of sin that protrude from our hearts. Walking in sin hurts others, but there is another side as well. Could our growth in holiness be an opportunity to sin itself? That is what Paul seems to be getting at here. He is saying in effect, after explaining the fruit of the Spirit, that they shouldn’t let it be an opportunity for sin.
The word that Paul uses for conceit, in verse 26, could be translated vainglory. It is the desire to find glory and worth in what others think of us. Vainglory does damage to our relationships. It wants to use others to make us look good. It views others, not as people with value, but as opportunities for self-promotion. All of us can fall into this trap. Paul was writing to Christians, and he told them not to fall into this trap. “Trap” is the right word for this, and it is probably the natural place that our hearts go towards when we lose focus on the Gospel. The Gospel says that we are forgiven in Christ, that He loves us. It doesn’t downplay our sin. Instead, it deals with it by Jesus’ death on the Cross.
Sin Redefines the Guilt-Grace-Gratitude Cycle
What we tend to do is downplay our sin and lose sight of our forgiveness. It is like a circle, when we compare ourselves to others, we downplay our sin, and that leads us to downplay our need for grace. When we downplay God’s grace, we think we can do it ourselves, and that robs us of gratitude toward God.
Spinning Out of Control
The cycle tends to rotate in two directions, either moral comparison or a “what’s the point” attitude.
Moral comparison is the idea that we are good enough because we are better than others. It needs validation from others. The moral comparison person rarely is truthful or transparent about struggles. If they were to open up, it would make them look bad to others, and that would mean that they aren’t “good enough.” Because they place their value in what others think of them, opening up is viewed as a weakness, not strength.
This might be called “Gaston Christianity.” Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, must be seen as better than everyone else. He is stronger; he is better; he is more excellent at everything. If that is the mentality, then others are seen as getting in your way of greatness.
“What’s the Point?”
The other way this cycle could spin is towards forming the person who doesn’t care anymore. What’s the point of trying, what’s the point of chasing after holiness. This person understands their sinfulness but doesn’t find any hope. They aren’t afraid to admit things they have done, but figure things will never change. They may think that some people are just “super-spiritual” and others don’t have that trait.
This might be called “Eeyore Christianity.” Eeyore is the mopey donkey from Winnie the Pooh. For him, everything is wrong; there is no way out, so what’s the point.
The Gospel Mends the Cycle
This cycle cannot be broken apart from the Gospel. When the Gospel invades this thinking, it redirects us. The Gospel calls sin for what it is and directs us to the forgiveness of Jesus. Now, the moral comparison/Gaston person can see strength in their weakness because their weakness is what drives them to Jesus. The what’s the point/Eeyore person can no longer pull the “woe is me” card, because they see a God who loves them and desires to change them from the inside out. This God has a mission for them, not just the “super-spiritual people.”
There is great hope in the Gospel; it redirects our hearts and redeems brokenness in relationships. Those who are in Christ, who find their identity and worth in Him, are free to love others well free from comparison.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ga 5:25–26.