by Chris Ritter
I went hunting yesterday with my dog. I didn’t mean to. I was just sitting there and she started to go crazy… hunting a fly that had made its way into the house. I soon discerned that I was going to need to join the hunt if I hoped for peace anytime soon. She with her keen eyes and me with my fly swatter were finally victorious. Just to show you that we are not wasteful hunters, I will tell you that one of us ate the quarry.
Life is full of battles. Some are teeny-tiny like the one I faced yesterday. Most are of a larger scale. It has been often said that the Christian battles three things: The world, the flesh, and the devil.
One biblical sense of “the world” is a reference to the people on earth. This is usage in John 3:16: “God so loved the world…” This is not what we mean when we say Christians battle the world. We are talking, rather, about the worldly system that organizes itself independent of and in opposition to God’s Kingdom. When First John says to “love not the world” it is referencing the human ways or organizing to exercise power, authority, and influence apart from God’s authority.
Someone asked me one time if Jesus is a Democrat of a Republican. The best answer to that question is this: “Jesus did not come to take sides. He came to take over.” We look forward, with Handel, to that day when “the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ… and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)
Ephesians 6 may be the best description of how Christians battle the devil. Because there are many principalities and powers in the spiritual realm, we keep on the full armor of God. We wear the breastplate of righteousness and keep in hand the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit.
As we embark upon Week #2 of this series on Walking in the Spirit, I have a question for you: What is the opposite of walking in the Spirit? We are going to draw our answer from Galatians 5:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.Galatians 5:13-26 (NIV)
Yes, the opposite of walking in the spirit is “walking in the flesh.” What is the flesh? At first glance we might be tempted to define the flesh as our physical bodies… our spirits and good and our bodies are evil. There were plenty of people in the First Century who viewed life in this way. They were called Gnostics and they believed that physical stuff, including our bodies, are evil and spiritual stuff is good. But that is not the teaching here or in Scripture more generally.
Our bodies, though touched by the power of sin, are good creations of God. Paul will say to the church at Corinth that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 6:20 says, “So use your body for the glory of God.” Your body is both a temple and a potential tool of the Holy Spirit.
So what does Paul mean when he describes the flesh?
Think of the flesh as our ego, our self-identity apart from God. It is our self-will aimed at our own self-rule. You encounter the power of the flesh each and every day. I bet you have even encountered it when you woke up this morning. It is time to sing and praise God. Your spirit says, “Yes and amen!” Your flesh says, “I don’t like to sing with a stupid face mask on. I’m tired. I don’t like this song. Why don’t we ever sing songs that I like? 2020 stinks.” But you jumped over the hurdle of the flesh and decided to follow the Spirit.
The disciples ran into the flesh barrier in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was time to pray. Their flesh said it was time to sleep. What did Jesus tell them?:
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”Matthew 26:41
Living in the flesh is really useless if you want to live a life pleasing to God. Jesus was always trying to get people to see beyond the surface:
The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.John 6:63
John 3 is that great chapter about the New Birth. Nicodemus thought that Jesus was talking about physical birth. No, Jesus said:
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.John 3:6
We are reborn in our spirit, and we work out that salvation by gradually yielding our minds and bodies more and more to the Holy Spirit.
This is what Paul said in Romans 8 about living in the flesh, vs. living in the Spirit:
5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.Romans 8:5-8
Being self-directed in the enemy to being Spirit-directed. The basic mark of the flesh is that it is un-submissive. It wants its own way. It’s favorite song is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (that song is played on continuous loop in hell.)
So, there is a war going on inside of every Christian. You might say, “That sounds awful. I thought the Christian life was supposed to be about peace.” Our peace comes through surrender to the Lord. It is in being a living sacrifice. But we constantly have to keep our flesh in check.
Some people think they have peace, but it is just because they are whipped by the world, the flesh, and the devil. They have stopped fighting. Inner conflict is a very positive sign that you have not given up the struggle.
We recently had a day of fasting as a church. That was a way we said “no” to our will so that we could be better prepared to say “yes” to God’s will.
Paul wrote to the Church at Galatia because he wanted to them to live in Gospel Freedom, not by slavish obedience to an external law. They were to live by the internal Law of Love. Community without love will devour itself. This is true in marriage, school, church, or any other human relationship. The flesh left unchecked will lead to destruction.
Law is one way to check our human, fleshly selfishness. But it is not the best way. God’s way is to teach us how to walk by the Holy Spirit. Walking in the flesh and walking in the Spirit are two opposite ways of living. They are mutually exclusive.
Two Roads, Two Destinations
And these are not just two different ways of living, these are roads with two different destinations. Paul describes the life lived by the flesh. He lists the “Works of the flesh”:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.Galatians 5:19-21
Paul starts the list with sexuality run amuck. Sex is a great servant but a demented master. When sex is unhitched from God’s guide, design, and governance, it becomes a tool to gratify and control. You may have noticed that we live in the world rife with pornography. That is using another person as an object of gratification instead of connecting two people in life-long covenant.
But notice the flesh also reaches into the religious realm. “Idolatry” is worshipping based on what you can get rather than the worthiness of the one being worshipped. “Witchcraft” is manipulating spiritual things to achieve the results we want, apart from the rule and reign of God. The flesh can show up in church and religion just as well as in your internet search history.
Notice how the flesh shows up in our human relationships: Hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition. There is much talk of racism today. Racism is a species of worldliness in the church that must be met with God’s truth and the power of the Holy Spirit. What kills marriages? Selfishness… another manifestation of the flesh. The flesh cooperates with the devil to bring dissensions, factions, and envy.
Notice, also, that the flesh never gets enough. Drunkenness and orgies are measures of excess. The flesh always wants more. It is never satisfied. Walking by the Spirit leads to contentment. Walking in the flesh will make you always crave more. Some people destroy themselves when they get enough to realize that it will never make them happy.
But we are called to worship King Jesus. He died for us. Our faithful response is dying to ourselves so that we can live in the freedom he intends for us.
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”Galatians 5:24
It is one of those paradoxes of life: Saying yes to yourself will lead you to destroy yourself. True freedom comes from saying “no” to self and “yes” to the Holy Spirit. It is a small person, indeed, who lives a life no larger than their own urges and interests.
But when you follow the Spirit, a new reality naturally develops in your life. Paul calls this the Fruit of the Spirit:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.Galatians 5:22,23
Think of the ways that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control might manifest themselves in your work, friendships, worship, parenting, and marriage. This is not presented as a “to do” list. This is the natural outworking of anyone who walks by the Holy Spirit.
You have perhaps heard the story of the aged Native American who was talking with his grandchild. He said, “Grandson, there are two wolves living inside you. They are fighting with one another. One is hatred, pride, and cruelty. The other is love, peace, and harmony.”
The grandson asked, “Grandfather, which one will win?”
The reply: “Whichever one you feed.”
Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 6:
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.Galatians 6:7, 8
I leave you with this significant key to walking in the Holy Spirit: Feed your spirit. Deny your flesh.
When you pray, especially when you don’t feel like it, you are feeding your spirit and denying the flesh.
When you study the Scriptures, especially when you don’t feel like it, you are feeding your spirit and denying your flesh.
When you worship, especially when you don’t feel like it, you are feeding your spirit and denying your flesh.
When you show kindness, especially when you don’t feel like it, you are feeding your spirit and denying your flesh.
And the more your spirit grows, the more you will learn to love the things of God. The things that the flesh desires will lose their luster. We will love what God loves. And that is genuine life.