Full Speed Ahead One Step at a Time: How You Can Walk in the Spirit Every Day
August 26, 2001
“I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:16-18, Holman Christian Standard Bible).
This is one of the most important passages on the Christian life in the New Testament. It answers a question all of us have asked at one time or another: Why is it taking me so long to get better? We’ve all wondered about that, haven’t we?
– “I thought by now I wouldn’t struggle so much with anger. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
– “I still get tempted by pornography. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
– “I go to church every Sunday but I still have so many doubts. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
– “I thought I’d be a better person by now but I’ve got so many bad habits. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
– “I’m a bitter person even though I cover it up most of the time. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
Many of us wish we had an answer to that question. We might assume that upon conversion, we would rapidly sprout wings and fly to heaven. But it doesn’t happen that way. God has ordained that even though we are being made like Jesus, it only happens a little bit at a time. And sometimes that “little bit” seems very little indeed.
When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, God did not allow them to conquer it all at once. Because there were many entrenched enemies in the hills of Canaan, the Jews had to fight for every inch of it. Then they had to fight to keep what they conquered. It took them many years to possess the entire land. I believe this is a picture of the Christian life. There is victory to be had but it will not come easily or quickly. We are in a warfare with spiritual foes who will not easily yield their ground. Whether we wish to admit it or not, we will struggle with sin and temptation as long as we live. There is no reprieve from this struggle. And that’s one major reason why it takes so long for any of us to get better.
In order to help us grasp this truth, let’s break it down into three crucial statements based on our text—Galatians 5:16-18.
I. Struggle is a Normal Part of the Christian Life.
Many Christians prefer not to hear this truth because they want a Christianity that proclaims “all victory all the time.” They want a guarantee that all their problems will be solved if they will follow the right formula. But that is not realistic nor is it biblical. We are to fight the good fight of faith, putting on the whole armor of God, standing in the evil day, and enduring hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. Verse 17 is abundantly clear in this regard. Two principles are at war within us. One is called “flesh.” The other is called “the Spirit.” These two principles are in constant, unrelenting, unremitting antagonism to each other. They are constantly at war with each other. The flesh is Paul’s term for the depraved nature inside all of us by virtue of our physical descent from Adam. That depraved nature is hostile to God, selfish, and utterly evil. When we come to Christ, we become new creations by virtue of the Holy Spirit who comes to live within us. Even though the dominating power of the flesh is broken, the pull of evil remains with us. As one writer put it, evil desires arise from the flesh like smoke from a chimney. To say it another way, flesh is what we are by natural birth; the Spirit comes to us by our spiritual birth.
I draw several conclusions from this:
a) Flesh and the Spirit are fundamentally opposite. They do not and cannot cooperate.
b) The conflict between our flesh and the Spirit is continual and inevitable.
c) That conflict produces conflicting desires in the believer.
Thus with the same mouth we curse and we bless. We love and we hate. We serve and then we steal. We proclaim Christ and then we lie to our friends. We read the Bible and then we watch dirty movies. We sing in the choir and then we have an affair. And so it goes. The manifestations differ, but all of us feel the struggle in one way or the other.
Some people think, “If I come to Christ, all my problems will be solved. I’ll never struggle again.” Think again, sister! If you come to Christ, your problems are just starting. As a lost person, you sin because that’s your nature. As a Christian, you have a new nature that pulls you toward God while the flesh remains with you until you die. In one sense, Christians have conflicts the unsaved never know about. Our rewards are great but so are our struggles.
We ought to praise God for the war within. The deadly feud between flesh and Spirit is one sign that we are the children of God. Do you desire to be holy? Do you want to please the Lord? Is there a hunger in your heart to know Jesus and to love him? Do you desire to live a higher and better life even though you cannot seem to attain it? If you answer yes, that is strong evidence you are born again. Despite your personal failings, do you truly want to do what God wants you to do? Then you may rest in the knowledge that you are a child of God. Your struggle with sin is proof of your divine heritage. If sin is a burden, at least it is a burden and not a joy. If you can swear and hate and steal and mock and lust and think all sorts of foul thoughts and speak harsh words, if you can do that and feel nothing, then you are truly without hope in the world.
A Letter From a Young Man
About three weeks ago I was given a copy of a letter by a young man I do not know and have never met. I would judge his age to be in the mid-20s. Several years ago he graduated from one of the finest Christian schools in the Chicago area. During his days on that campus, he was known and respected as a godly man. I know someone whose life was positively impacted by his example. Recently he wrote an open letter to his friends in which he declared that he has lost his faith and was writing to announce that he is coming “out of the closet” as an active homosexual.
As I read his letter, I was struck by one word that appears six times in various forms in his letter. The word is “struggle.” The young man spoke of his “struggle” with sexual temptation, his “struggles” with his feelings, his “struggles” to live the Christian life, and in the end, his “struggle” with life itself. Finally he decided that the struggle was not worth the effort so he decided to stop struggling and to give in. So now he is “in the lifestyle” with all that that phrase implies.
As he came to the end of his letter, he asked his friends to accept his decision and not to quote Bible verses or try to “convert” him. He wants to keep his friendships as long as his friends will accept him as a homosexual. He closed his letter with these two sentences: “I am finally being true to myself, and I have never been more at peace.”
A few comments are in order:
First, he is wrong on both points. By turning to homosexuality, he is only deceiving himself. And any “peace” he now feels is merely the calm before the storm. The Bible says that the way of transgressors is hard (Proverbs 13:15 KJV). “There is a way that seems right to a man but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12 NKJV). “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23 NASB). No one gets away with sin forever. At best it offers a temporary respite from the inner turmoil, but it is a false peace that leads to something much worse.
Second, this young man has fallen victim to some very bad theology. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the idea that struggle is bad and that the way to deal with feelings of sexual temptation is to end the struggle by giving in to the temptation. In some ways this is the inevitable result of faulty teaching about the “victorious Christian life.” Too much contemporary teaching on this topic seems to imply (if not to state directly) that a Christian may reach a place or a state where the struggles of life disappear altogether. Such a teaching is both false and unbiblical. It is also dangerous because by promising what it can never deliver, it sets up Christians for failure and immense discouragement when they cannot achieve the promised “victory” over sin. It is only a short jump from this wrong teaching to the conclusion that Christianity itself must be false since the struggles of life continue. Certainly this young man expected some sort of deliverance from his feelings and temptations that never came. His solution, while radical, exposes the weakness of a theology that seems to promise a “victory” that somehow rarely happens.
“I Love Robbing Banks”
Third, the deeper issue is that this young man is using his struggles as an excuse to indulge his fleshly desires. We wouldn’t accept his excuse in any other area of life. Suppose a man said, “I have a terrible problem with cursing and bad language. I love to use dirty words and to utter blasphemies. For years I’ve struggled to control my tongue but I have often lost the battle. I’m tired of struggling so I’ve decided to stop struggling and start cursing all the time. If you want to remain my friend, you’ll have to accept my foul mouth and my blasphemies. That’s just the way I am. And I feel at peace about my decision.” We wouldn’t accept an argument like that.
Or suppose a man said, “I love to rob banks. For years I’ve dreamed about being like Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It seems like a lot of fun. I love the challenge of breaking into a bank and walking out with a lot of money. I’ve fought the urge to rob banks but I’m tired of fighting it. I want my friends to know that I’m a bank robber and I have peace about it.” We wouldn’t buy that for a second.
Or suppose someone says, “I’m a fornicator. I’ve had strong sexual urges all my life and I’ve decided not to fight it anymore. I’m just going to fornicate every chance I get. I enjoy it, it gives me pleasure, and that’s who I am on the inside. You need to accept me as a fornicator.”
Examples could be multiplied. We wouldn’t accept this sort of sentimental nonsense in any other area. But when someone says, “I’m a homosexual,” we’re supposed to say, “That’s okay.” But it’s not okay. God has already spoken and he has not stuttered. Those who ignore his Word do so at their own peril.
Our ongoing struggles and temptations are not in themselves sinful. We are not condemned because we struggle. It’s not the struggle that matters; it’s how we respond. The sin is in giving in, not in the fight itself.
No one escapes the conflict.
No one can avoid the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit.
No one gets a Christian life free from outward pressure and inward turmoil.
And there is no second blessing or spiritual experience that can magically propel you to a state where you no longer struggle with sin. That won’t happen until we finally get to heaven. Between now and then, we walk the hard road to glory, fighting every day to stay on the right path.
In the end is it impossible to remain neutral. The Holy Spirit can only help us when we depend on him. We still have a choice to make: Flesh or Spirit! Right or wrong! Good or evil! My way or God’s way!
II. That Struggle Produces Many Benefits.
It’s crucial to remember that God allows the struggle as part of our ongoing spiritual growth. Strange as it may seem, we need to struggle because that’s the only way we can grow in grace. Here are a few benefits to consider:
It reveals to us our inherent weakness.
It kills our pride and arrogance.
It humbles us again and again.
It forces us to cry out to God for help.
It reveals the uselessness of human effort apart from God’s strength.
It teaches us to rely on the Lord alone.
It causes us to love the Savior who delivers us from sin.
It leads us to a life of continual repentance.
It makes us more watchful against the encroachment of sin.
It makes us long for the rest of heaven.
It prods us to use all the means of divine grace.
It encourages us to develop habits of holiness.
It forces us to lean on our brothers and sisters to help us out.
It leads us to look for daily solutions instead of instant miracles.
III. God’s Desire is that We Walk in the Spirit.
Verse 16 tells us to “walk in the Spirit.” That opens up a vast area of crucial truth.
a) The Holy Spirit is a Person.
b) He resides in us from the moment of conversion.
c) He creates in us a new desire.
d) He gives us the power to obey.
e) He leads us to live like Jesus would live.
Paul’s point is that what the law could not do, the Holy Spirit does. Our hope is not in rules, but in the Person of the Holy Spirit indwelling every believer. By his power we can obey God in the midst of our ongoing struggle with sin.
The Greek word for “walk” is very ordinary. It means to walk from one place to another. It’s in the present tense, which means “keep on walking.” To walk means “to take a series of small steps in the same direction over a long period of time.” Walking implies steady progress in one direction by means of deliberate choices over a long period of time. To walk in the Spirit means something like “let your conduct be directed by the Holy Spirit” or “make progress in your life by relying on the Holy Spirit.” It has the idea of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide every part of your life on a daily basis.
Walking is slow compared with driving a car or flying in a plane. It’s not flashy at all. And sometimes walking can be tedious, slow, dull, drab, and downright boring. And yet if you’ve got to get from Point A to Point B, walking will get you there eventually. All you have to do is just start walking and don’t stop until you get there.
Tiny Steps Toward the Light
A few years ago a woman in our church came to see me. Because I thought I knew her fairly well, what she said blew me away. She told me that she was in the grip of an addiction that was destroying her life. By her own admission, she was in deep trouble because of her own wrong choices. Before we talked, I had no idea she had any sort of problem at all. None of her friends knew about it either. Now she was far gone in the darkness of addiction with feelings of guilt and in deep despair of ever getting better.
After listening to her story, I told her that she didn’t get where she was overnight. It took thousands of wrong choices over a long period of time to get where she was. I also told her that she wouldn’t be set free overnight either. She would have to take thousands of tiny steps toward the light before she would be free of the darkness.
Then the Lord gave me a liberating insight to share with her. Every day all of us make thousands of decisions. Most of them seem tiny and inconsequential. Certainly most of them seem to have no moral component. They are just little decisions we have to make. Will I get out of bed? Will I take a shower? Will I eat breakfast? If so, what will I eat? Will I drive to work? If so, what will I listen to while I drive? If I take the train, what will I read on the way to the office? Who will I talk to today? How will I relate to my coworkers? Where will I eat lunch? What time will I leave work? What will I say to my spouse as soon as I walk in the door? Will I sit down or will I go play with my children? And on and on it goes, all the way down to something like, “Will I tie my shoes and tuck in my shirt today?”
The crucial insight is this. There is no such thing as a truly neutral decision. Because every choice we make is intricately linked with every other choice before it and every choice we will make later, all our “little” choices are not really little at all. Every choice we make either takes us a step toward the light or a tiny step toward the darkness. And even the “meaningless” choices lead us in one way or the other. The fact that we can’t always see the implications of a decision don’t mean they aren’t there.
I told the woman that in order to get out of the darkness, she must go home and start taking tiny steps toward the light. And I warned her that tomorrow morning when she woke up, she would still be in the darkness so any steps she takes toward the light would be steps of faith taken in the darkness. And the next day she would still be in the darkness. And the day after that she would still be in the darkness. But if she kept on taking little steps toward the light, in a few days or a few weeks or in a month or two, one day she would wake up and see little streaks of light on the horizon. And one day, sooner or later, if she kept on walking in the light, she would wake up and see her room filled with the blazing light of God’s love shining around her.
A few months letter she wrote me a wonderful note. She said that when she left my office, she was determined to take tiny steps toward the light even though it was very hard at first. For many days she seemed to be walking in the darkness. But God is always faithful to his obedient children. Slowly the light began to dawn and one day she woke to find her whole life bathed in light. She had been set free. And she’s been walking in the light ever since.
Let me say it very clearly. Walking in the Spirit is not some mystical experience reserved for a few special Christians. It’s God’s design for normal Christian living. It’s nothing more than choosing (by God’s grace) to take tiny steps toward the light day after day after day. Those tiny steps do not remove the struggle but they allow you to walk in the light even while you feel the pull to go in another direction. The pull of the darkness is always with us in one form or another. By the Spirit’s power, we can choose to walk in the light every day.
What should we do in light of the struggle?
1) Stay humble.
2) Watch and pray.
3) Keep your eyes on Jesus.
4) Take little steps in the right direction every day.
5) When you fall, get up and move forward for God.
Remember that our struggle is not sinful. God allows it so that we will look to him for daily solutions instead of instant miracles. The struggle itself is evidence that you belong to God. We groan even as we wait for a better day. And we hope in God because where sin abounded, grace superabounded. Grace now reigns through righteousness. Through the struggle with sin your soul is made strong and you are being made fit for heaven. Stand and fight, child of God. The Lord is on your side. Amen.