Holy Things: Living By The Spirit
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Galatians 5:16-26 ESV
In 2013, Forbes Magazine published an article titled, “Research Shows Cocaine And Heroin Are Less Addictive Than Oreos.”
I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
The research from Connecticut College suggests that Oreo cookies result in the same chemical responses in the brain as cocaine, but in greater volume. The study began in hopes of shedding light on the obesity epidemic in low-income communities where people consume larger proportions of high-fat/high-sugar foods than they do fresh foods. But, the research concluded that there is more to the epidemic than just the availability of fresh foods. These communities may be full of people who have become addicted to the sugar and unhealthy fats in the foods they consume on a daily basis.
OK, I want you to realize what is happening here. The researchers wanted to see change to the health of people in low-income communities. So they did some research on rats to figure out how they respond to different chemical substances including Oreo cookies and cocaine. And what they found was actually higher sustained dopamine levels from the cookies than from the cocaine. Dopamine is the chemical in your body that produces a sense of pleasure or euphoria, so the researchers concluded that the Oreo’s must be more addictive than cocaine since the marker of cocaine addiction is long-term sustained dopamine levels.
But, come on? Oreo addiction?
You’ve gotta be kidding me. I don’t think anyone is buying into that. It’s hard to stop doing anything that you find pleasure in once you have started, whether that’s eating Oreos, watching television, or engaging in sexual activity. It’s the old Laye’s potato chip slogan, “I bet you can’t eat just one.”
Duh! If you like it, it’s hard to stop. And it really is that simple.
I’m not buying into Oreo addiction and neither does the author of the Forbes article, Jacob Sullum. The researchers reported that “some people can’t resist these foods,” to which Sullum responded:
It would be more accurate to say that some people don’t resist these foods, perhaps because they do not have exactly the same values, tastes, and preferences [as the researchers]. Instead of considering that possibility, [they] simply assume that people who eat things they know…are bad for them, cannot help themselves.
There’s a huge margin of difference between can’t and don’t.
The researchers leapt to the conclusion that Oreos are addictive, when in fact, it is more probable that most people are willing to gamble with the long-term health risk because of the immediate pleasure of eating an Oreo. And you can go anywhere you want with that, but there’s so many things we do that are gratifying now, but are probably compounding issues that we will have to deal with later in life.
OK, let’s talk about the Bible, since that’s why we are here today.
The Apostle Paul wrote,
- Galatians 5:16 (CSB) — I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh.
I think the Oreo research is a good illustration for Paul’s point. See, when you eat too much sugary and fatty foods and start to suffer from health problems as a result, it’s not usually that you can’t resist the flesh—that would be addiction. It’s that you don’t want to.
In the passage, Paul contrasted living by the Spirit with living by the flesh. To live by the flesh is to gratify the carnal desires of the flesh—it’s living by your lusts and passions. Living by the flesh is often, at least mostly, a matter of instant gratification. And living by the flesh is looking to what gets you the most pleasure.
One scholar I follow named Jordan Peterson puts it this way.
He talks about why a person would want to share with other people, like, if you had a box of Oreos, why might you want to share those with someone else?
Imagine you’re a cave man and you’re hungry. So, you go out and kill an animal.
Well, the first thing you do is eat as much as you possibly can. You want to be as full as possible because you aren’t sure when your next meal will be.
But, you get really full and there’s still lots of meat left on the animal, so you take some of the meat and you dry it in the sun to eat later. And that will be good to sustain you for maybe a few days longer.
But, there’s still some meat left and you want it to go to good use, so you call over a friend and you share your meat with him. And that’s a smart thing to do, because hunting is hard. And you might not get another animal for several days or even weeks, but maybe if you shared your food today, then your friend will share when he kills an animal to eat and you can help each other to survive.
This story is designed to argue the psychology that everything we do by nature can be reduced to primitive survival mechanisms. Everything we do in life is to be more satisfied, more comfortable, and safer so that we can survive longer and better.
Even though technology and society have progressed to the amazing degree that they have today, we still operate on these same basic faculties. That’s why when you stop in the grocery store, you’re always tempted to grab a package of Oreos or whatever other treat you like best. Because, the instant reward now, overshadows the future curse that the habit might bring.
You might think ‘future curse’ is strong language, but that’s exactly where Paul went with this text. He wrote,
- Galatians 5:21 (CSB) — I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
And that’s the heart of the curse of Adam. Sin results in banishment from God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is based on a different set of values than this world. The Kingdom of God exists for those who deny their flesh in life. The flesh wants a reward now—satisfied desires, increased comforts, and being safe and secure. But, walking by the Spirit is different.
So let’s compare…
Living by the Flesh and Living by the Spirit
For the Apostle Paul, living by the flesh is far more serious than just what you eat. He wrote,
- Galatians 5:19–21 (CSB) — Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.
I’ll go through these quickly. I don’t think they need much addressing since Paul says they are obvious.
• Sexual immorality refers to any sexual acts that are committed outside of a [SLOW] monogamous heterosexual marriage.
• Moral impurity is a more general term for engaging in sexually immoral behavior that it seems to me would include course joking about sexual topics, any form of sexual harassment, and definitely for today, pornography.
• Promiscuity is an imperfect translation of the Greek term akatharsia, which has classically been translated as licentiousness. It means extreme sexual immorality and was often used to describe extreme sexual offenses that took place in pagan temples such as orgies and beastiality.
See how obvious this is? Pretty obvious, right? Moving on…
• Idolatry is the worship of gods that are not the one true God.
• The Greek word translated as sorcery is pharmekaia — notice the similarity to our word pharmaceutical — and it refers to the mixing of magic potions. Today we might just all that making drugs. The term could be used for the taking of the potions or drugs as well.
• Enmity means to have an enemy. The flesh always desires self-preservation, so it’s your natural inclination to make an enemy of anyone who opposes you and threatens your ability to sustain life, satisfaction, and comfort. That all comes from the flesh.
• Strife is when you don’t get along with someone because you disagree on fundamental principles.
• Jealousy is when someone has something you want to have and you hold that against them.
• Outbursts of anger is extremely obvious. It is the reaction of the flesh to a threat that has no reasonable counteraction. You feel threatened and don’t know what to do so you yell.
• Selfish ambition is the foundation of living by the flesh. The person who lives according to the flesh is always doing things that ultimately please themselves as quickly and for as long as possible.
• Dissensions and factions occur, because—drawing on the cave-man analogy—you find some people who you can work well with and help each other to thrive in life, but then your group chooses to separate from others who you cannot work so well with, because they have different fundamental ideas about what it is that you are doing.
• Envy or covetousness is what happens when jealousy takes action.
• Drunkenness refers to consuming alcohol or other intoxicating chemicals in excess so that you lose control of your mind and body.
• Carousing is basically the same thing we mean when we say partying.
That’s Paul’s quick list of obvious deeds of the flesh. He says anything like it is just as much a deed of the flesh as anything on this list.
So, the question is, Do you want to live like that?
Many professing Christians are secretly jealous of the world because they do live like that. This Christian wants to live as the world does, as if God were withholding good things from His people and giving all the best things in life to people that don’t belong to His Kingdom. And that’s troubling to me.
What kind of King gives his best produce away to other kingdoms and lets his own people starve?
That cannot be how God’s Kingdom operates.
And it’s not. It’s quite the opposite, actually.
Too many of you have been taught to have a pessimistic view of this life. You’ve been taught that if you suffer through life now by denying the flesh, then you will get to have all of the blessings of God’s Kingdom when Jesus returns.
But, I believe Paul would have you to be optimistic, because he seems to think that you can stop living by the flesh and live by the Spirit, thus enjoying the pleasures of God’s Kingdom even now. Sacrificing the deeds of the flesh is not suffering for Paul; it’s a pathway to greater joy and immeasurable pleasure. He wrote,
- Galatians 5:22–23 (CSB) — But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Like, who doesn’t want more love and joy and peace in their lives?
Notice how the fruits of the Spirit interrelate with the deeds of the flesh.
• The person who is involved in sexual immorality is searching for love and joy, but all they get is fleeting moments of infatuation and pleasure that have no lasting satisfaction. But, the Spirit produces lasting love and joy in the follower of Jesus.
• The person who lives by the flesh is characterized with jealousy, envy, and anger. But, the person who lives by the Spirit is characterized by patience, kindness, and gentleness.
• The person who lives by the flesh is a part of factions and dissension — they divide not unite — but the person who lives by the Spirit is faithful and experiences God’s faithfulness.
• And lastly, the person who lives by the flesh has selfish ambition, where the person who lives by the Spirit has self-control.
Living by the Spirit is in every way better than living by the flesh, yet we so often fall prey to the lies of the flesh, because the flesh promises instant gratification. So like the person who submits to the box of Oreos over and over, we submit to the desires of the flesh over and over. As Christians, we know there is something better, but it seems so far away. You think, “Some day when I go to be with Jesus, I will finally have joy. But, it’s so hard now.”
But, the promise of joy is not just future. Your problem isn’t that you can’t have the joy now, you just don’t, because you don’t know how to Live by the Spirit.
And again, I think part of the problem is the teaching that the Christian life is going to be a terrible life of persecution and agony. I’ll be talking on persecution in a few weeks so I won’t do that today. But, it seems clear that the Kingdom of God is present in Christ and thus Paul says we can taste the fruits of God’s Kingdom even now. We really can experience the presence of God through His Spirit and be more fulfilled, more satisfied, more joyful, than we ever could be, living by the flesh.
I think the biggest stumbling block to living by the Spirit is the idea that you can live in both camps. But…
You Cannot Live by the Flesh and the Spirit
…at the same time.
Living by the flesh is the natural inclination of a human being. It’s basic survival. Everyone knows how to live by the flesh because it’s what you do by nature. Living by the flesh is the way that this world works.
Living by the Spirit is something new. Living by the Spirit is otherworldly. It’s the way that God’s Kingdom works. That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote,
- Galatians 5:17 (CSB) — 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.
I don’t think this could be any clearer of a statement. You just can’t have the best of both worlds.
You can’t claim to be a spiritual person with citizenship in God’s Kingdom if you are also content to live for the desires of the flesh. It’s why sometimes you will begin to reflect on your relationship with God and realize that you don’t sense the presence of the Spirit in your life. Maybe your faith has become dull, your worship has become rote and routine, your reading of the Bible difficult and fruitless.
It may not be that you are involved in overtly sinful activity. Maybe on a moral level you seem to be doing fine. But, it may be that you have still sunk back into a pattern of the flesh, a pattern based on survival and comfort. In the day-to-day grind of life, you have found yourself more concerned with the balance of your credit cards, your daily work schedule, and not so much the things of God. And that sort of shift will take a toll on you spiritually.
We often say that you have to make time for God in your life as if part of our lives are for the flesh, but we make time for the Spirit. ‘Make time for God’ is not a biblical way of living. The reality is, you can’t live by the flesh and the Spirit at the same time, so you actually need to make sure everything you do is spiritual. You don’t just make time; you let God rule all of your time. Your life should be an active, daily, pursuit of the things of God and an active denial of the things of the flesh.
Jesus said it this way,
- Matthew 6:24 (CSB) — No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
You see, it’s the same principle. You can’t live for the things of this world and for the things of the Spirit of God.
No matter how well you think you can balance the two things, you can’t. You love one and hate the other. You are devoted to one and despise the other.
We’re used to eating a healthy meal and then finishing up with a modest stack of Oreos and when it comes to food you can partake in moderation—which is why there was only two Oreos in your packet. But, when it comes to spiritual matters, you cannot serve two masters. You can’t live moderately by the flesh and still say that God is your master.
I want to make an observation about this principle, though, because you might feel like you are torn between two worlds and need to know which way you are leaning. Which one has your true devotion, the Spirit or the flesh?
And the answer is pretty simple. You love the one you won’t let go of.
The Apostle Paul told Timothy, the pastor of the church in the city of Ephesus,
- 2 Timothy 3:1–5 (CSB) — But know this: Hard times will come in the last days. For people will be…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the form of godliness but denying its power.
We are in the last days that Paul is talking about. He said that people know the message of Jesus and even claim to follow him — and maybe in some ways they do follow, they have a ‘form of godliness.’ But, because they love the pleasures of this world more than they love God, Paul says they deny the power of God.
Do you realize what he is saying?
If you live for this world, then you can’t experience the power of God. That’s what we mean when we say we are going through a spiritual dry spell or we say we don’t fell God’s presence. Living for the flesh squelches the Spirit’s presence so that we don’t sense the power of God in our lives. You can’t have loyalty to your flesh and the Spirit of God.
If you want to experience the power of God, you have to deny this world. You have to deny the flesh and live by the Spirit.
So for the rest of our time, I’d like to discuss the transition from…
Living by the Flesh to Living by the Spirit—NEXT STEPS
This is the time you are going to need to take out your Next Step cards. This is an opportunity for you to make a commitment to take a step this week to get closer to God and His purposes, to be, as James says, a doer of the Word, and not merely a hearer. As we go through this, I’d encourage you to make a commitment to one step you can take to walk closer with the Spirit of God and then you can turn that in when we pass the collection basket in a few minutes and we will be praying for you as you take that step.
I think one of the most discouraging things in the Christian life is when you don’t sense the presence of God. Sometimes, as a Christian, you have really obvious moments where you know God is right beside you. But, it’s not always like that, so I want to talk through three strategies that Christians use to live by the Spirit so that they can experience the power of God in their lives. Two of them are good and one is not.
The one that is not good, is to follow the…
The Apostle Paul clearly states that,
- Galatians 5:18 (CSB) — If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Here Paul is probably referring to the law of Israel, but realize his intent. [SLOW] You don’t get to God by following laws. You get to God by following His Spirit. You must be Spirit led, not law led.
Have you ever tried to keep God’s law, anyway?
It’s depressing and it only leads to self-loathing and self-deprecation. All the law can do is show you how bad of a person you really are. That’s why the Apostle Paul said,
- Romans 3:20 (CSB) — For no one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law.
The purpose of the law is to convict you of sin. Following the law of God will only serve to highlight how big of a failure you are.
But, that’s not what God wants for us.
There’s a false teaching that says, if you commit sin, then God leaves you. Or maybe life just gets hard—if you sin, your car breaks down, a relative dies, you lose a job—then this false teaching says that it’s your fault; God is punishing you for your sin. But, God does not punish you for your sin in this life. The punishment for sin comes on judgement day. When something goes wrong in life, that’s nothing more than the consequences of living in a broken world. Trials in this life are not the punishment of God; their the reality of the curse.
Think how miserable this kind of law-based existence is. Every time something goes wrong in life, you have try to figure out what sin you committed so you can fix it. Or worse, every time you sin, you’re looking over your shoulder, fearful that God will strike you down with lightning.
Listen, this type of law-based thinking is heresy. That means it’s so wrong that a Christian cannot consider someone else a Christian if they think this way.
Listen carefully to what I’m saying here. It’s heresy because it makes God’s favor depend on your obedience to the law. But, scripture teaches that Jesus died because you cannot obey God’s law. The scriptures teach that God’s favor rests on you because of Jesus’s perfect obedience and not your own.
So, whenever you start to think this way and you’re looking over your shoulder as if God is out to get you, just stop and thank God that He has saved you, He has made you His child, He has lavished upon you the promises of His Kingdom, not because of your obedience to rules, but according to the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
And if salvation is not based on law, then don’t fall prey to the lie that being Spirit-led means following laws or rules either. It doesn’t. That way of thinking will drive you to despair not the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.
So, being Spirit-led doesn’t come from the law, and then a second strategy—one that is a good strategy—is to…
…being led by the Spirit.
The Apostle Paul said…
- Galatians 5:25 (CSB) — If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
In other words, if the Spirit of God is in you, then make sure you are walking in line with the Spirit. Or you could say, “If you are a Christian, then act like one.”
In high school I was in marching band. When we marched for parades you would have to watch the feat of the person next to you in your peripheral vision to make sure that your foot fell exactly at the same time as theirs. That’s what it means to keep in step, to make sure that every foot in the band falls exactly in line with the next person. If you watch a good marching band, you can look down each rank and file and see every single shoe landing exactly the same way at exactly the right time.
It’s crazy though, because, if someone on the side of the parade route distracts you and you look away, in an instant you can find yourself out of step. It can happen so fast, so you have to remain watchful at all times.
And it’s so hard at first, but the longer you do it, the easier it gets until you don’t even realize that you’re watching anymore because it’s become second nature.
One of the ways that we practice staying in step with the Spirit is by…
Here’s a story. Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane in the evening and he wanted his disciples to keep watch, but they kept falling asleep. Here’s what Jesus said to them,
- Matthew 26:41 (CSB) — Stay awake and pray, so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Your flesh is week. It doesn’t want to be led by the Spirit. Your flesh just wants what it wants and it wants it now.
Some of you still have a faint chocolaty sensation in your mouth and you just want more Oreos, right?
That’s why the disciples kept falling asleep. The long term consequences didn’t matter nearly as much as their fleshes desire to sleep.
So notice, Jesus prescribed prayer for this problem and said that prayer will keep you from falling into the temptations of the flesh.
Why does prayer help?
Prayer helps because it centers your mind on God. Prayer helps you regain your focus on the things of the Spirit. You can’t be led by the Spirit if you aren’t looking to see where the Spirit of God is leading you. That’s why Paul said we should…
- 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (CSB) — Pray constantly.
Prayer is your peripheral vision that allows you to see God so that you can stay in step with His Spirit. So, pray constantly. Always talk to God in all you do.
And then, a second way to practice being led by the Spirit is to form…
Most Christians would be happy to do what God is calling them to do; they just don’t know what He is calling them to do, because they are so distracted.
Even as Christians, again, we can be so pessimistic. We focus on the difficulty of our circumstances. We focus on persecution—whether legitimate or not. We focus on ways that other peoples sins effect our lives. And we focus on our own sin. And that makes us complainers and pessimists.
We are so focused on our own circumstances that we don’t even see where God is leading us. Paul wrote this to the church in the city of Philippi,
- Philippians 4:8 (CSB) — Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.
Paul is suggesting that even within this broken world, there is a very real presence of God’s Kingdom working among His people. The Kingdom of God is not just future, but it’s present now in the church.
• In the midst of a world of lies, we hear truth.
• In the midst of a world of shame, we experience honor through Christ.
• In the midst of an unjust world, we are justified.
• In the midst of moral depravity, we are being made pure by the Spirit of God.
• With all the ugliness of the world around us, Christ see’s us as lovely.
• In a world of dishonest gain, there is yet that which is commendable among God’s people.
There is that which is excellent and praiseworthy among us and we ought to dwell—intentionally, and specifically—on these things. Form a habit of focusing on that which is amazing in God’s Kingdom. Don’t be a complainer, but be a praiser of God so that you can see where His Spirit is working and you can follow in His ways.
Pray, form habits of hopefulness, and then get to know your…
The Apostle Paul taught Timothy that,
- 2 Timothy 3:16 (CSB) — All Scripture is inspired by God…
There is one word that is translated as the phrase, ‘inspired by God.’ The word in Greek is theopnuestos, which is a compound word that comes from theos, meaning God and pnuema, meaning spirit. The literal translation of this verse is, ‘All scripture is God-spirited,’ which doesn’t make a lot of sense in English. But it clearly communicates that the scriptures, or the Bible, come directly from the Spirit of God.
The Bible is a big book full of all sorts of things that the Spirit of God has inspired into the hearts of men to write. So, it seems obvious to me that if you want to be Spirit-led, you should probably get to know the book.
Paul actually prescribes a full knowledge of God, which comes from the Bible, as the solution to the problem of focussing on your worldly circumstances. He wrote,
- Romans 12:2 (CSB) — Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
You want to live by the Spirit?
Then, get to know the book the Spirit wrote. If you need help with that, that’s what the church is for. Write ‘Know the Bible’ on your Next Step card and we’ll get you started on learning the scriptures.
So, the law doesn’t work to move you from living by the flesh to living by the Spirit. Practicing being Spirit-led by praying, forming hopeful habits, and learning the Bible does work. And final thing that works is to…
…on how far God has brought you.
There is a danger in the Christian life of forgetting where you came from. It’s hard for many of you to remember what life was like before you believed in Christ. Prayer and scripture flow naturally from your lips. You have a strong theological foundation and you know much of God and His purposes.
But, you have come so far that you forget that you have much further to go.
And to that situation, the Apostle Paul exhorts,
- Galatians 5:26 (CSB) — Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
The reality is, you can easily go back to living by the flesh if you are not very watchful. You can become conceited, believing that your ways must be God’s ways.
That can cause distress between believers where one provokes another. And if one person gains while another loses, that results in envy. You feel as though you should be the one gaining, because you are the one who has achieved such godliness. People leave churches and split churches over these sorts of issues, but Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9, CSB). Jesus was talking about marriage, but isn’t it true that God is gathering together His elect, His church, and joining us together as Christ’s body?
We ought to reflect so that we never become conceited, that we never let the flesh cause division or dissension in the church.
• We should reflect on our pasts so that we never forget how far we have come in Christ.
• We should reflect on our current state of fallenness. Make a list of everything in your life that you think Jesus might disapprove of. I’m certain that will keep us all very humble.
• And reflect on Christ and how far we still have to go before we obtain anything we might think of as true inherent righteousness.
Live by the Spirit by being aware of yourself so that you know how great is the grace of God and then let the grace of God be ever on your lips.
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