One of the greatest privileges of my life is the weekly opportunity I have to preach consecutively through the Scriptures from the pulpit of our church. In addition to the good this does to my own soul, the detailed exposition of the Word equips me to counsel others. I often find myself going to texts I have recently preached when addressing the problems of my counselees.
Recently I have come, in my exposition of Galatians, to the end of chapter five which deals with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I have been richly blessed as I have sought to better understand what it means to walk by the Spirit and to be led by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 18, 25). I need this and my counselees need this.
I also have been encouraged to better understand the struggle which takes place between our old fleshly desires and the competing desires put in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:17). Though the flesh has been decisively defeated through our union with Christ in His death, our old fleshly desires still war against our new spiritual nature. We and those whom we counsel should not be surprised by this desire battle which rages in our hearts.
Some counselees become overwhelmed with guilt when they feel strong desires to go back to their old life of lust, substance abuse, and selfishness. They may even doubt that they are believers. Some Christians are ashamed to even admit that they experience such a conflict, supposing that mature believers should be above such a struggle.
Paul tells us, however, that the existence of a struggle is a strong indication that the Spirit is at work in you. The person who is lost is still under the dominion of the flesh and experiences no spiritual warfare. Luther writes, “The wicked do not complain of the rebellion of their flesh or of any battle or conflict, for sin reigns mightily within them.” Though the unbeliever may experience pangs of conscience, he remains enslaved to the desires of the flesh and has no power to bear spiritual fruit.
I also have been blessed to see Paul’s optimism in this passage. As we walk by the Spirit the desires of the flesh will not prevail (Galatians 5:16). Calvin writes, “The flesh is like a wild beast that no one can tame, yet it is not more powerful than the Spirit of God and the grace that comes from on high which brings under the yoke in submission to our God.”
As powerful as the desires of the flesh may be, the indwelling Spirit produces better and stronger desires that we would know Christ and bear Christlike fruit. The battle is fierce, but the Lord has sent us a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who leads us by His truth and enables us to walk in step with Him.
Walking by the Spirit
What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? On the one hand we are reminded of our complete dependence upon Him. We only bear fruit by His enablement (Galatians 5:22-23). But walking in the Spirit also implies our responsibility to continuously and actively move forward by the power that He gives. The Spirit does not discourage effort but encourages us to walk (live) as we submit to His leading which comes through the Word He has revealed.
Daily we will face situations in which we experience the battle of the competing desires of the Spirit and the flesh. We must identify the voices which are trying to persuade our hearts to action so that we can follow the Spirit and not the flesh. For example, when your spouse makes a critical or unkind comment, the flesh will say, “You don’t have to put up with that. Return fire.” On the other hand, the Spirit will help you to be patient and gentle (Proverbs 15:1; Galatians 5:22-23).
Or, when you are feeling lonely, empty, and discouraged, the flesh will try to draw you back to your old idol desires of food, drink, drugs, lust, or material things to satisfy your soul. The Spirit, however, will remind you to taste and see that the Lord is good and that you can find satisfaction in Him alone (Psalm 34:8; Isaiah 55:1-2).
Finally, on those occasions when you fail in the battle of desires, Satan will tempt you to despair, telling you of the guilt within. The flesh will tell you that you are defeated and that you might as well give up. The Spirit will lead you back to Christ, telling you to look up and see Him there who made an end to all of your sin. Because we are united with Him in His death and resurrection, our sins are forgiven and the power of the flesh over us is broken.
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What principles from Galatians 5 can you apply to your life and ministry?