The Battle between Flesh and Spirit
We have a choice of two. It’s not an over-simplification or some huckster’s trick to nudge you towards a purchase. It’s a plain statement of logical fact. If you’re on Route 66, you either head towards Chicago or Los Angeles, but you can’t do both.
That’s how Paul presents the battle in which we all engage “from life’s first cry till final breath” between the flesh and the spirit. It’s as if you own two large dogs who are pulling you in contrary directions: “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.” (Galatians 5:17).
So what do you do? You have to choose which dog to feed. “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
That last phrase is important. Towards what kind of lifestyle are “the desires of the flesh” tugging you? It’s a question of
The Need to Steward your Desires
In the careful words of that immortal poem: “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want. So tell me what you want, what you really really want”
Desire is a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen. It’s more than a passing thought. In fact it is something that you might set your heart on. The thought of it might begin to dominate your thinking until you think that it spossession is your right, your need and the focus of your ambition. Until the next time.That’s why we need to be good stewards of our desires.
Our desires can be driven by the Flesh or the Spirit, and fleshy desires will always contradict the Spirit-led desires and they can choke the plan of God for our lives. Jesus said: “The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19)
So next time you desire that new hi-tech gadget that your friend has, that car, carpet or carp-rod (working down a sales catalogue index here), ask yourself this question: Why do I want what I want? Is it just to please my flesh? Is it going to take me closer in my walk with Jesus?
James even said: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire, but you don’t have , so you kill. You covet, but you cannot get what you want so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on pleasures.”
So keep your desires in check. Work at it by starting to thank God for what He has already blessed you with! When we start taking our blessings for granted, we start craving for more, we start comparing ourselves with others more and somewhere we start getting the feeling that we are entitled to what they have or own!
But there’s much more to this than buying stuff. That’s symptomatic of a deeper issue: it’s the issue of “wanting” itself. And so there is
A Need to Understand the Danger
Ultimately, you are what you feed. In Galatians 5, Paul outlines the destination of the two journeys, the journey of the “Flesh” and the journey of the “Spirit.” They are two antithetical life-principles.
Here’s Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Galatians 5:19-21. Paul’s description of a life where desires have not been stewarded is powerful, scary and deeply unpleasant:
“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”
I’m sure that, if you’re like me, you’ll recognise (at least some of) this as pervading and perhaps sometimes dominating, your own mind, soul and body. We get driven by “all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants.” We build up “a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage.” And if things don’t go our way, then we lash out with “a brutal temper.”
The question then, is what to do. C.S.Lewis wrote: “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
So how do I do a U-turn? Sometimes on the bigger roads, I’m even prevented from doing so. I get stuck in a certain pattern of living. You can’t just switch off an addiction with the flick of an instant decision.And the pattern of thinking described in Galatians 5: 19-21 is addictive, and toxic. So what do I do? What do I do as a Christian believer if I recognise the traits of “fleshly” living in me?
I need to keep being filled with the Spirit
I’m not talking here about a quick-fit religious experience of some sort, (Hand-raised, heart stirred, quick prayer of committment, two dots on the microwave and ready to serve…); but of a total and all-embracing ongoing journey with God.It’s the only rhing that’s going to work with people as troublesome as you and me.
If I am what I feed, then I need to feed the spirit and not the flesh. I feed it through what I read, through the company I keep, through the music I listen to, through the thoughts I allow to linger in my whirlpool brain…
And of course, all that does quite often begin with a “Hand-raised, heart stirred, quick prayer of committment, two dots on the microwave and ready to serve…” moment! But that’s only the start. The wedding ceremony must not be confused with the marriage itself. The ongoing business begins and continues with God saying, “And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees…” (Ezekiel 36:27)
Here’s some more of Peterson’s paraphrase of Galatians 5:
“My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?”
So what is it to be led by the Spirit on a daily basis? Let’s conclude on the wonderfully positive note of Galatians 5:22-24:
“But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
Don’t worry if this doesn’t describe you yet! Fruit takes time, but it’s a natural development of the seed that God has planted in you for your journey with Him.
It’s going to happen!