So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law …
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (verses 16-18, 24-25)
Conflict. Some people thrive on it, while others try to avoid it. But in the spiritual life, we’re unavoidably plunged into its midst and need to battle on through.
This raging conflict is between the Spirit, who indwells us in Christ, and our old sinful nature (“the flesh”) which continues to exert its insidious influence. The struggle is severe because these two are in thorough opposition, the desires of each completely contrary to the other.
Paul contrasts the “works” of the sinful nature with the “fruit” of the Spirit, that word “fruit”already helping us see that if we submit to the Spirit’s presence, he himself will actively birth his goodness in our lives. The conflict doesn’t need to be a stalemate.
So, how do we engage? I find help in the words that are used in conjunction with the Spirit, two of them speaking of the Spirit’s activity in our lives and two speaking of our own active involvement.
We “are led by the Spirit” and “we live by the Spirit.” Both phrases give us quiet confidence amid conflict, because the Spirit himself is constantly, actively at work within us. That the Spirit “leads” us is hands-on, direct involvement. I picture the blindman, with muddy-spit on his eyes, hearing Jesus’ command to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. He complied, but it must have been with the help of a friend, taking him firmly by the hand and leading him there. That’s the role of the Spirit. He leads us in the steps we need to take.
More powerfully yet, we “live” by the Spirit, which means we are dependent on him for each breath, for every moment that we are among the living, for our very existence. The verb itself refers to a decisive event in the past, looking back to our new birth in Christ when we came alive spiritually. It’s an accomplished fact, in which we now live, because of the Spirit’s involvement.
But on the basis of these twin realities, we receive two commands. “Walk.” “Keep in step.” Both envision the same action, with slightly different nuance. “Walk” is the ordinary word that means putting one foot in front of the other to move forward. I love this word because it is so ordinary, and yet so necessary. Paul understood it well, having travelled extensively in days long before the advent of motorized vehicles – a significant portion of those journeys would have been accomplished on foot. “Keep in step” has the same meaning, but is used specifically of soldiers, proceeding forward, marching in a row. It signifies active, deliberate engagement. Do that, in the Spirit.
So, when conflict arises again – and it will! – don’t panic. Root yourself in the ever-present activity of the Spirit, who takes you by the hand, having breathed into you his very life. And then make the choice – exercise your will, putting one foot in front of the other, deliberately aligning yourself with the desires of the Spirit, and pushing aside the desires of the flesh.
Be led. Live. Walk. Keep in step.
Dear Holy Spirit, please fill me anew with the knowledge of your abiding presence. I am dependent on you for life. I need your guiding hand. Strengthen me with power in my inner being to choose - especially in those moments of conflict - to put one foot in front of the other in line with your will. Thank you that you are the Counselor, called alongside to help, embracing me in the presence of Jesus himself. I lean into you. Amen.
Reflect: Breathing and walking are two of the images that arise in this passage. Take one of them as a prompt throughout the day to be mindful of the Spirit’s presence. Ask him to remind you. Submit to his instruction.