Written by Stephen Cox
In normal religion, the motivation for moralities fear-based. In gospel Christianity, the motivation is a dynamic of love. The apostle Paul spells out how we grow in character and his answer is that we grow as we battle.
“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.“
There are two natures at work in every Christian: the Spirit and the flesh (v16). And at any point in our life, we will live by one, and not gratify the other. Paul of course encourages the Galatians [and us] to ‘walk by the Spirit’.
The word ‘flesh’ translates the Greek word sarx. It is a word that doesn’t refer to our physical nature as opposed to our spiritual nature, but to the sin-desiring aspect of our whole being as opposed to the God-desiring aspect. The sarx is our sinful heart. Or rather, it is the part or the aspect of our hearts which is not yet renewed by the Spirit.
Set against the flesh is the Spirit. At first sight, it might seem that this is a battle between something inside us (our sarx) and outside us (the Holy Spirit). But since Paul speaks of each side as producing character qualities within us (5:19-24), and because of his language of two kinds of desires, it is clear that this conflict talked place within us. Our flesh or sinful nature was there ruling alone and unopposed, before we were Christians. The Spirit, however, entered supernaturally when we first became Christians and has begun a renewal that is now our new nature.
What precisely is the nature of the conflict (V17)?
It is a battle between the “desires” of the Spirit and the sarx. Literally, Paul calls the “desires of the flesh” epithumia. It’s a word that means an “over-desire”, an “inordinate desire”, an all-controlling drive and longing. This is important to understand. The main problem our heart has is not so much desires for bad thing, but our over desires for good things. When a good thing becomes our “god”, it creates over-desires. Paul says that sinful desires become deep things that drive and control us. Sin creates in us the feeling that we must have this, or that, or the other.
One of the interesting things that Paul says in verse 17 is “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh”.
What is it that the Spirit desires or longs for?
Jesus teaches that the Holy Spirit will come into the world to “glorify me” (John 16:14). So, while our flesh glorifies and adores and longs for all kinds of created things and conditions and people, the Spirit glorifies and adores and yearns for Jesus. The Spirit speaks of the beauty and greatness of Christ.
The Spirit longs to show us Christ and to conform us to Christ. Paul makes a telling statement when he says the Spirit and the flesh are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want to do.
As Christians, living the way of the Spirit is what we most deeply want, yet the sinful nature continues to generate alternative and competing desires which we experience and give in to, but which now contradict our most abiding love and goals. The Christian has both sinful desires and godly desires, but we most truly want what our Spirit-renewed heart wants.
This statement is filled with hope. Even when we are falling into sin, we can say with Paul: This is not the real me; this is not what I really want. I want God and his will.
To be walk by the Spirit (led by the Spirit in 5:18) is to change, and be changed, to be the people we want to be. The Spirit fuelled development of Christ-like character is liberating, because it brings us closer to being the people we were designed to be, the people our Spirit-renewed hearts want us to be.
Next week we’ll spend some time looking at the fruit of the Spirit and how we develop Godly-desires. This week maybe you could reflect on the battle that we face each day as God’s people.
What are the works of the flesh that are evident in your life?
What are the desires that cause you to think or behave in these ways?
What will you do to remind yourself of the gospel of grace and acceptance to undermine these desires?