We are beginning our series called Discipleship in which our text is going to come from Galatians 5-6. Sometimes when we talk about discipleship or following the disciplines of the Christian life, the discussion turns into all the things that you do to try to be a follower of Jesus. Lessons are given that tell us that we need to pray more, study the Bible more, worship more, and the like. But then we struggle with doing these things and wonder why we are having a hard time in these disciplines. I do not think that this is the right way to look at our walk with God. These things are important and necessary and given to us by God. But I believe that this might be best described as putting the cart before the horse. I think an important place for us to learn about discipleship and our walk with Jesus is to spend some time in the apostle Paul’s writings to the Galatians where he explains what this walk will look like in our lives. Sometimes we can jump right into the fruit of the Spirit or the works of the flesh. But there is an important introduction to this lesson Paul teaches. Before Paul begins to describe what this walk is all about, he first wants us to understand what is going on in our lives and what is at stake. Turn in our copies of God’s word to Galatians 5:16 and this will be the place where we begin our study.
The Winnable War (Galatians 5:16)
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16 ESV)
I want us to consider what Paul just declared. Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. These should be exciting words for us to hear. It is possible to not carry out the desires of the flesh. Sometimes we can be so dismayed about our struggle against sin. We should be upset by our failures and desire to do better. What I want us to see is that this is a winnable war. This is not an impossible journey. Our walk with God is not set up as a completely impossible venture. Paul is going to explain how we can do this. But he begins by just describing two sides: living your life by the Spirit or carry out the desires of your flesh.
This is an important starting point: you have desires that you are not supposed to fulfill. There are things you want to do that you must not do. You will have unfulfilled desires. The world says that if you have a desire then you must fulfill that desire. If you want it, do it. Unfortunately, people do not think about the logical outcome which is the fruit of our culture right now. I will harm you because I want to. I desire to harm you because that is the way I feel. We see this with the national news about this young girl who was found dead in Wyoming. She died by manual strangulation with all signs pointing to it being the boyfriend who killed her. But, hey, just fulfill your desires. My wife says she was at the gas station the other day and the car in front of this truck was not leaving fast enough so he rammed his truck into the car and pushed it out of the way. Obviously that brought a call to the police. But, hey, just fulfill your desires. So break the law, destroy property, hurt others, get upset, get what you deserve, get what belongs to you, and do what you want. Listen: there are thing you want to do that you must not do. God is saying you cannot do everything you want to do. By the way, friends, this is why you do not let your kids do what they want. You as a parent are teaching your children that just because you want to do something and just because you have a desire does not mean you get to have it or do it. This is training in righteousness.
The Conflict (Galatians 5:17)
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. (Galatians 5:17 ESV)
Do you ever feel like there is a war going on within yourself? Paul says that you are right to feel that way. The desires of the flesh are opposed to the desires of the Spirit. The desires of the Spirit are opposed to the desires of the flesh. Our fleshly urges and desires are warring against our will to do what God wants us to do. We need to hear these words that there is a war going on within us. There is a conflict going on inside of us. You have two sets of desires that are incompatible. These two sets of desires do not exist peacefully with each other. It is important to see this war. We are not in a passive situation. There is a conflict going on.
One of the problems we face is that we try to make these desires work together. We try to mesh the desires of the Spirit with the desires of the flesh. We try to make them work together. I want us to listen to the apostle Paul. These two desires cannot exist together. Look carefully at verse 17: “For these are opposed to each other.” Do not try to make these things work together. They cannot work together. I think this is the cause for miserable Christians. Miserable Christians are those who want to gratify all these fleshly desires while at the same time follow the desires of the Spirit. So we try to do right but we feel miserable because we want to gratify our desires. So then we gratify our desires only to be miserable because the guilt we feel for not following the desires of the Spirit. It is just a life of misery as you sit in the middle of two warring desires. This was the point the apostle Paul made to the Ephesians, a text that we looked at back in February.
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22–24 NRSV)
Notice that Paul uses clothing imagery. You were not taught to keep both of these warring “selves.” You were taught take off of the former way of life, be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and clothe yourselves with the new self. It is not comfortable to wear two sets of clothing. Too often what we try to do is put on the new self, created in righteousness and holiness, without taking off the old clothes that are corrupt and deluded by lusts. We just put those righteous clothes overtop of our filthy clothes and we are miserable and nothing seems right. So we live life as miserable Christians or we finally cast off the new self and go back to the old self because it feels more comfortable.
Paul expressing a reality for us to consider. We are either living in one sphere or the other. You are carrying out the desires of the flesh or you are carrying out the desires of the Spirit. It is not just simply saying no to sin and doing what is right. You are either living in one realm or the other. You may be miserable in one realm or the other because of the battle that goes on within each us. But at the end of the day we are either walking by the Spirit or we are walking by the flesh. One of these desires is ruling our lives. One of these desires is in charge of us. One of these desires controls our decision making.
This is the point at the end of verse 17 in Galatians 5. “To keep you from doing the things you want to do.” The desires of the flesh are incompatible and are keeping you from doing the things you want to do. I think this is the right way to understand this text. I do not believe that it makes sense for Paul to be speaking about unbelievers who are being kept from doing sinful things by the desires of the Spirit. Unbelievers do not have a war within them. They just do what they want to do. The only conflict is either the law, the teaching of their parents, or conscience. Rather, Paul is writing to Christians telling them that you have a war between your fleshly desires and what you know you ought to do. Being led by the Spirit keeps us from following the desires of the flesh (5:16).
Becoming Free (Galatians 5:18)
Where does this war come from? Sometimes we can mistakenly believe that this war and the problems we have fighting against the desires of the flesh come from outside of us. But the scriptures never say that the problem is out there in the world and if you could just isolate yourself from the world you would do so much better and not sin. The scriptures never say isolate by yourself and then you will not sin. The scriptures never say to isolate with other righteous men or other righteous women and then you will not sin. The reason why is because the problem is not outside of us but within us. Listen to what James said about this.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1:14 ESV)
Isolation will not do any good because the problem is in our hearts. The world is not the problem because the problem is within us. We are lured and enticed by our own desires. This is the issue. We can destroy all our tech, sell all our possessions, quit our jobs, and sit on a hill and we will still have sinful desires and we will still sin. The problem is the heart. We sometimes attempt to find freedom the wrong way. Freedom is not through willpower or through isolation. But freedom is possible. Notice in Galatians 5:18.
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18 ESV)
If you are led by the Spirit, you are going to have freedom. This is parallel to what was said in verse 16. If you are led by the Spirit, you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. You have been called to freedom (5:13). If you are led by the Spirit, you will not be under the condemnation of the law when sinful fruit is produced. There is freedom, not to sin, but to serve the desires of the Spirit (5:13).
I think this is a very important consideration for this winnable war. First, we do not see that we are enslaved by our passions and desires. I have spent more than two decades as a minister. I have countless times be asked to counsel people who are struggling with sin and have been caught in their vices. I have talked to people captured by pornography. I have talked with people caught in affairs. I have asked these people why are they doing what they are doing. Do you know what they typically answer? They typically answer, “I don’t know.” Why are you meeting these women? I don’t know. Why are you in this affair? I don’t know. Why are you sleeping around? I don’t know. Why are you in pornography? I don’t know. Here is what I don’t know means: I am captured by my desires. The reason you are doing what you do not understand is because you are captured by your desires. You are enslaved to these vices and sins. Your flesh cries out so loudly that you give into repeatedly and mindlessly. It gets to such a point that you believe that you can never stop. This slavery happens so subtly. It is just a sin here and there. But then the beast is unleashed and it feels like there is no longer the ability to have control. The urge becomes greater than the willpower. So the answer is, “I do not know why I am doing what I am doing.” This is true for all sins. Why are you angry with people and have outbursts of wrath? You are controlled by your flesh, obeying your fleshly desires.
Second, we do not see that the desires of the Spirit are the way to be set free from these passions. What we miss is that freedom is available. Freedom comes from being led by the desires of the Spirit. You are not going to free if you keep gratifying the desires of the flesh. The temptation tells you that you will be free. You will feel better. You will be happy. And you are for a few hours. But then the desires of the flesh rise up again and you are right back where you were earlier. You are enslaved to your flesh. Your flesh controls you. You are like a train set free to speed down the tracks. But freedom is not jumping the tracks and trying to run down the countryside. That will only lead to disaster and ruin. The only freedom available if by seeing that these desires are in conflict with the desires of the Spirit. Listen to verse 16 again. Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. In other words, you will be free from your slavery if you will walk by the Spirit and follow the desires of the Spirit.
So what is the take away for our lives as we consider discipleship? First, this is a winnable war. You do not have to be enslaved. You do not have to gratify your fleshly desires. You are not doomed to having your flesh rule over your life. It is not a hopeless situation to try to follow Jesus. It is not a miserable situation to follow Jesus. We make it this way because we do not put the old self to death. We stay enslaved while trying to put the new clothes overtop of our old sinful clothes.
Second, a Christian is someone who is at war against these fleshly desires. Be concerned if you do not feel the war within you. If you are not feeling the conflict then you have become comfortable with your sins. Be concerned if you are complacent in your sin. When temptation comes, there should be fight as our desires for the Spirit go to war with the fleshly desires. This is what Paul warned about happening in Ephesians 4:19.
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (Ephesians 4:19 ESV)
The heart has become callous, no longer caring about the ways of the Lord if we do not feel the war. But the situation is still not hopeless. The war is still winnable by the transforming power of God. But I want you to see the grave spiritual danger you are in if you do not feel the conflict. You are deeply enslaved and I want you to see the chains that bind you. Your heart can be softened if you will let the Lord work on your heart and on your life. Start giving yourself to the desires of the Spirit and you will see the changes that begin in you.