Have you ever been in a situation where you were doing something that you knew was wrong even while you were doing it? Although we may not like to admit it, it seems that all of us have done something that we knew was wrong, sometimes even while in the act of doing it.
In his letter to the Christians in the city of Rome, the Apostle Paul describes the feelings of many people who fall into this category- people who have done something that they knew was wrong but still did it anyway…
“I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to– what I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience proves that I agree with these laws I am breaking. But I can’t help myself because I’m no longer doing it. It is sin inside me that is stronger than I am that makes me do these evil things. I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn I can’t make myself do right. I want to but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway” (Romans 7:15-19).
So why do people do things that they know they shouldn’t do? Why do people knowingly do things they know will hurt them and cause them pain? This is a question that people have been trying to answer for centuries and while there may be a lot of possibilities, the Bible cuts directly to the main reason…
“Now if I am doing what I don’t want to, it is plain where the trouble is: sin still has me in its evil grasp. It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love to do God’s will so far as my new nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind I want to be God’s willing servant, but instead I find myself still enslaved to sin. So you see how it is: my new life tells me to do right, but the old nature that is still inside me loves to sin” (Romans 7:20-23).
A common term that the Bible uses to describe the “old nature” that Paul talks about here is “the flesh.” Now of course, the term “flesh” is mainly used to describe your body and the things that are associated with it- things like your muscles, nerves, skin tissue and so forth.
In a spiritual sense, the word flesh refers to the human weaknesses that we all share, the things that the Apostle Paul talks about above. The flesh represents the best or worst that anyone can do in their own strength without any outside help. Spiritually, a person who lives “in the flesh” is a person who lives his or her life without any help, input or direction from God.
But the problem with the flesh goes much further than simply this. For example, did you notice the part where Paul talks about a “new nature” in the Scripture quoted above? This “new nature” refers to a new kind of attitude and way of thinking that is in line with God and His direction and opposed to the “anti-God” direction of the flesh.
You see, the person who has decided to get right with God by accepting Jesus’ death on the cross as the payment for the things they’ve done wrong has a brand new set of God-oriented goals. These new goals and motivations are generated by the Holy Spirit who is within anyone who accepts Jesus as Savior (see John 14:16 and 1 Corinthians 6:19).
The problem is that these new God-centered desires totally conflict with those things that the old flesh-oriented nature wants to do. Galatians 5:17 explains the situation this way…
“For we naturally love to do evil things that are just the opposite from the things that the Holy Spirit tells us to do; and the good things we want to do when the Spirit has his way with us are just the opposite of our natural desires. These two forces within us are constantly fighting each other to win control over us, and our wishes are never free from their pressures.”
The flesh wants to continue living the kind of lifestyle that pays no attention to what is right or wrong or whatever the consequences might be. On the other hand, the Spirit wants to pursue a lifestyle that is in harmony with God’s desires for us- a lifestyle that is totally at odds with what the flesh desires. It’s important to remember that there is no “in-between” way to go here; it has to be one lifestyle or the other. Here’s the reason why…
“Those who let themselves be controlled by their lower natures live only to please themselves, but those who follow after the Holy Spirit find themselves doing those things that please God. Following after the Holy Spirit leads to life and peace, but following after the old nature leads to death because the old sinful nature within us is against God. It never did obey God’s laws and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their old sinful selves, bent on following their old evil desires, can never please God” (Romans 8:5-8).
So how can Christians overcome this flesh-oriented life and begin to live a new God-oriented life? Well, the answer is found in Galatians 5:16…
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (NAS).
What does it mean to “walk by the Spirit”? Well, this Scripture tells us that you should make progress and move forward in your relationship with God just like you do when you’re walking someplace. One way you can do this is by following the good example of the first-century Christians we see in the book of Acts…
“They joined with the other believers in regular attendance at the apostles’ teaching sessions and at the Communion services and prayer meetings” (Acts 2:42).
If you concentrate on deepening your relationship with God through prayer, reading the Bible, going to church, being with other Christians and taking communion then you’re sure to grow in your relationship with Him. And if you continue to advance steadily by the Spirit then you will leave the flesh-oriented kind of life behind along with all those wrong things that you used to do!
Now here’s something important to keep in mind. Whenever you walk there is always the possibility that you might trip and fall, isn’t there? Whenever you take a step there’s always a possibility that you might fall down, right?
Sometimes we trip up through our own carelessness and sometimes we fall unexpectedly. Sometimes we fall because we are pushing ourselves to the limit like an athlete in a competition and other times we fall because we’re in an unfamiliar place. Then there are times that we fall because we’re just not experienced enough yet, like a small child who is just learning how to walk. Whatever the reason, it’s important to recognize that these very same kinds of things can also happen when we walk by the Spirit.
So what happens if you trip up as you’re walking in the Spirit? Well, if you make a mistake and fall down, it’s important to get back up! Think of it like this- if an athlete falls down while trying to make a play, what do they do? Well, unless they are seriously injured, they get back up and go back in the game.
Falling down during a sports contest- whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey or any other sport- can be an understandable part of the game. The point is that when these athletes fall down, they don’t stay down. They get back up and get back in the game. When a young child falls down while learning to walk, they get back up and try again. If someone falls while hiking or running, they get back up and continue on. These same things are true for us as we walk by the Spirit.
Now we can’t say that it’s ever good or helpful or OK to fall down. It’s always better to stay on your feet, but as we said earlier, there is always a possibility that you might trip and fall whenever you walk. If you trip up as you walk in the Spirit, don’t stay down- get back up by following this prescription in 1 John 1:9:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (NIV).
Remember, you’ll never trip if you stand still but you’ll never make any progress either -and you’ll never get to where God may want you to go. As you move forward and make progress by God’s Spirit, you’ll find that you’ll begin to stop doing those wrong things you used to do and you’ll begin to enjoy a more satisfying life and deeper relationship with God.