A Righteousness by Faith #20: Just Keep Trying Harder?

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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Galatians 5:16-18 (ESV)

During a teen retreat my church put on years ago, all of us were challenged to take a piece of wire and twist it into a shape that illustrated our personal relationship with God. The vast majority made a wavy line, saying that it was like a rollercoaster. Sometimes they tried hard to conquer the peak of being close to God. Other times, they slid into the valley of giving up. They would stay in giving-up-land until their conscience bothered them or they were roused by some inspiring teaching. Then they would start the ‘trying hard’ climb again to get close to God.

Having been a card-carrying member of the Try Harder/Giving Up Club, I notice many believers continue to struggle with this same outlook. There are gazillions of us, all convinced either by teachers we have listened to or by some belief we have picked up by osmosis that a life full of intimacy with God depends on the efforts of our flesh. We climb as hard as we can go and hold on for dear life until our flesh poops out. Then it’s downhill all the way. Crash! Humiliation! Indulgence in our personal fleshly desires! …Until we come to our senses, wondering how we got there.

Paul is telling us to choose to be led by the Spirit. To those of us who may have spent the major part of our lives depending on the flesh, his advice might not seem all that useful. If you feel unable to be good for God now, how does this help?

The difference is rooted in reality. Paul is not telling us to just follow the Spirit, to try to keep up with the Spirit, or to pay attention to the path the Spirit has laid out for us. He is saying we are ‘led’ by the Spirit. This phrase speaks of power.

John Piper explained it this way. “The Spirit is not a leader like the pace car in the “Daytona 500.” He is a leader like a locomotive on a train. We do not follow in our strength. We are led by his power. So ‘walk by the Spirit’ means stay hooked up to the divine source of power and go wherever he leads.”

I could not have said it better or plainer. As I have explained before, the Spirit was not given to you to be passively noting your good and bad deeds or to act as an extra conscience. He has been given to lead you along, empowering you to live the resurrection life like never before. When you hook your wagon to his power, he pulls you deeper into that life. He fills you with good things from the Father. He takes you off that rollercoaster so you can have ongoing intimacy with God.

Sometimes we can be mules about being led. We can resist the Spirit. We can grieve the Spirit. But the moment we surrender again, we are again pulled forward in our faith journey just as if it had never stopped. John Ortberg used the concept of ‘flow’ to explain this. The work of the Spirit is like the ocean waves. You mount your surfboard on the wave and it draws you unwaveringly to the shore. If you fall off your board, another wave is coming behind the first, then another—a continuous flow of waves.

Walking in the Spirit means he pulls you along to the goal. This is how you overcome the power of the flesh. You cannot attach yourself to the Spirit and live out a destructive life at the same time.

How do you get into the flow of the Spirit? You do this by gaining an awareness doused in faith. You have to wake up to the truth. Your life as you knew it when you were trying hard to be good for God is over! The life you now live is by faith in the Son of God. (Galatians 2:20) So here are a couple of suggestions to consider:

  1. Rest yourself in the presence of God by faith. God is always with you and in you. His love for you will never fail. This truth will combat the lies of the enemy, who uses our flesh to trap us.
  2. Fill your mind with significant words of God. Find in Scripture words that speak to the deepest longing of your heart and keep them before you. Nothing is more powerful than the Spirit using the word you have hid inside you to shape your life.

Steve Smith