What does it mean to Walk in the Spirit?
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust (strong desires) of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16
The Scriptures have revealed to us that the sin in our lives is rooted in our desires. We are tempted by our desires and then, as these desires further develop in us, the result is sin. The book of James says it this way:
“But each man is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin.” James 1: 14 – 15
Knowing, then, that our desires are the root cause of sin, it is important for us to understand how to deal with our strong desires and the lust of the flesh. According to this verse in Galatians 5 (quoted above), walking in the Spirit is the key to changing or overcoming our fleshly desires and, therefore, it is the key to our victory over sin. The Scriptures in Galatians 5 continue as follows:
“For the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.” Galatians 5: 17
We must understand that there is a conflict within us between our fleshly desires and the Spirit, and we must make sure that we are following (or walking after) the Spirit and not after the flesh.
And later in the same chapter of Galatians it says this:
“And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Galatians 5: 24, 25
Christians who are well versed in the Scriptures understand that they must put to death, or put an end to, the strong desires of their flesh that are tied to their old nature, and that are tied to this world and the things that this world has to offer us. We have shifted our desires and affections to spiritual things rather than physical things, setting our hope on the promise of eternal life in heaven and the unseen reality that accompanies this spiritual, heavenly future place for us.
I have written in more detail on this topic in the past, focusing on the need for us to put to death or crucify our passions and desires, and the shift of our hope from the things of this world to the promise of heaven and eternal life. Here’s a link to one of the previous posts on this topic: https://flaniganjames.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/walk-in-the-spirit/
In this writing, I would like to focus more on a Christian’s spiritual mindedness. Christians must also make a change in the way that they think in order to correctly walk in the Spirit. They must shift their dependency on their natural minds and lean more on the guidance and direction of the Spirit. I can tell you right now that this is utter foolishness to the non-Christian, and unfortunately, is foreign to many Christians. Christians must learn to look to the Spirit and not to their own natural, logical thoughts as they are guided through this life.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” Romans 12: 2
In order to better understand this truth, we must remember that we are made up of three parts. We have a spirit, a soul, and a body. The body is all that is physical in us: our organs, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. The soul consists of our mind, our thoughts, and our emotions. The spirit is the part of us that is connected with the Holy Spirit and is also linked to our conscience. By the spirit we are able to discern spiritual things.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2: 12 – 13
In the light of these three areas of our being, as Christians, it is our goal to have our spirit rule over our soul and body. For the secular or unspiritual man, their spirit is dead, for we must be born of the spirit in order for our spirit to come alive. As a result, there are only two possible conditions: their body, or flesh, rules over their soul (mind), or, their soul has partial rule over their body. Some people have disciplined their bodies to submit to their soul and are able to control their body, keeping their body under submission, but this control from their soul does not work in the long run, and it does not make them spiritual, although some religious people suggest that physical rigor produces spirituality (this is not true). The Apostle Paul, when speaking of physical religious restrictions, said this to the Colossians:
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.” Colossians 2: 23
Attempting to focus on training our body to obey our mind or will is not a solution; it will not make us spiritual and therefore cannot produce love in us.
As Christians we must not be fooled into thinking that we are spiritual if we have our soul (our natural mind) rule over our body. This does not make us spiritual and is not enough! We must have our spirit, in tune with the Holy Spirit, to be ruling over our soul, and then our soul to be ruling over our body.
Our unspiritual desires can originate from our soul, not just from our body. I think this is an error that can lead to problems for Christians. We must recognize that our natural minds can also be the source of unspiritual desires that are contrary to the Spirit and therefore can lead to sin.
To be clear about this, it is not wrong to have desires from either your soul or your body, but we must recognize what they are and not allow them to “conceive and give birth to sin” as the verse in James (quoted above) suggests. We must be able to recognize when they are in conflict with the spirit, or when they are taking too deep of a hold on our lives, influencing our emotions and actions.
Additionally, we must recognize that walking in the Spirit is not always about suppressing or guarding against desires that lead to sin. We also need the Spirit’s direction in our lives. We need to know God’s will and work to accomplish His desires. We need to go with the spiritual “flow” of things in our lives, and not succumb to the flow that comes from our carnal, natural mind. It is important that we are able to discern the moving of the Spirit in the day to day circumstances that we encounter so that we are in tune with His guidance and direction.
I would like to refer now to a portion of Scripture in the Gospel of John that I believe illustrates the difference between using our logical, natural mind and following the leading of the Spirit. By the way, there are many, many places in the Scriptures that illustrate this, but I happened to be reading this recently. The account is in the 21st chapter of the Gospel of John. The background is that a group of disciples including Peter and John, a total of about 7 men, were by the sea of Tiberias. We’ll pick up the story from the Scriptures here:
“Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We are going with you also.’ They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing. But when morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Children, have you any food?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’ And He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ “ John 21: 3-7
Let’s examine what was happening here. First some background: For those of you not already familiar with this portion of Scripture, you should know that this event occurred after the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it was before they Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. You should also know that these men were fishermen by trade and had fished these waters for many years, learning from their parents, who were also fishermen.
Exactly why Peter decided to go out and fish is not clear, but I would think that since it was part of his livelihood, he most likely had assessed the conditions and thought that this was an ideal time to go out to fish. I would also think that he was against wasting time, both his time and the other six men with him. Using his experience as a fisherman and possibly some other logical and sensible reasoning, he decided to go out to fish for the night, and his fellow disciples, trusting his leadership in this, decided to join him.
On the following morning, after being out fishing all night, which I assume meant that they spent the entire night casting their nets and hauling them in only to find them empty, they were returning to the shore and were confronted by a man who told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and they would catch fish. They didn’t know that it was Jesus. For some reason, they listened to the man and it turned out to be exactly as he said, they caught many, many fish, so many that they could not haul them into the boat.
Immediately, we see what seems to be a very reasonable and logical endeavor, initiated by Peter, who was an expert fisherman, ending in complete failure. And then, what seems to be unreasonable and illogical, to listen to the directions of some stranger on the shore, resulting in a bountiful success.
I wonder what the disciples thought when the stranger called to them. Why didn’t they question him since they didn’t know that it was Jesus? I think they must have had some spiritual discernment to know that there was something happening spiritually, even though they didn’t immediately recognize that it was Jesus.
The lesson here is simple. We must recognize, no matter how much we think we know, or how much of an expert we think we are, or how reasonable or logical we think our plans are, that our natural minds are far inferior to the knowledge and direction of the Spirit of God. We must therefore be more inclined to look to the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction, then to look to the logic and reasoning of our natural minds.
I am not saying that it was evil or necessarily wrong for Peter and the other disciples to go out to fish that night. We must recognize that if they would have stayed on shore for the night and saw Jesus the next day, that it is possible that Jesus could have directed them to go out and drop their nets and catch many fish. It would have saved them a night of toil that got them no fish.
I also find it interesting that the disciples didn’t ask Jesus for help. His actions were not a response to their requests. It seemed that Jesus knew they hadn’t caught any fish and came to their help without them asking. God knows what we need before we even ask for it; He knows our situation and what is best for us.
Here’s what’s hard: we are not always able to hear clearly from the Holy Spirit to get direction from Him, and are therefore tempted to move out on our own without waiting for His guidance. I have found in my own life that waiting is always better and when we are following the direction of God’s Spirit, we can be assured that His plan will work best. We need to hone our skills of discernment so that we can recognize the leading of the Spirit or recognize when it is our own natural minds. We need to understand that many times what is logical and reasonable is most likely from our own minds and many times God’s direction will appear to be unreasonable and illogical. I believe that this is because He will get the glory from the results when we know that the direction came from Him and not our logical and reasonable thinking. This is difficult for many Christians because following the direction of the Spirit can make us look stupid, or unwise according to worldly wisdom, or put us in a position that is against all sound reason and therefore in conflict with our friends and family.
Walking in the Spirit means that we are aware and aligned with the moving of the Spirit, depending more on His direction and guidance than on our own natural mind and the associated logic and reasoning. Functioning in our own natural mind will bear little or no fruit whereas functioning under the direction of the Holy Spirit will always be productive. I have learned the hard way that every time I move out on my own energy and planning it ends up being a waste of time and effort.
There are times though that following our natural mind and thoughts can get us into spiritual trouble. We can miss God’s plan and purpose in certain circumstances and this can be wrong and evil. The best example in the Scriptures is that of Peter rebuking the Lord for saying that He was going to suffer and die at the hands of the religious Jews. Here’s the account of this situation in Matthew:
“From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord; this shall not happen to you!’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God but the things of men.’ “ Matthew 16: 21 – 23
In this situation, Jesus called Peter “Satan” because he was “mindful of the things of men and not mindful of the things of God.” In other words, he was being led by his natural mind and not following his spiritual mind.
Our natural minds are limited to the information from this physical world or what Jesus called “the things of men” in the above quote. To Peter, who was looking only at the physical situation without a regard for the spiritual (things of God), it was perfectly logical and rational to conclude that it was a bad idea for Jesus to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed.
It should also be noted that Peter may have thought that he was aligned with the things of God since he had incorrectly interpreted the Lord’s purpose, thinking that He was going to establish His physical kingdom at this time. We too must be careful that we are not basing our thinking incorrect information that would possibly mislead us into thinking that we are being spiritual but in fact are carnal. Being open to the guidance of our conscience and the help of the Spirit should correct this situation. In other words, when we are walking in the spirit, attempting to follow the flow of the Spirit and align with the things of God, we must be open to the communication of the Spirit and the guidance of our conscience.
In summary, walking in the Spirit is not just putting to death those things that are associated with our physical body, but it requires that we also put aside our logical natural thinking and instead be guided by the Holy Spirit. We do this by prayerfully listening to His voice, that still, small voice that we have come to recognize as the Lord’s voice. We also must allow our conscience to guide us as it is connected to the Spirit’s guidance. Although listening and following the Spirit’s leading can cause us to look foolish to others, it will be the best and most productive path for us to follow. Learning to walk in the Spirit in this manner takes time and practice and we will possibly fail or miss it, but God is faithful to help us and correct us in all of our efforts when we do so sincerely seeking to please Him.
May the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ bless you with the ability to hear His voice clearly and with the strength to follow Him wholly and completely until the end. Amen.