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Substituting a Fleshly Walk for a Spiritual Walk?

Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 5:15-20

Jim Davis

Tourists throughout the centuries have visited the famous Acropolis, the ancient hilltop religious citadel in Athens. Thousands of sightseers from all over the world have picked up marble chunks as souvenirs.

Why hasn't the supply of pieces been exhausted long ago? The answer is very simple. Every few months a truckload of marble fragments from a quarry miles away is scattered around the whole Acropolis area. So tourists go home happy with what they think are authentic pieces of ancient history.

We can be deceived with spiritual kinds of imitations also. Religious language and music, religious objects and services may fool us into imagining that we are experiencing a firsthand relationship with God when in reality we are simply going through empty routines.

Something is authentic when it conforms to what it is represented or claimed to be. It has to do with consistency between words and actions, and between claimed values and actual priorities. Inauthenticity means that we claim to be one thing, then prove to be something else.

We may find ourselves teaching theology without the inner desire to practice it. At the 1993 annual meeting of The American Heart Association, thousands of doctors, nurses, and researchers met in Atlanta to discuss, among other things, the importance a low fat diet plays in keeping our hearts healthy. Yet during meal times, they consumed fat-filled fast food—such as bacon cheeseburgers and fries—at about the same rate as people from other conventions. When one cardiologist was asked whether or not his partaking in high fat meals set a bad example, he replied, "Not me, because I took my name tag off." (Boston Globe (11-10-93); Stephen Nordbye, Charlton, Massachusetts)

The greatest threat for me is substituting a fleshly walk with God for a spiritual walk with God. A person who is walking in the flesh may not appear to be much different than one walking in the spirit. Both may do exactly the same things. Both may recognize the same moral code by which they must live. Both may attend church, give of their means and sing the same songs, while one is motivated by the flesh and the other is motivated by the spirit of the living God. One’s trust is in the works of the flesh, and the other’s trust is in God’s life giving Spirit.

A man related a story that transpired in his life when he was a child, my minister father brought home a 12-year-old boy named Roger, whose parents had died from a drug overdose. There was no one to care for Roger, so my folks decided they'd just raise him as if he were one of their own sons.

At first it was quite difficult for Roger to adjust to his new home—an environment free of heroine-addicted adults! Every day, several times a day, I heard my parents saying to Roger:

"No, no. That's not how we behave in this family."

"No, no. You don't have to scream or fight or hurt other people to get what you want."

"No, no, Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family." And in time Roger began to change.

Now, did Roger have to make all those changes in order to become a part of the family? No. He was made a part of the family simply by the grace of my father. But did he then have to do a lot of hard work because he was in the family? You bet he did. It was tough for him to change, and he had to work at it. But he was motivated by gratitude for the incredible love he had received.

Do you have a lot of hard work to do now that the Spirit has adopted you into God's family? Certainly. But not in order to become a son or a daughter of the heavenly Father. No, you make those changes because you are a son or daughter. And every time you start to revert back to the old addictions to sin, the Holy Spirit will say to you, "No, no. That's not how we act in this family." (Craig Barnes, from sermon "The Blessed Trinity").

Spiritual Growth is a real Challenge

The soul is hungry for God. The hunger is the same for the person in the White House or the person in a shelter for the homeless; it is the same for the latest Hollywood idol and the devoted wife and mother. It is as real for Bill Gates as it is for the common working man. It doesn’t matter how much we have or don’t have, there is a hunger for more—something richer, deeper, prettier, tastier, faster, or more satisfying.

When I find myself hungry for something more than what I have, it drives me deeper into the message of God. Sometimes it is an indication that I am trying to walk in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. Thank God that there is a restless relentless endless hunger within each of us that nothing but God can satisfy. Many recognize their hunger and try to satisfy it in socially acceptable ways: education, career, family, friends, or public service. There are countless others who never realize that the emptiness is common to everyone. They become angry, and try to satisfy it in socially unacceptable ways: alcohol, drugs, illicit sex, violence, etc.

Our deepest inner self is longing for spiritual transformation. It is a transformation that takes training. Spiritual transformation is a long-term endeavor. It involves both God and us. John Ortberg likens it to crossing an ocean. Some people try, day after day, to be good, to become spiritually mature. That's like taking a rowboat across the ocean. It's exhausting and usually unsuccessful.

Others have given up trying and throw themselves entirely on "relying on God's grace." They're like drifters on a raft. They do nothing but hang on and hope God gets them there.

Neither trying nor drifting are effective in bringing about spiritual transformation. A better image is the sailboat, which if it moves at all, it's a gift of the wind. We can't control the wind, but a good sailor discerns where the wind is blowing and adjusts the sails accordingly.

Working with the Holy Spirit, which Jesus likened to the wind in John 3, means we have a part in discerning the winds, in knowing the direction we need to go, and in training our sails to catch the breezes that God provides. That's true transformation. (John Ortberg, "True and False Transformation," Leadership (Summer 2002), p. 104).

Billy Sunday said, "I sometimes wonder whether the church needs new members one-half as much as she needs the old bunch made over. Judging by the way multitudes in the church live, you would think they imagined they had a through ticket to heaven in a Pullman palace car, and had left orders for the porter to wake them up when they head into the yards of the New Jerusalem." (Billy Sunday in The Real Billy Sunday. Christianity Today, Vol. 31, no. 14.)

Too much comfort is dangerous. Literally.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley did an experiment some time ago that involved introducing an amoeba into a perfectly stress-free environment: ideal temperature, optimal concentration of moisture, constant food supply. The amoeba had an environment to which it had to make no adjustment whatsoever.

So you would guess this was one happy little amoeba. Whatever it is that gives amoebas ulcers and high blood pressure was gone.

Yet, oddly enough, it died.

Apparently there is something about all living creatures, even amoebas, that demands challenge. We require change, adaptation, and challenge the way we require food and air. Comfort alone will kill us. (Chris Peterson, "Optimism and By-pass Surgery," in Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993])

The Need to be filled with God’s Spirit

Being filled with the Spirit of God is the true mark of a Christian. Often we try to imitate the worship of the first century by duplicating what they did. We try to practice what they practiced, but merely going through the motions practicing what they practiced may leave us empty of God’s Spirit.

Soren Kierkegaard said, "There are, in the end, only two ways open to us: to honestly and honorably make an admission of how far we are from the Christianity of the New Testament, or to perform skillful tricks to conceal the true situation. (Soren Kierkegaard, "What Madness," in Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (Plough, 1999), p. 180)

There are two persons who want to fill our hearts . . . Satan and the Holy Spirit. Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?" (Acts 5:3 NIV) Ananias was seeking to substitute a fleshly walk with God for a spiritual walk with God as he sought to lie to the Holy Spirit.

Paul admonishes us to be filled with the Spirit.

Ephesians 5:15-20
15 Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. 19 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. NIV

These verses have prompted our non-instrumental worship as we emphasize the need to make a personal response to God as we are filled with his Spirit. The command in these verses is to be filled with the Spirit of God. The proper kind of worship is the kind where individuals are filled with the Spirit of God to the point where their hearts burst out in praise to God. The emphasis in these verses is on our individual role in worship, rather than how well others perform on stage.

When we are filled by the Spirit of the living God it takes us beyond worship into a living relationship with God that has a transforming effect upon us and others. When the Grecian widows’ needs were being neglected, the apostles gathered the believers in Jerusalem together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4 NIV)

It is obvious that the first century church grew as Spirit filled disciples were appointed to carry out the work. I believe that it is the enabling power of the Spirit of God that fills the Christian as it brings her/his life to fruition.

There is a great contrast between the work of Spirit and the works of the flesh. Although it may not always be easy to distinguish the spiritual walk from the fleshly walk. There are times when both may appear vastly different.

Galatians 5:16-26
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. NIV

Many of the things mentioned in these verses would be very obvious manifestations of a fleshly walk. They may be totally contrary to the way we know we should live. Sexual immorality, debauchery, fits of rage, drunkenness, orgies and the like may be very obvious.

However, it is possible for a fleshly walk to be disguised as a spiritual walk.

Luke 18:9-14
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

13 "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'

14 "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." NIV

The Pharisee placed all his emphasis on externals. The greatest threat to authenticity comes when we place more emphasis on external methods than on internal change, which results in attempts at a form of godliness but lacks the power of God.

The Pharisees sought to clean up the outside without ever being truly converted within. This happens when we seek to convince ourselves that we can live a godly life solely through the efforts of the flesh. This happens when we are doing things for God in our own strength. This usually leaves us wretched.

2 Timothy 3:1-5
3:1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God- 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. NIV

It is obvious that religion itself can become a work of the flesh which breeds hatred, envy, dissension, discord, selfish ambition and factions. Thomas Shepard wrote, "A Pharisee's trumpet shall be heard to the end of the town but simplicity walks through the town unseen." (Thomas Shepard in The Parable of the Ten Virgins. Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 10.)

The English poet John Keats wrote, "Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced . . . Even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it." To be authentic we must move from speaking about Jesus to letting him speak within me, from thinking about Jesus to letting him think within me, from acting for and with Jesus to letting him act through me. I know the only way for me to see the world is to see it through his eyes. (Henri J. Nouwen in Jesus and Mary: Finding Our Sacred Center. Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 13.)

We are living in an age that seeks to sanctify the fleshly walk as a spiritual walk. It can become very confusing because the fleshly walk is sanctioned by seemingly reputable people.

Galatians 1:6-9
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! NIV

There were those in the churches in Galatia that sought to win members over but they were up to no good.

Galatians 4:17-18
17 Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you [from us], so that you may be zealous for them. 18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. NIV

We may be surprised at how quickly we can be moved away by a perversion of the gospel of Christ. A. W. Tozer says that there are areas in our lives where in our effort to be right we may go wrong, so wrong as to lead to spiritual deformity. To be specific let me name a few:

1. When in our determination to be bold we become brazen.
2. When in our desire to be frank we become rude.
3. When in our effort to be watchful we become suspicious.
4. When we seek to be serious and become somber.
5. When we mean to be conscientious and become over scrupulous. (A. W. Tozer from That Incredible Christian. Christianity Today, Vol. 29, no. 17.)

When this happens the flesh has quenched the Spirit’s desire to lead us in the path of righteousness. When the flesh quenches the Spirit of God it creates in us a restless relentless hunger that only God can fill.


How do you solve a personal problem? Let’s say you have a fondness for gossip or quarreling. How do you stop? Or suppose you have a life-controlling addiction to alcohol or drugs or sex. How do you get free?

Sometimes the answer is something that seems totally unrelated. For example, in the middle of winter when your feet are cold, you may try putting on thicker socks or a blanket. Still your feet may be icy. One secret to warm feet is to stop focusing on your feet and look at your head. That’s right, go to the other end of your body and put a hat on. Although your neck and head have only 10 percent of your body surface, in the cold that’s where you lose a whopping 30 percent of your body heat. Having nothing on your head is like opening a window in your house in the dead of winter. If you keep that heat in your body with a hat, your blood will carry it down to your toes.

In the same way, when people have problems, spiritual leaders often recommend that they do something that sounds unrelated--such as read the Bible, pray, go to church, or focus on serving other people. These seemingly unrelated things bring grace to help overcome problems. (Craig Brian Larson, editor, PreachingToday.com; source: Reader’s Digest (December 2002), p. 186)

1 Timothy 4:7-8
7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. NIV


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