Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is well-known for its twelve step program to help free people from the controlling power of alcohol. In the steps, you’ll discover themes that appear prominently in the first two.
Step #1 – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step #2 – We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Most recovering alcoholics admit that these two steps are crucial to ongoing freedom from the controlling power of alcohol (or any other addictive influence). They’ll also quickly tell you that an alcoholic’s unwillingness to admit that he is powerless is a clear warning sign of a potential return to alcohol.
What they have recognized in AA about gaining freedom from alcohol’s power is something Scripture already taught about gaining freedom from the controlling power of the flesh. What is it?
Step #1 – We cannot do it in our own strength.
Step #2 - We need the power of God to live a life that pleases God (to restore us to sanity).
Truth – God gives this power to us through His Spirit whom He caused to live in us when we believed (see: Ephesians 1:18-20; 3:16).
We are not passive recipients
When we speak of the power of God by His Spirit, we should not see ourselves as passive recipients of this power but as actively seeking God’s power.
When the apostle says, “live” or “walk” – “by the Spirit,” he means, “let your conduct be directed by the Spirit.”
Command with a promise
It’s a command that requires our obedience and it comes with an emphatic promise based on a double negative in the Greek language — (aorist subjunctive) “you will by no means fulfill the desires of the flesh (or sinful nature).”
Four verbs are used in Galatians 5 to describe the involvement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, (all of them roughly equivalent in meaning).
v.16 – “live/walk by the Spirit”
v.18 – “led by the Spirit”
v.25a – “live by the Spirit”
v.25b – “keep in step with the Spirit”
All of these fit under the command in Ephesians 5:18 to “be filled with the Spirit.” And these verbs send a strong reminder of how completely dependent we must be on the Spirit’s presence and power.
“so I say”, (or ςέ “but I say”). This is a common formula, used by Paul, to alert his readers to an emphatic point: “Here is my advice.” Or, “Here is the remedy for the situation described in v. 15 – “;if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.”
To protect the community from destructive relationships (15), each member must “live or walk by the Spirit” – present tense —“go on walking…” (16).
- Command: “live or walk by the Spirit.”
- Promise: “you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (or flesh).”
The RSV translates this as two commands, the second being, “do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Yet, while we do have similar commands in the NT (e.g. Rom. 6:12-13; 13:14; I Peter 2:11), Galatians 5:16 is a promise or a word of assurance indicating the means for gaining victory over flesh.
He is not saying: “Try not to fulfill the lusts of the flesh and then you will walk in the Spirit,” as though the latter were a reward for the former. This is the error of depending on the flesh to walk by the Spirit.
Verse 17 expands on the conflict that confronts every believer. We could look at it as a conflict between two wills:
- My will and God’s will.
- Or between: “the ought to” and “the want to.”
It’s great when these come happily together, when “I will to do what God wills for me to do” Or, “I want to do what I ought to do.”
But so often we experience an ongoing conflict or tension between these two and it sometimes gets incredibly intense and unrelenting (cf. Rom. 7:19, 21-25). So where do we look for the strength and power to overcome?
Galatians 5:16— “Walk by the Spirit…” present tense—“go on walking…” This is not something you must do from time to time. It’s a way of life! It’s long obedience in the same direction.
There is no way to get to a place where we no longer experience the tension. There is no secret spiritual technique or second blessing that will put us above the battleground. To make this point forcefully, the moment you think you’re invulnerable to the allurement of the flesh — you are most vulnerable.
If you think you have reached some higher plane of spirituality — above the conflict between flesh and spirit — you are perilously self-deceived.
One has written,–“No Christians are so spiritually strong or mature that they need not hear his warning, but neither are any so weak or vacillating that they cannot be free from the tyranny of the flesh through the power of the Spirit… In the battle between the forces of flesh and Spirit there is no stalemate, but the Spirit takes the lead, overwhelms, and thus defeats evil.”
A man came to his Pastor and explained how impossible it felt to live a Christian life. The Pastor fully agreed and the man was taken back! He expected to be rebuked and set right. Instead, the Pastor congratulated him for learning the most important lesson for living the life of victory. What is it? That you can’t do it! You must live in continual dependence on God.
This is not the “let go and let God” approach. This is a constant practice of humbling oneself before God and learning to lean on Him, rest in Him and look to Him.
It involves commitment to all the spiritual disciplines out of a strong sense of need and dependence (akin to hunger and thirst) (cf. Deut. 8:1-3- God will teach you this).
Not without a battle
But, as v. 17 indicates, walking by the Spirit is not done without a battle or conflict.
“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you.” (NIV)
“Does man choose evil, the Spirit opposes him; does he choose good, the flesh hinders him.”
Be encouraged by the presence of such a battle. It’s another evidence that God dwells in you by the Spirit (James 4:4-5; Rom. 7:14-25).
Yet the conflict is real. As one has written: “In the battle between the forces of flesh and Spirit there is no stalemate.” One wins and one loses, — always in relation to our response!
We must take an active role with regard to the powerful ministry of the Spirit! It begins with an admission that says, “I am powerless in myself” and “I need God’s power to overcome the flesh.”
If I really mean this, I will humbly pursue all that God has made available to me (see: II Tim. 3:16-17; Rom. 8:5; 13:14; I Peter 2:11)
A final thought
These passages focus on a contrast of desire – what the Spirit desires and what the flesh desires.
Perhaps we struggle so much with wrong desires because we need to become captured by stronger desires. I think of the great command – “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” This is a positive desire. This is an offensive not just a defensive posture (see: Psalm 42:1-2).