Walking in the Spirit

Did you know that the Holy Spirit leads us to display the fruit of godly character?

In an online article, Jim Rohn has identified “6 Essential Traits of Good Character.” The traits he listed are integrity, honesty, loyalty, self-sacrifice, accountability, and self-control.1 These are good traits that square with the biblical idea of character. Still, while his article explains what these traits are and why they are important, he offered nothing about how to develop those traits or this good character.

Perhaps Rohn thinks character development is simple. He might agree with Yoda from Star Wars: “Do or do not; there is no try.” That may work for Luke Skywalker in a fictional story, but reality leads us to say with the apostle Paul: “For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate” (Rom. 7:15).

We understand the importance of character. But being a person of unimpeachable character is a struggle. How do we do it? In Galatians 5, Paul argued that even the law could not change a person’s character. To live with the right character—godly character—we must be changed by God from the inside out.

Galatians 5:16-18

“I say, then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

The key to godly character is to “walk by the Spirit.” Walking is often used as a metaphor for the Christian life, or as Michael Kuykendall writes, “a description of conducting one’s life in relationship to God.”2 So, walking by the Spirit suggests a life lived in communion with God through the Holy Spirit. As the disciples once walked with Jesus, now all believers can walk with the Spirit.

Paul used four parallel figures of speech in Galatians 5. Just as we are to “walk in the Spirit,” we are to be “led by the Spirit,” “live by the Spirit” (v. 25), and “keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25). The emphasis is on listening to the Spirit and following His direction. In contrast to strictly following the Jewish law, Paul emphasized having a relationship that motivates us to follow the Holy Spirit.

Only by walking in the Spirit can we hope to overcome “the desire of the flesh.” By flesh Paul meant more than the physical body. Paul used the word frequently in his writings to reference the sinful nature into which we are born (Rom. 7:5,18; 8:3-9; Gal. 3:3).

Consequently, the “flesh … and the Spirit” are at war within the believer. The desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit are not merely different, they “are opposed to each other”—they are incompatible.

The last phrase in verse 17, “you don’t do what you want,” is interpreted by some to mean that, if you want to follow the desires of the flesh, the Spirit won’t allow you to do so. However, it’s best to interpret this from the perspective that you want to do what God desires, but your flesh entices you to sin.

Paul wanted believers to know that we will continue to struggle with sin. As long as we live in this world, we won’t be finished with sin. We won’t have victory in the war with sin because we tried harder to control our flesh, but because of our life in the Spirit. It’s only when we are “led by the Spirit” that we avoid the failure of sin.

The practical question is, how do we walk by the Spirit? When Paul wrote to the Colossian believers, he instructed, “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2). When our minds are occupied with the things of this world, we have difficulty keeping in step with the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, when we intentionally think about, dwell on, and meditate on the things of God’s kingdom, we find the Spirit leading our lives more easily. Saturating our minds with Scripture has a way of pushing out the things of this world!

Galatians 5:19-21

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul illustrated the difference between the flesh and the Spirit by offering lists of those actions and attitudes that characterize each. He began with “the works of the flesh” and noted that these works “are obvious.” We can divide these works of the flesh into five groups.

  1. Sexual sins. These included “sexual immorality, moral impurity, [and] promiscuity.” Sexual immorality is a general term referring to any illicit sexual activity. The word translated moral impurity literally means “unclean.” The word translated promiscuity can also be translated as “sensuality” or “lewdness.”
  2. Spiritual infidelity. When people commit “idolatry” and “sorcery,” they are looking to other things as their gods. Idolatry occurs when we place anything before God. The word translated sorcery is pharmakia from which we get the word pharmacy. In sorcery, the use of drugs, whether simple or potent, was generally accompanied by incantations and appeals to occult powers.
  3. Relational sins. These are sins seen in our relationships: “hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger.” Each of these sins creates tension with others, erects barriers between people, and destroys relationships. Whether it is the cold stare of hatred or the hot outburst of vicious and angry words, these actions embody the flesh.
  4. Sins against the community. These sins include improper leadership and divisions between people. Paul began with “selfish ambitions.” Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing, but it becomes so when personal drive is placed before the needs of others. “Dissensions” and “factions” are two ways of dividing the community. “Envy” is also disruptive to the community.
  5. Sins of decadence. Paul warned against “drunkenness” and “carousing.” Carousing is mentioned three times in the New Testament (See also Rom. 13:13; 1 Peter 4:3). Each time it is linked to drunkenness. A lifestyle of indulgence is inconsistent with the life of a Christian.

Paul concluded with one more caution against “anything similar” to stress that his list was not exhaustive. When Paul said, “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God,” he identified in no uncertain terms the end result of “the works of the flesh.” The flesh leads to sin, death, and hell, but people who belong to God do not live this way.

Galatians 5:22-25

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

We don’t become godly by our efforts. It’s the Holy Spirit who produces godly character in the lives of believers. As we pursue life in the Spirit, He grows fruit in our lives that reflects the character of our Father.

The flesh seduces us to sexual immorality, but the Spirit produces “self-control.” The self-controlled person avoids recklessness and impulsive decisions. The flesh tempts us to spiritual infidelity, but the Holy Spirit produces “faithfulness.” We faithfully follow the Lord Jesus because of our love for Him.

The flesh entices us to relational sins of jealousy, strife, and anger, but the Spirit produces “love,” “patience,” and “kindness.” The Spirit empowers us to love as God loves. Patience means we are not easily offended by others. Kindness is the act of treating others as we want to be treated. While the works of the flesh destroy relationships, these fruit of the Spirit grow healthy relationships.

The flesh lures us to sins against the community like selfish ambitions and dissensions, but the Spirit produces “peace.” When disagreement arises, the flesh creates rivalries, but the Spirit brings peace both within believers and between them.

The flesh calls us to decadent sins of drunkenness and carousing, but the Spirit produces “joy,” “goodness,” and “gentleness.” Joy is a sense of delight that comes from knowing God. I like how Timothy George defines “goodness” and “gentleness”: Goodness is “the idea of benevolence and generosity” and gentleness is a “submissive and teachable spirit toward God.”4 The flesh looks for artificial ways to feel good, but the Spirit gives us a genuine sense of well-being.

The Christian life involves choosing to walk in the Spirit which means not indulging the desires of our flesh. As we do this daily, the Spirit produces His godly character in us. He leads us away from the deeds of the flesh and grows us in the fruit of a godly life.

We’d all like to flip a switch and have godly character. But walking with God is more organic than that. To live with the right character, we must be changed by God from the inside out, day after day.

1 Jim Rohn, “6 Essential Traits of Good Character,” Success, October 9, 2016, success.com/rohn-6-essential-traits-of-good-character.

Author of the above article is unknown.


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