“16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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.” Galatians 5:16-17
One of the primary strategies for killing sin (Romans 8:13), perhaps the only real legitimate, successful way, is to attack it on the level of desire. This puts engaging sin squarely on the battlefield of the heart, rather than a battlefield of the hands (see Matthew 5:29-30). It becomes then much more a matter of properly setting the affections on things above rather than simply exercising will power over deeds. The latter can only happen properly when the former is given priority.
In the passage above, the divinely inspired pen of the Apostle is instructing us in the way that these sinful desires operate while also providing for us the means by which to kill them, namely by walking in the Spirit.
What does it mean to walk in the Spirit? How does one maintain that walk? Paul does not offer an explanation here, and perhaps for good reason so that we simply won’t create a to-do list. However, by combing through Scriptures, we may arrive at a helpful strategy to keeping in-step with the Spirit.
First, by engaging the heart and mind in the Word of God. The Psalmist, who knew a thing or too about fighting sin, informs us that a young man may keep his way pure by guarding it according to the word of God. He follows this thought with, “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Psalm 119:11 Additionally, in Psalm 37:31 we read, “The law of God is in his (the righteous’) heart; his steps do not slip.”
Secondly, by meditating on the Word of God. We must note that it is insufficient to simply read the Word of God. Rather Scripture must be contemplated, ruminated upon, churned over in the belly of the mind until it has been properly digested sending the spiritual nutrients throughout the soul. In the previously mentioned Psalm 119, we find no less than 6 mentions of the word “meditate”. This may be summarized in Psalm 119:48, “I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.” The classic passage for the example and consistency of meditation by the godly is the familiar Psalm 1:2, “but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Third, by offering continual prayer. The apostle gives us the simple directive for continual prayer in 1 Thess. 5:17 with three little words, “pray without ceasing“. How can one pray without ceasing? This isn’t instructing us to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in prayer to the neglect of life and duty. Rather the implication is to have a heart prepared constantly for prayer and a tendency to turn to God in prayer on every occasion. It may be easy to go through the motions in Scripture reading, doubtful for meditation, but fundamentally impossible to go through the motions in having an attitude of continual prayer. Again, this is not simply 5-10 minutes in prayer, in which the mind may be easily derailed or where a rote prayer is offered. We are talking about a spiritual frame in which the mind awakes to prayer, be it thankfulness or praise, goes throughout the day in prayer, and falls asleep at night on the pillow of prayer. It simply cannot be faked, cannot be counterfeited, and it belongs only to the truly regenerate. In fact, it may be the best gauge for determining whether one is maintaining a consistent walk in the Spirit and might well be the first to disappear should that walk slow or come to a stop.
Fourth, through the fellowship with other believers. One of the detriments to the “structure” of the contemporary church is that we have come to treat it as a weekly obligation. Even those who still hold to Sunday and Wednesday evening services neglect the fundamental meaning of ekklesia and the pattern that the early church provided, namely the daily or habitual interaction of “one-anothering” that occurred much like that within an immediate family as opposed to 3rd-cousins at a dreaded family reunion. Hebrews 10:24-25 is instructive here, “24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.“ Habitual, routine, stirring up, meeting together, encouraging one another.
There could be additions to this, but the objective is clear, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. It is not “may”, nor is it “could be possible”, but “will not” gratify.
Yet the Apostle presses further to define the motive of these desires by stating their opposition, indeed that they war against the Spirit, that is the Holy Spirit that that has renewed the inner man through the power of regeneration. The contrast is not between the Holy Spirit (as used in verse 16) strictly speaking, but between the new nature brought about by the Spirit and the old nature. Sometimes called the new man and the old man, i.e. the spirit vs. the flesh. The Spirit wars against the flesh and the flesh against the Spirit. Literally they are hostile adversaries.
Finally, notice the purpose of this hostility, “to keep you from doing the things you want to do“. I’ve understood this before to mean that the flesh keeps the spirit (see earlier) from doing what it wants, but that is not the natural flow of the passage and only half of the meaning. It is actually stating that the flesh keeps the spirit from doing what it wants and the spirit keeps the flesh from doing what it wants. There is a kind of spiritual schizophrenia taking place within believers. A tension so to speak, however not one of neutrality. If left unattended, the spirit will give way to the flesh. Paul does not leave an option open to stand still in the Spirit, but to walk in the Spirit, an ongoing, lifelong action.
Let’s close with a word from Charles Spurgeon on this passage,
“The enemy is so securely entrenched within us that he can never be driven out while we are in this body: but although we are closely beset, and often in sore conflict, we have an Almighty helper, even Jesus, the Captain of our salvation, who is ever with us, and who assures us that we shall eventually come off more than conquerors through him. With such assistance the newborn nature is more than a match for its foes. Are you fighting with the adversary today? Are Satan, the world, and the flesh, all against you? Be not discouraged nor dismayed. Fight on! For God himself is with you; Jehovah Nissi is your banner, and Jehovah Rophi is the healer of your wounds. Fear not, you shall overcome, for who can defeat Omnipotence? Fight on, looking unto Jesus, and though long and stern be the conflict, sweet will be the victory, and glorious the promised reward.”