Living Out the Desires of the Holy Spirit

Dr. Brian Allison

Imagine the following beautiful scene. There is a plush, green meadow; and small rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Meandering through the meadow is a clear brook, and this brook is rippling over the small rocks that rest on the brook bed. Sparsely sprinkled over the meadow and the rolling hills are wild morning glory flowers, with the odd double aster. Above is an azure – glorious blue – sky, dotted with white, billowy clouds; with the odd colourful bird gliding high overhead. High in the sky, the radiant sun is brightly shining. Moving quietly over the meadow is a soft, cool breeze that gently bows the flowers. What a lovely and tranquil scene! This is an apt picture to capture the beauty of one who is walking by the Spirit. This is a lovely, poetic portrayal of one who is led by the Spirit. One who is really living in the Spirit (i.e., walking and being led by the Spirit) radiates a beauty that is almost indescribable. Maybe you have seen someone like that; the glory and grace of Christ simply emanate from his or her person, and you know that this one has been with the Lord, and intimately knows the Lord. There is something deeply attractive about one who is living in the Spirit.

The Spirit is absolutely contrary to the flesh

In Galatians 5:16,17, we read, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please." The first point that we may make from this text is that living in the Spirit is drastically contrasted with living in the flesh. 'In the Spirit' and 'in the flesh' are two mutually exclusive states of existence. It is like night and day. You cannot have day while at the same time having night. Not only are we looking at two mutually exclusive states of existence; we are also looking at two diametrically opposed moral-spiritual realities. Day and night are not only two mutually exclusive states, but they are also totally opposite and different states, and so it is with the Spirit and the flesh. Life in the Spirit pertains to such things as purity of thinking, integrity of conduct, propriety of behaviour; whereas life in the flesh pertains to such things as selfish, self-centred thinking, sinful conduct, unethical behaviour, and the like. Now, every human being is either living 'in the Spirit' or 'in the flesh.'

Now, it is self-evident that as a Christian, you ought to be living in the Spirit; but it is very possible to be a professing Christian, and still to be living in the flesh. This certainly is the implication of Galatians 5:25a, "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." If it is true that we are found in the sphere of the Spirit, then we ought to be conducting ourselves according to the life of that Spirit. Christians should live according to the new principle and power of life; yet, it is possible to still be carnal and unloving. Thus, this previous Scripture immediately continues to exhort, "Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another" (Ga. 5:25b).

A number of weeks ago, I was speaking to a Christian brother who, in my estimation was evidencing reprehensible behaviour. Now, what I said to him was true; but how I said it was wrong. At that point, I was walking in the flesh. You can be a professing Christian, and purportedly living in the Spirit, and still slip into the flesh. You have a choice; you have a decision to make. Everyday you must decide whether you will walk according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. H. Schilder states, in Christ in His Sufferings, that everyday we need to seek and know God's justification and sanctification. What Schilder means is that everyday we need to live by faith, receiving God's grace and knowing the power and grace of His Spirit. Everyday is a day of faith; everyday is a day of decision where we decide for Christ or against Christ. Everyday we make a choice to follow Him or not to follow Him. So, it is possible to live in the Spirit and still fall prey to the ravages of the flesh.

The Spirit's desires oppose those of the flesh

We read again, "But I say, walk by the Spirit." To walk by the Spirit means that one is to behave and act as one who is influenced and guided by the Spirit; as one who is governed by the Spirit's authority, mind, and impulses; and this is to simply say that one is to be led by the Spirit. So, we read, "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" (Ga. 5:18). This verse teaches that there are two opposing religious systems – the Law administration or Judaism and the Spirit administration or the Gospel; and these two systems are contrary to one another. If we are led by the Spirit, then we are not under that Law administration; we do not stand alone before God seeking justification through our own works and deeds. We are delivered from the Law, being justified by grace through faith in Christ. But the point I want to make is this: walking by the Spirit and being led by the Spirit are similar concepts, viewed from different perspectives. It is a matter of emphasis. With 'walking,' the emphasis is on the believer's response and initiative; with 'being led,' the emphasis is on the Spirit's guidance and direction. It is like an orchestra playing and conforming to the conductor's arrangement, by whom the orchestra is directed.

Now, 'walking by the Spirit' or 'being led by the Spirit' may still sound a bit abstract. What does it specifically and concretely mean to walk by, or to be led by, the Spirit? Simply, it is a matter of desires, and more particularly, it is a matter of the nature and the direction of desires. To walk by, or to be led by, the Spirit means to entertain and express the Spirit's desires, which, as we have read, are in conflict with the flesh's desires – "For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition one to another" (Ga. 5:2). Now, you may ask, how is focusing on, and considering desires, the answer to the question of what it specifically and concretely means to walk by, or to be led by, the Spirit? Well, the reason is simply this: desires are typically the root and the power behind action, behaviour, and conduct. Desires underlie, and give rise to, what we actually do. This truth is implied in our passage. For instance, the desires of the flesh lead to the deeds of the flesh (cf. Ga. 5:17,19). For instance, I recently had a general medical check up. It was discovered, to my chagrin, that I was about 25 lbs. overweight. It was suggested that I lose weight. So, I decided to change my eating habits, my lifestyle. Now, I did that because I had a real desire to lose weight. Desire gave rise to my action. So, walking by, or being led by, the Spirit entails the fact of knowing and embracing the desires of the Spirit.

The desires of the Spirit

Now, the question is this: What are the desires of the Spirit? What does the Spirit want? Simply, nothing other than carrying out the revealed will of God. The desires of the Spirit are related to the directives, the commands, and the instructions that we find in the New Testament. Consider, for instance, the teaching of Romans 8 in which we read, "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law [God's righteous standard, the compilation of His commandments] might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (vss. 3,4). As Christians conduct and behave themselves in keeping with the Spirit, they will fulfil the Law's demands; but notice what is further said, "For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh [our actions flow out of our minds, and desire is essential to our minds], but those who are according to the Spirit, [set their minds on] the things of the Spirit...because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so [but the mind of the Spirit can]" (vss. 5,7). If you have the mind of the Spirit, which entails having the desires of the Spirit, then you will want to fulfil God's Law – His righteous requirements. This is why we say that the desires of the Spirit are related to the directives, the commands, and the instruction that we find in the New Testament. To walk by, or to be led by, the Spirit means that you must know God's ethical will as revealed through His Word, and that you will carry out that ethical will through the pangs and proddings of a redeemed conscience.

Overcoming the desires of the flesh by the desires of the Spirit

So, when the Scriptures exhort you to "walk by the Spirit," it means that you are to be controlled and motivated by the Spirit's desires so that you may act and behave in such a way that you evidence that you are influenced and guided by the Spirit. The result of walking by the Spirit will be that you will then counter the power of the flesh – "and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh." You will not conquer the desire (and desires) of the flesh unless you walk by the Spirit. Again, you are either in one realm or the other; and every time you do carry out the desire of the flesh, you are not walking by the Spirit. Now, you will not overcome the desire of the flesh through mere willpower. You do not have within you that natural moral fortitude and tenacity which can effectively contend with the flesh; you will not succeed through sheer resolve. How many times have you made up your mind not to give in to that sin or that habit? – "I will no longer get irritated with my husband;" "I will no longer be impatient with my co-worker;" "I will no longer watch that silly program;" "I am no longer going to pig-out;" "I have made up my mind; I am going to follow the Lord." You cannot do it, but if you "walk by the Spirit...you will not carry out the desire of the flesh." The only way that you will overcome the power of the desire of the flesh is to live according to the principles and power of the Spirit, not by the exertion of your willpower, no matter how disciplined you think you are.

The desires of the flesh are a constant reality, an ever-present plague, waging an eternal war against the desires of the Spirit. Did you notice that the text does not say that we won't have the desires of the flesh if we walk by the Spirit? What it does say is that we will not carry out the desires of the flesh if we walk by the Spirit. The desires will always be there. You must realize this fact. The desires of the flesh will never be totally eradicated in this life. Some of you will always have the (selfish) desire for romance (though romance per se is not wrong); some of you will always have the (selfish) desire for position and status; some of you will always have the (selfish) desire for popularity; some of you will always have the (selfish) desire for wealth and security; some of you will always have the (selfish) desire for beauty and youth. Thus, we read the ever timely exhortation, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from the fleshly lusts, which wage war against your soul" (1 Pe. 2:11). These desires are ever prowling and stalking – the desire for illicit sex, the desire for physical stimulation, the desire for a self-centred relationship with someone, the desire for approval and affirmation, etc; those desires are not going away. You need to understand that fact, and accept it, lest you get frustrated and become defeated. But if you walk by the Spirit, you will not carry them out. It does not say that you will not feel them; it says you will not carry them out.

So, we are to have the desires of the Spirit, and we can have the desires of the Spirit because the Spirit indwells us. Through His indwelling, His desires can be revealed in our spirit, and thus they can become our desires. These desires, of course, result in the fruit of the Spirit, that is, godly characteristics. This is what living in the Spirit (that is, walking by, or being led by, the Spirit) practically looks like. This is the picture of loveliness – "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law" (Ga. 5:22,23). The Law does not command this package. The Law cannot produce or instill these virtues, only the Spirit can. As you consider these virtues, are they a mirror of your life; do you see yourself reflected in them? Are you bearing the fruit of the Spirit?

The Spirit's desires and crucifixion with Christ

How do we really begin to live in the Spirit – to be led by the Spirit and so to walk by the Spirit? We further read, "Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh, with its passions and desires" (Ga. 5:24). What is this text teaching? Those who are vitally joined to Christ, those who are in fellowship with Christ, have killed the sinful nature, along with its passions and desires which actually give this nature its life. Accordingly, life in the Spirit is synonymous with death to self; you cannot have one without the other. In order to really know the Spirit's desires, you need to kill and bury your selfish desires. Those self-centred, self promoting, and self preoccupied wants must be aborted. Before you can know true life, you have to experience a definite death. Thus, the apostle Paul affirmed, "I have been [not, I will be] crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live [according to my desires, passions, and aspirations], but Christ lives in me [and that by His Spirit]; and the life which I now live in the flesh [this physical body] I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Ga. 2:20). Only by being emptied of self, can one then be filled with the Spirit.

So, how do you die? Many Christians have not yet died. First, there must be repentance – "Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Rm. 6:1-3). You need to feel sorry for your sins. You need to feel the burden and the weight of your transgressions, wickedness, and evil. You need to confess these to God; and you need to turn away from them. The crucified life begins with repentance, and repentance must be ongoing in the life of the Christian. You need to repent of gluttony; you need to repent of self-indulgence; you need to repent of laziness; you need to repent of indifference and complacency; you need to repent of pride; you need to repent of your fantasies; etc. You need to repent, if you are going to know the crucified life.

Second, you need to reckon yourself to be dead – "Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rm. 6:11). You need to have a particular attitude, a particular disposition, towards sin. You need to come to a point in your thinking where you recognize the 'sinfulness of sin,' and accept the fact that Christ has delivered you from sin's dominance and power, and that you no longer need to yield to it.

Third, you need to resolve to have nothing to do with sin; and that takes commitment – "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts" (Rm. 6:11). You will have to self-consciously reject and resist sin. You must assume personal responsibility; you are not to let sin rule so that you fulfil its desires. You must make a commitment to do what is right.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, you need to offer or surrender yourself to God – "And do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Rm. 6:13). Each day must be a day of consecration to God. We belong to Him. He purchased us by the precious blood of Christ. We do not belong to ourselves. We are His special possession for Him to do with us as He pleases. So, that is it; you are to repent of sin; you are to reckon yourself dead to sin, you are to resolve to reject and resist sin (trusting in God to help you), and you are to surrender yourself to God. This is how you will live the crucified life.

This past week, it was reported that Mother Theresa had a heart-attack. What a warrior of the faith! Do you know what I find appealing about Mother Theresa? She knows what it is to live a beautiful life. Her life emanates, radiates, with the beauty of Christ. Does yours? Does mine? One who lives in the Spirit, that is, is walking by, and being led by, the Spirit, is living a beautiful life. If you are going to have that kind of a life, you need to die, acknowledging that your life is His life. I invite you to die. Will you respond?