“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8;12.17 NIV).
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
“But I say, walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18).
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30 NIV).
Walking in the Spirit
One of my favorite movies is called “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film is about Frank Abagnale, who was a young con artist pretending he was an airline pilot, a doctor and even a lawyer. But what he was really good at was check fraud. In fact, at the end of the movie (and in real life), the FBI decided to use his expertise to help catch other check forgers. Apparently it was becoming quite the problem and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) was pardoned and recruited as an FBI consultant.
The key was the relationship between the FBI agent (Tom Hanks) and Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio). They had a cat and mouse relationship that reminded you of Sylvester and Tweety. They would talk to each other every Christmas Eve on the phone and grew to respect each other. Frank always seemed to find a way to avoid capture until Tom Hanks used his Christmas call to locate him in France and finally capture him.
The key scene for me comes almost at the end, when Frank is offered a position at the FBI, working off his sentence with community work in the bureau. He is given a certain amount of freedom, of course, and at first Frank is tempted to start running again. The scene is at the airport. Frank is wearing a pilot’s uniform and is ready to slip away into the night. Tom Hanks, as the FBI agent, suddenly appears behind him and calls out, “Where are you running off to?” Frank turns around, realizing that he has been caught again. But Tom Hanks tells him, “Nobody is chasing you.”
Wow! What a scene. Why are you running? Nobody’s chasing you.
That’s what Romans 8:1 is all about. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Nobody’s chasing you. You are free to go but we would like you to stay. You belong here. You belong with us. Get your life back. You have a job with the FBI. Tom Hanks just tells him that he hopes he shows up for work on Monday morning and turns and walks away. Now Frank has a decision to make. Will he live as a fugitive on the run or will he get a real life, pardoned, with a good job, a fresh start? It was more than he deserved, and he knew it.
A lot of our struggle in Romans 7 is simply a problem of mentality. We struggle with sin. We are miserable. Powerless. Frustrated. We tend to be perfectionists. We want to do everything right. Why? That is the fundamental question. What is our motivation?
Are we still in the mindset of needing to earn our way into heaven? We know that it doesn’t work that way but somehow we think that sanctification is a question of works, good deeds, spiritual discipline, and effort. And it is, but it isn’t. It depends on something deeper, something that comes first.
It is first of all a relationship. You don’t have to be miserable, or at least not for long. Nobody is chasing you. You are not condemned. You will never be condemned, not now nor at the judgment of God. You are free to do as you like.
The same is true for my relationship with my wife. On our wedding night, she didn’t come to me with a list of things she expects me to do (or not to do). There were no ten rules, no expectations, no ultimatums. I was free to do whatever I wanted. For some people, marriage is a ball and chain. A slavery. A limit on your will. But for real marriages, full of love and respect and care, marriage is the ultimate freedom. My wife obviously would like some things to happen and other things not to happen, but she was not going to demand them of me. Love is not something that you can demand. It is either there or it is not. If it is there, love will make its own demands on you and you will live up to the promise of true freedom or you will not.
Remember that God is looking for a relationship from the heart. He sets us free from the burden and punishment of sin. We are no longer under the law. Where there is love, there is no need for law, Paul says in Galatians 5:23. Exactly.
That doesn’t mean that we are necessarily very good at loving God. Quite the opposite, in fact. We are so addicted to sin, to our own self-authority, that loving God (or our spouses) is not necessarily the easiest or most natural thing to do. In fact, some people might assume that loving God ought to be like falling in love with someone. It should come naturally and willingly from the heart.
Yes, it should. But it doesn’t. (It will when we get to heaven).
Even if we were talking about a young man and woman falling in love with each other, that romantic love is not normally enough. Not in this world. Not for people who still have sinful natures. I know that it doesn’t sound good (and you should probably never say this to your wife), but sometimes love is a verb. Sometimes, love is a decision. You have to decide to love her when the feelings are not there, when the romance is waning and the realities of life are imposing and overwhelming you. You may still love her (or him) but the extra pounds after the baby is born, don’t add much to the romance. The bad temper after work doesn’t engender sweet nothings in your ear. The problems with the budget or with the children, often leading to disagreements and even fights, doesn’t lend itself to a quiet dinner for two on the patio. Those are the realities of life and with God it is somewhat similar.
The problem isn’t really with your wife (or God). It is with yourself. You and I are not very good at love and romance and heart-felt sincerity in our relationships. And with God, it is even worse.
We need to remember the story of Hosea. Hosea is told by God to go and marry a prostitute and have children with her. True to form, his prostitute-wife is not faithful and Hosea is left holding the bag. God tells us that He is like Hosea and we are like prostitute-wives who hardly know how to love anymore. We are given the opportunity to become legitimate wives, lead normal lives, have children, be taken care of, but what do we do? We continue to run off after other men. We don’t really understand how to love Hosea (or God) and we are miserable. Hopefully.
Hopefully, we are miserable.
Because that misery is the first thing that Hosea (and God) are going to look for. Some prostitute-wives are only in it for the benefits, for the food, for the provision and protection. Others truly want to love Hosea (and God) but just find that they have no clue how to do it. They struggle with their bad habits, their wanton natures, their depression, frustration and guilt. Yes, guilt. We live under no condemnation but guilt can still be a useful reminder that our desires have changed. We have changed. We actually WANT to love God. We WANT to live the Christian life. We WANT to know him better, walk with him, learn from him and live with him. We WANT our lives to have purpose based on this new identity. We WANT to do something to please him, to be significant in his eyes, to have meaning in this new relationship with our Lord and Savior, with our Creator God and Father.
That is the wonder. We want something that we find difficult to do, to live out, to have. We don’t understand why he chose us, why he redeemed us, why he died for us. We like the idea of love, the idea of marriage, the idea of God but living it out is another matter altogether. So we are miserable because we think the struggle is bad or because we think we are powerless or because we think we can never please him and sooner or later he will realize the big mistake he’s made and get rid of us once and for all. Not so. Never so. That is also the wonder.
Although we continue to sin, we are no longer under condemnation. We are not under law but under grace. We are free to do as we please but that very truth will only reveal if the relationship is real or not. If we are in it for the benefits, then, when we are told we are free, we will take advantage of that freedom to continue to be a prostitute. If we are truly in it for the relationship, then we will continue to struggle, to learn, to become better but without depression, perfectionism, frustration or fear because we do not live under condemnation (law) but under love (grace). That’s the whole point of what has happened to us.
That’s not to say that we won’t sometimes still sin, and even on purpose at times, rationalizing to ourselves that God will forgive us anyway. That, of course, is the greatest of betrayals and we are in danger of discovering that we really don’t care much about God at all. That none of it was real. That we don’t WANT this relationship and that all we have, really, is the empty promises of our own religiosity. That is also an important discovery. To deceive yourself about your relationship with God is the sheerest folly. If you can see yourself clearly, you can still turn and repent and be saved.
On the other hand, even Christians, at times, can betray their relationship with God on purpose, with intent, and still WANT to love God and live with Him. That is the perversion of our sinful nature.
Just like a husband can have a one night stand and then regret it and repent and want to return to his wife, the same is true for God. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love her, just that he is a fool. It is still betrayal, and it still has consequences but it is not the same betrayal as an ongoing affair over a period of time where there is a new emotional/relational attachment being made. That indicates that the relationship with his wife is truly over and that love is not there any longer. The same is true with God.
It is still sin and it is still a terrible betrayal but the relationship is what matters, not just the sin. There can be forgiveness and restoration precisely because the relationship is still there. Precisely because the husband still WANTS a relationship with his wife, with his God.
We are sinners. Righteous sinners, to be sure, but we still have to struggle with the sinful nature. No doubt about it. God happens to be quite good at taking that struggle and teaching us a lot about ourselves in the process.
For instance, when you realize that the Bible does not let you off the hook with regards to your sin, your mindset changes. You cannot claim that you are powerless. You cannot claim that there was no way out. That you had no choice. None of those excuses will fly.
Paul says in Romans 8:11 that the same Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead lives in us and that therefore we always have the power to do God’s will in all and every circumstance. Well, that pretty well takes care of that excuse.
Paul says in I Corinthians 10:13 that there is always a way out of every temptation. God makes sure of it. So no excuse there either.
If both of those things are true, what can we say? Nothing. The whole point is for us to realize that by faith we have the power to resist temptation and do what is right. So if we are having problems in our struggle with our sinful natures, then we are not exercising our faith as we should. And why is that? Because we don’t have enough faith? Far from it. Faith is not like a glass of water that has more or less in it. It is a relationship. You either believe or you don’t believe in the promises of God. You either trust him or you don’t trust him. Sure you can learn to exercise your faith in various circumstances but you have all of the faith you will ever need. So what is the problem? The problem is that you and I don’t WANT to exercise that faith.
Sure I do. I can hear you thinking.
No, you don’t. The reason why I know that you don’t WANT to exercise your faith is because you fell to the temptation. Plain and simple. The reason you fell was not for lack of faith but for a lack of desire. You didn’t WANT to obey God. You WANTED to sin. That’s the truth.
Our struggle with our sinful nature and temptation reveals our idols (desires) and our fortresses (fears) and exposes them to us for us to deal with (and for us to give God permission to deal with). We all have issues with intimacy and provision and power and stress relief and relationships. We all tend to protect our egos, our interests, our point of view.
We are generally blind to it all which is why God allows us to struggle with our sin, become miserable, realize that we live with no condemnation, then misuse our new-found freedom for a while until, finally, we start to realize that the whole process is part of our sanctification. It is not automatic of course. Sanctification requires steps of faith in the direction of our relationship with God. Those steps of faith are very specific to our particular idols and fortresses but have a lot in common with everyone else as well.
That’s why Paul exhorts us to do certain things. He gives us examples of what love is from God’s point of view. He tells us what pleases God. We need to walk in that way of sincere love and just keep on practicing right behaviours, right attitudes, right mindsets. But we also need to be aware of our issues, our idols and our fortresses.
We need to get it straight that the only reason we keep on falling to the same temptations is because we have an issue in that area of our lives. Our thinking needs to be renewed. We may need spiritual coaching. We definitely need to be discipled. Perhaps even spiritual therapy.
But always under no condemnation, in freedom to work at it in the power of the Spirit with steps of faith in a process of continuous improvement over time. Just like any relationship rooted in love.
That is what walking in the Spirit is all about.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, thank you for your careful work in our lives to teach us your ways and help us to uncover our sins and the roots of our problems. We are new creations because we have the Holy Spirit within but we also still have to deal with our sinful natures. But we have the power to become different people. We have the faith (as a gift from you) to be transformed from glory to glory. We want to learn from you, O Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.