Overcoming the Flesh and Yielding to the Spirit

The following article is adapted from Basic Christian Maturity: The Foundations of Christian Living, edited by Steve Clark and Bruce Yocum, and published in 1975 by (c) The Word of Life, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. It was developed as a teaching resource for Christian covenant communities and prayer groups in the charismatic renewal movement. – ed.

Background: Sources of Personal Problems

The second half of Basic Christian Maturity is concerned with detecting the sources of personal problems. One source of difficulty is the “world” – an environment hostile to God. (See previous article on The World and Christian Community.) From the world, Christians acquire values, ideas, goals, and patterns of relating which are contrary to God’s plan for human life. This worldly influence confuses Christians and aggravates such problems as loneliness, fear, competitiveness, and depression. To counteract the influence of the world, Christians should become joined to a Christian community. Satan and evil spirits can also cause personal problems. People are largely unaware of the influence Satan has on their lives, just as they are often unaware of the world’s influence on their attitudes and actions. This ignorance prevents people from combatting the influence of the world and Satan. In other words, both the natural and spiritual environments which people inhabit contribute to their personal problems. But as Christians rally their strength to do battle with the world and the devil, they find something wrong. Another enemy force lurks within fallen humanity. As people attempts to marshal their resources, they discover the enemy within: a stubborn, unruly, independent self – which Scripture describes as “the flesh.”

What is “the Flesh”?

The Apostle Paul admonishes us, “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). What is “the flesh”? The word, used frequently in both the Old and New Testaments, wakens such vivid images in the modern mind that its scriptural significance is often lost. The scriptural term “the flesh” refers to neither the body, nor the emotions, nor sexual desire. The body can be good or evil, depending upon how and for what purposes man uses it. “The flesh” is always bad. Similarly, “the flesh” does not refer to the emotions. God gave people emotions to act as our servants. Compassion aids love; fear aids caution and prudence; anger aids strength and determination. Neither does “the flesh” mean sexual desire – the most common modern understanding of the term. Modern advertising displays flesh to rouse sexual desire, but Scripture means something else by “the flesh.” The body, the emotions, and sexual desire can each express the disordered tendencies of “the flesh,” but they are not in themselves “the flesh.”

“The flesh” means human nature separated from God, functioning apart from him and thus acting in opposition to him. The desires and plans of human beings estranged from God oppose the desires and plans of God. This conflict between God and the flesh clouds every sphere of human activity. The works of the flesh listed in the fifth chapter of Galatians include sexual, social, and spiritual sins, and this passage is by no means a complete listing of all wrongdoing traceable to “the flesh.” The flesh – frail human nature tainted by sin and accustomed to acting independently of God – is in itself a source of wrongdoing and personal problems in the lives of Christians.

The Law Frustrated by “the Flesh”

In the seventh and eighth chapters of Romans, Paul discusses two alternative methods available to people for ordering desires and behavior so that they can please God. This discussion reveals much about the influence of the flesh.

The first method Paul discusses is the law approach. A person following the law approach will hear God’s word, attempt to understand God’s desires for human conduct revealed in his word, decide to obey the laws, and exert all his will power to fulfill them. Paul calls this approach the method of the old covenant between God and the Jews. However, people in all times and places have chosen to order their lives according to the law approach. Independent people everywhere have always been attracted by the idea of striving to obey God’s law through their own will power.

Appealing as the law approach may be, it does not work very well. It usually causes frustration. Paul writes in Romans 7 about the impossibility of attaining righteousness through human effort. “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (14-15).

Why does this happen? Paul has an explanation: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (18). The presence of the flesh – corrupted human nature – makes significant human self-improvement impossible. The law is “weakened by the flesh” (8:3). A person cannot will himself or herself into righteousness any more than a cat can will itself into becoming a dog. Paul himself wrote: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (7:18). A transformation in nature must occur, a transformation beyond human power.

The second method of pleasing God is to rely upon the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. This is the approach of the new covenant of Jesus Christ. “He (God) condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (Romans 8:3-4). People need more than a set of rules to live by. They need a transformation of his nature, a new birth and a new sustaining power. God gives this power to individuals by sending his Son and his Holy Spirit.

The Solution: Yielding to the Holy Spirit

No man or woman has the capacity to change oneself. The desires of the flesh lock people tightly into patterns of sin and unbelief. God, out of his boundless mercy, sent his only Son into the world, to bring about the change people need. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, people can “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Now Christians need no longer be defeated by the enemy within themselves, for God himself has made his home in the Christian’s heart (John 14:23). Now Christians need no longer rely solely upon their own strength to follow the law, for God’s own power dwells in Christians to aid them in the way of obedience. Through reliance upon God, Christians can break free from the power of the flesh. To overcome the flesh, we must constantly yield to the Holy Spirit.

Having Jesus as Lord

How can a person yield to the Holy Spirit? The first and most important step a person takes is to decide to let Jesus be the Lord of every area of his or her life. The decision to have Jesus as Lord should resemble the nature of the Christian’s faith: it is more of a surrender than a teeth-gritting effort. Christians who decide to surrender every area of their lives to Jesus give God permission to completely change their life. As God moves to change a specific area – finances, eating habits, a marriage, or something else – the Christian cooperates and allows the Holy Spirit to make the needed change. Submission to Jesus’ lordship should be characterized by an active desire to obey, not by grudging acceptance of the truth.

The Christian should want to be changed. One of the reasons why so many Christians experience so little release of God’s transforming power in their lives is that they are unwilling to be changed. Jesus’ question to the invalid is a question to us; “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). Unless a person actively desires freedom from depression, resentment, homosexual acts, self-pity, and other problems, Jesus cannot intervene to make the needed change. God does not override the will of his people.

Faith

Along with submission to Jesus as our Lord, we need to have faith that transformation will indeed occur. We need expectant faith in order to fully yield to the Spirit. We should have a conviction that God will change those problems that now seem hopelessly unchangeable. However, it is difficult to believe confidently that God will change our personal lives; it is usually easier to have faith for anything else. After struggling with personal problems for years, Christians can easily grow resigned to them and despair of ever achieving freedom. “I suppose I will simply have to learn to live with my chronic anxiety – or irritability – or self-hatred.” Such an attitude will successfully block the Holy Spirit from making the needed changes. It may take time and effort to build faith, and change may even involve a fierce struggle, but the effort and struggle will be worth it.

Rejoicing in All Circumstances

In their struggle to overcome the flesh through the power of the Spirit, Christians should also maintain an attitude of thankfulness and rejoicing in the midst of personal problems. “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Christians should be able to thank God in all circumstances, not because they naively thinks that the world is wonderful, but because they trust God and know that God can bring good out of the bleakest circumstances. An attitude of thanksgiving both expresses and inspires faith, and faith opens the door to the changing power of God.

An obstacle to rejoicing in all circumstances is the same confusion about emotions that often complicates the Christian’s efforts to love God, love other Christians, and to exercise faith. Just as faith and love do not depend upon favorable emotions because they are based on decisions, so rejoicing is an action and an attitude that Christians can pursue regardless of their emotional state. This does not imply that emotions are unimportant. In fact, the appropriate emotion frequently follows the decision to assume the appropriate attitude. However, sincere rejoicing in the Lord does not always imply a carefree feeling or a festive mood. Christians can give thanks from the heart in the most difficult circumstances and despite the most turbulent emotions.

Suppose there are Christians who are regularly troubled by anxiety. When the pressure rises at work or at home, their stomach tightens and they start to feel sharp and impatient with people around them. How should they handle this anxiety as it is happening? They should consciously decide to rejoice whenever pressure builds. “I thank you, Lord Jesus, for I know you’ve engineered these circumstances just for me. You’re going to root out my anxiety and make me a stronger Christian person. I have faith that you will bring good out of this difficult situation.” Perhaps their stomach will still tighten and they will still experience the temptation to respond sharply to others. Nevertheless, since they have decided to rejoice in the midst of the difficulty, they will most probably find themselves successfully overcoming it.

However, they should not give up if they failed to overcome the anxiety. Later, they can reflect back upon the experience and rejoice. “I thank you, Lord Jesus, that I had this difficulty today. I did not handle it perfectly, but I trust in your love and know that you will help me in the future.” The Christian rejoices in the midst of the problem, and rejoices after the problem is past. This attitude of rejoicing eventually becomes habitual and pervades their entire life. They come to live a stable life in true Christian joy, freed from discouragement and from many of his personal problems. Thus rejoicing in the Lord is an effective way of releasing the changing power of the Holy Spirit.

Problems as “Crosses”

Some people see their personal problems as “crosses,” as a means which God uses to purify and strengthen them and to form them into the image of Christ. This view of problems can be helpful as long as the Christian understands that God is not the author of evil. Neither should he use the “cross” approach to disguise an unwillingness to let the Lord change a problem area or to hide a lack of faith that the Lord will work. God sometimes permits problems to linger in order to accomplish important ends, but his final intention is that Christians be healthy and whole. Seeing a problem as a cross should not lead the Christian to think that the problem is good or that it will never be taken away. On the contrary, seeing a problem as a cross should build endurance and patience in handling the problem.

Exercising Authority

Christians often remain in bondage because they mistakenly assume God does not want to free them. Christians should not passively accept problems, but instead should actively declare Jesus’ victory over the flesh. Exercising God’s authority in this explicit and often verbal way is another way to yield to the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation. When we exercise God’s authority, we are simply applying the Good News to our lives: Jesus has overcome the flesh through his death and resurrection; the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts and gives each Christian the power to live free from sin. Many personal problems yield quickly when a Christian, a son or daughter of God, exercises their Father’s authority: “I am a new creation, a temple of the Holy Spirit. I do not need to be harassed by this problem with anxiety any longer. Jesus has given me authority over you, anxiety.” Like rejoicing in the Lord, a personal declaration of independence from sin both expresses and inspires faith. In turn, greater faith leads to a greater working of God.

Dealing with Resentments

We also yield to the Spirit’s work of overcoming the flesh by setting aside all resentments. Bitterness towards others is both a grave offense against love, and a source of problems seemingly unrelated to the bitterness. For example, a man arrives at his office late in the morning because his wife neglected to set the alarm clock. He resents her forgetfulness because his late start has inconvenienced him. For the rest of the day, the man is filled with fits of irritation, restlessness, self-pity, and impatience, all apparently directed at himself, his job, and his co-workers. Actually, the source of the problem is the husband’s sin against his wife; this sin leads him to sin against others and himself.

Many people live for years with chronic hostility, stored grudges, and masses of tense, unresolved, and unsatisfying relationships. Resentment is one work of the flesh which spawns dozens of other problems. The Scriptures constantly admonish us to forgive and forbear. (See Helpful Scripture Passages below.) To most people, forgiveness and forbearance imply a legitimate grievance. It is difficult to set aside resentments because there is often ample justification for grudges. Yet the most serious biblical admonition to forgive is the following: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). God had ample justification for a grievance against fallen human beings, yet he sent his Son to die “for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). Similarly, God’s people should relate in love, not in blame and recrimination. The most serious and enduring resentments are those involving nearest family and friends. People frequently nurse bitterness for years, consciously or unconsciously, over injuries committed by parents, brothers, sisters, friends, or employers. Christians should examine these relationships thoroughly, and set aside all resentments they find.

Christian Community

Many of the problems Christians endure need more than just one individual’s faith or determination; they need the healing hand of God. Christian community is an important source of this healing. One way it can occur is through the healthy, loving relationships in a Christian community. Much of the insecurity, fear of rejection, and self-hatred which spawn further problems can be healed through the love of brothers and sisters. Healing can also occur through discernment in the community. Most people do not fully understand their own problems. God sees all, and wants to reveal the truth about personal problems to his people. He frequently communicates this truth to us through our fellow Christians.

Finally, healing can occur through the corporate prayer of God’s people: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19-20). Christians should claim this promise. God can bring about deep emotional and physical healing through corporate prayer, either in prayer for a specific need or in a general worship session. Being a member of a Christian community is thus helpful in overcoming the works of “the flesh.”

Patience

Finally, we need to approach our yielding to the Spirit with patience. God will change some things immediately, others later. Because it is the Holy Spirit and not human will power that is making the change, the timetable must be determined by God and not by oneself. God himself has taken the initiative and will complete the work. “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

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