At dinner a few weeks ago, my cousin and I were talking about some pretty important stuff. Important Jesus stuff. Somewhere between the chips & salsa, quesadillas, and mint chocolate chip ice cream (I go big with my cheat meals), he asked me with weariness in his voice, “Do you ever feel it’s totally impossible to live a ‘perfect’ Christian life, no matter how hard you try?”
“Only every day,” I told him. His eyes widened in shock. “Really?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I said, “Part of me wants to fully obey God all the time, but at the same time I have this other side of me that really doesn’t want to. Some days I feel like I have multiple personality disorder!”
Do you ever feel that way? If you’re really a Christian, I’m surer than sure that you do. Before you believed in Jesus, you couldn’t have cared less about obeying God. That’s all changed. When you threw yourself upon the divine mercy of Jesus, you became a new creature with a new nature. The Spirit of God has woven holy desires into the fabric of your heart and now you actually want to live in obedience to your Creator and Savior. Where only apathy toward God resided in your soul, love now abounds. You desperately want to enjoy deep and continuous communion with him that isn’t interrupted by sin.
However, the problem is you still feel those pesky evil desires wiggling around in your soul. You don’t want to sin, but at the same time you do want to sin, and so sometimes you sin . . . then you hate the fact that you’ve sinned and don’t understand why you continue to sometimes want to do and then do the things you don’t really want to do. Sound confusing? Welcome to the Christian life! It can be one hot mess of an experience.
“But Matt, the Bible says that our old self (our flesh) was crucified with Christ. It says that we died with him on the Cross. Shouldn’t that mean that our old, sinful desires shouldn’t exist anymore?”
The thing about God’s redemption that can be a bit confusing is that it is not an “all in one moment” kind of thing. Our justification (being made right with God) was instantaneous, but our sanctification (being made like God) is progressive. Though the Holy Spirit has given us new affections for God and stripped our sinful flesh of its domineering power, our sinful flesh still exists. It has been weakened, but not utterly destroyed. One day it will be – but today, it gnaws at us tirelessly.
You guys, the struggle with sin is real and universal. No Christian is exempt. And our struggle does not take God by surprise. If you believe he expects you to live in absolute holiness right now and you’re drowning in the guilt of your failure to do so, let this next sentence be a breath of fresh air. God does not expect you to be perfect. The Christian life is not about your perfect obedience but your faith in One who was perfectly obedient in your place. Does God command you to obey and expect the overall trajectory of your life to be one of increasing obedience? Yes. However, he knows you haven’t experienced the fullness of your salvation yet. And he knows that until you do, you will continue to struggle with sin.
Does God’s gracious forgiveness of our sins mean we can quit resisting our evil desires and just settle into them until Jesus returns, as some voices in American Christian culture propose? No, it doesn’t. Does the presence of sinful desires in our soul mean we are destined to cower down to and be perpetually victimized by them? Heck no! We are to wage war! In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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).
What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? I know this might sound a bit mystical, but it’s really not. You walk by the Spirit by “setting your mind on the Spirit” – as Paul has written elsewhere – and you set your mind on the Spirit my consciously directing your thoughts toward God, Christ, the gospel, and all other “things that are above.” (Colossians 3:2).
So many seemingly insignificant decisions we face in a day’s time are actually opportunities to either set our minds on the flesh or on the Spirit. Here’s a quick example I shared with my cousin about how this plays out practically in my life: Every time I get into my car or plug my head phones in to exercise, I have a choice to listen to music saturated with gospel lyrics or music that is not. Despite what some people think, I don’t believe listening to clean, secular music is at all sinful. Not all secular songs are about having sex and gettin’ money. There is a lot of morally neutral non-Christian music out there . . . and some of it sounds so much better than contemporary Christian music (yeah, I said it!). However, for me personally, I know that listening to non-Christian music – no matter how clean it is – isn’t going to nurture the desires of the Spirit in me. So I almost always choose to listen to music that will incline my soul to Jesus instead of music that will do nothing for me spiritually or might even nurture the desires of my flesh.
This is just one example of many decisions I am constantly faced with. Do I watch Netflix or listen to a sermon? Do I spend an hour on Facebook or an hour in the Bible? Do I take a nap (when I don’t really need one) or pray? Maybe sometimes it’s totally fine to watch Netflix, peruse Facebook, or take a nap – and maybe sometimes it’s not. We have to ask the Lord to give us wisdom every day to be aware of our “spiritual temperature” and to make decisions that will strengthen us in our fight against the flesh, not weaken or stagnate us. Late at night, when I am tempted to log onto some perverse website, I am more likely to resist if I’ve made choices throughout the day to nurture my spiritual desires. If I’ve neglected to feed my spirit or have deliberately fed the flesh, I’m much more likely to fall.
Now let me say clearly that walking by the Spirit is not a way we earn God’s love or acceptance. His love for us abounded long before we ever loved him or desired to obey him – “for while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). When we fail to obey as we should, his grace is unwavering and his love secure (let that sink in). However, as we walk by the Spirit, we prove that this unmerited grace has been poured out on us. As we walk by the Spirit, we gain increasing assurance of our salvation and experience greater levels of God’s joy, peace, and comfort in our lives. So, as God has commanded us, let us strive to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:3-11).
Following Jesus in this life will be a struggle. Sometimes it will be a hellish struggle. We will never be able to end a day and honestly say, “I fully obeyed God in everything I thought, said, and did.” But the good news is that it will not always be this way. Our Savior will return and end our conflict by giving us new bodies that aren’t plagued by sin. As we battle now, let’s not grow weary. The hope set before us – of a full, glorious redemption – is sure. Our powerful and patient God will complete the work he began in us.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us . . . We, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” – Romans 8:18, 23-25.