Walking by the Spirit

This blog was inspired by the episode above.

What does it mean to “walk by the Spirit”?

A friend and I have been processing the reality that many Christians are aware of the phrase, and may have even memorized the verses, but when pressed struggle to know what it actually means.  What is “the Spirit”?  What does it mean to “walk by it”?  How do we know if we are doing it?

It would be easy to shrug our shoulders and move on, which is easy when 10 Christians may give 10 different answers, and not all will actually live into their answer.  If we desire to honor scripture with our lives, what do we do with this concept?

For a long time, the answer I was given to “how do you walk in the Spirit” was “do what the Bible says.”  This is what a young church of gentiles in Galatia was told; Jewish Christians impressed on them the importance of obeying every element of the law, including circumcision, if they truly wanted to be counted as Christians.  The idea of following the laws of scripture may make sense logically, but practically tension developed quickly.  Whether it was obstacles to obedience, or human imperfection, the gentiles were finding it impossible to meet the standards of God’s word.  They wouldn’t always admit it, but the Jewish Christians fell short too.  In fact, historically, only one man has managed to obey the law completely.

The apostle Paul understood this struggle:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
Romans 7:14-15

Throughout Romans Paul contends with how we are supposed to live and the role of the Law in the midst, and what he realizes is that God’s Word is good, but he is unable to live by it, despite his best efforts.  Let’s not forget, he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3:5-6)  He was painfully aware his good intentions to serve God were not enough:

And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
Romans 7:16-18

For so long Paul had lived with the belief that if he did all the right things his walk with God would be set, but after seeing that this approach led him to be prideful, to persecute believers, and to constantly do what he hates, he knew there had to be a different way.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7:21-25

“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  This is Paul’s answer to how we walk with God — it is through Jesus — and yet those walking with Christ seemed to be struggling when it came to the gentiles, in Galatia and beyond.  Paul, however, was aware of something crucial Jesus shared before he ascended, which at first seemed the usual “obey the law” message, but was abundantly more:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”
John 14:15-17

Jesus knows the law is good — he did not come to abolish it, but fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) — and expects those walking with him to keep his commands.  However, he also knows they will need help, and so he gives them an Advocate — a Helper, the Spirit — to forever guide and equip them (John 14:26).  Paul, knowing this, understood that the message the church in Galatia was receiving was insufficient: it wasn’t a question of how they walked, but with whom. 

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Galatians 5:13-25

This leaves us with some important questions that can quickly bring clarity to your walk:

  • What is guiding your steps?  We are not always honest about or aware of what determines our path, but here are some of the common influences: fear, selfish ambition, reputation, control, religion, self-preservation.  There are many things that can guide that, if they are not God, could seem good but actually lead us away from God.  A friend of mine was invited by God to serve in China, and was initially guided by good, logical things — safety, capacity, and preference — to justifiably say “no”; but their willingness to be guided by the Spirit led them to a foolish “yes” that produced a transformational experience.  Something is guiding your steps; it would be good to know if it’s the Spirit or not.
  • What is the fruit of your walk?  We are really good at convincing ourselves that we are walking in the right way and direction; an easy way to know for sure is to look at the results.  “The acts of the flesh are obvious,” and while Paul lists many things that we’d quickly note, “I don’t do that”, other things — like “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” aren’t as easy to dismiss.  Even if we think we aren’t producing “bad fruit”, it’s worth humbly asking if our walk is producing “the fruit of the Spirit”: does our life exhibit “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control“?
  • If we desire to live by the Spirit, are we keeping in step with the Spirit?  This is what we often get wrong about our walk with Christ: we believe once we’ve chosen him, everything else will come by default.  “I’m a genuine Christian, so now I will naturally think and act right!”  It is not enough to follow someone: if we don’t keep their pace, we will eventually separate from them.  We must keep in step with the Spirit’s stride and pace, and the only way to do that is to actively — daily, hourly, continuously — look to and respond to the Spirit.

 

“Okay… but what does that mean?  How do I seek the Spirit?  I still barely know who the Spirit is!”  Fair question, and one that goes beyond a singular blog.  The good news is, if you search “Spirit” in scripture, God’s already provided incredible guidance; however, here are a few simple things you can do right now:

  • Acknowledge there is a Spirit/Helper/Advocate that wants to lead you.  It seems simple, but until you actually choose to name something as true, your mind may still reject it, especially if it’s supernatural!
  • Acknowledge you need the Spirit to actually be a Christ-follower.  We don’t like to admit our limitations, but until we “die to self” part of us will reject living for Christ.  It’s not weak to ask for help; in this case, it’s spiritually the strongest thing you can do.
  • Practice looking for and engaging the Spirit.  Have you ever seen something unexpected, and no one believed you?  Your response is, “Trust me, it’s there!  Just look!”  If you struggle to understand and experience the Spirit, trust me, he’s there!  Just look!  An easy way to do this is to invite the Spirit to move; this could be as simple as praying, “Holy Spirit, help me to see you,” or “Holy Spirit, move!”  Then, keep your eyes and ears open, and make space to reflect and practice again!
  • Make space to regularly and humbly check your walk.  Scripture — and life — is filled with people who desired to walk with God, but stopped paying attention to their steps; most of these thought they were fine until it became very clear they weren’t!  You don’t have to wait for the inevitable misstep, and can instead work humble introspection into your rhythms.  More important, don’t do this alone!  That Galatians 5 passage isn’t written to individuals; the expectation is that we will walk by the Spirit as a Body.  Spiritual family is not just helpful, but vital in this process.

 

Walking by the Spirit is not something sufficiently addressed in a singular blog, but rather is learned over the course of a lifetime through prayer, practice, community, trial and error, and — most importantly — by and through the Spirit Our invitation is to take a first step today, and trust the Spirit to lead the next.

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