During my 30+ years in the ministry, there is something I have heard repeated many times. It usually goes something like this: "It's just so hard to be a Christian. I try and I try, but it seems like I can never keep it up for long." I don't disagree: it's true that it isn't always easy to be a Christian, but not for the reason many of us seem to think.
The problem is that so many Christians are trying to live the way they think Christians should live, but they're trying to do it in their own strength. This may surprise you, but that is not God's intention. I'll go beyond that. It is impossible to live the Christian life in our own strength. The standard set by the Gospel is far too high.
The Pharisees and many of the Jews assumed they were doing right by living according to a set of rules and regulations. Jesus explained their error in His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). The Jews knew that the Ten Commandments forbid murder ("Thou shalt not kill [literally, to commit murder].") Never having murdered anyone, they assumed they were in the right. But Jesus said the standard was higher than that--that if a person hated someone enough to wish him dead, in God's mind that person is guilty of murder. He went on to quote the next commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Again, the Jews were patting themselves on the back for never having committed adultery; but the Lord essentially said, "Hold on a minute. If you have ever looked at a woman wanting to commit adultery with her, then you are just as guilty before God as if you had committed the actual deed."
Their reaction was understandable: No one can live according to that standard! But that was exactly the Lord's point. No one can live according to that standard. But how can anyone keep from thinking sinful thoughts? The answer is that we can't, but the Lord can make it possible. Consider these two verses:
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my
strength and my Redeemer" - Psalm 19:14
"Casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God,
bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" - 2 Corinthians 10:5
Does that sound like a high standard to you--bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ? It is a high standard, but please understand this: God doesn't want His children living at a low standard! I have had people tell me that God accepts them the way they are. Yes, He does; but God doesn't want us living our lives at the same level we were at when we first became Christians. I have two lovely daughters. When they were infants and toddlers, it didn't bother me in the least that they acted like infants and toddlers. But by the time they became teenagers, I would have been very concerned had they continued to act like they did when they were 3 or 5 or 10 years old. They are both now in their thirties, and it would be unthinkable for them to still be acting like children. Our relationship with the Lord is no different: He expects us to grow and mature in our walk with Him.
Now think back to the verse cited at the beginning of this article: "[If you] walk in the Spirit...you shall not fulfill the lust (i.e., desire) of the flesh." Notice what the verse doesn't say. It doesn't say the desire, or lust, isn't present. Every one of us is plagued by sinful temptations. But to be tempted isn't sin; sin occurs when we give in to the temptation. After all, Jesus was tempted in every way just like you and I are. The difference is He never gave into the temptation, He never committed the sins of wrong actions or wrong thoughts (Hebrews 4:15). Okay, you might argue, but Jesus is God; you can't compare us to Him. Of course we can't, but that isn't the point. Here is the point: everything that Jesus accomplished during His earthly ministry was accomplished in the power of the same Spirit that indwells every born-again Christian. The difference is that He was completely yielded to the Spirit whereas you and I constantly struggle against and resist the Spirit's attempts to guide us.
What we have to learn as Christians--and if we fail to learn this, then we're going to be very, very frustrated--is that God has given us the Holy Spirit as the resource who will enable us to live our lives in a way that is pleasing to Him. Consider the words of Paul in the second chapter of Galatians, verse 20:
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I
now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
It might be helpful if we borrow some language from Paul (Ephesians 4:22-24), when he wrote about the "old man" and the "new man." The "old man" is our original nature; it's everything we were before becoming Christians. In Romans chapter 8, Paul stated that "those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit" (v. 5). He went on to claim that "the carnal mind (i.e., the old man) is at enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." To try to live the Christian life in our own strength is to set ourselves up for failure, because we're relying on our old nature which is incapable of living in obedience to God. What we have to learn to do is to yield ourselves to the indwelling Spirit and allow Him to control our thoughts. If our thoughts are under His control, then you may rest assured that our actions will follow ("As a man thinks in his heart, so is he" - Proverbs 23:7).
In next week's post, we'll discuss how we can learn to live our lives under the Spirit's control, because that is the true Christian life.