Fighting the Flesh

I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:19)

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. (Galatians 5:17)

Phil sits in front of his computer. His hand hovers over the mouse, hesitating. Then he clicks it. Soon the screen is showing him one dirty picture after another. Phil feels ashamed about looking at pornography, and he tells himself he should shut the computer off. But even as he tells himself this, he clicks the mouse and looks at some more dirty pictures. Something in him doesn’t want to do it, but something else in him does it anyway.

Jennifer is a teenager. At breakfast her dad asks, “Where’d you go last night, Jen?” Jennifer hates lying, but how can she tell the truth? Last night she was out smoking pot with some of her friends. So for the umpteenth time Jennifer makes up a story and lies about where she was. Her dad’s eyes narrow a bit, wondering, but he doesn’t push the matter. Something in Jennifer doesn’t really want to smoke pot with her friends or lie to her dad, but something else in her does it anyway.

George just got home from work. It’s been a tough day. He asks his wife, “What’s for dinner?” She says they’ll be having leftovers. “Leftovers!” George shouts. “I work like a dog all day, and the only thing I get is leftovers from that lousy meal we had last night? Why can’t you give me some decent food?” George snarls a few swear words and then notices his wife’s lip quivering and a tear trickling down her cheek. George shuts his mouth and sits down. He really does care about his wife, but this isn’t the first time he’s lost his temper and yelled at her. Something in George doesn’t want to blow up, but something else in him does it anyway.

Amy has been on the phone for quite awhile. She has been drinking in all the latest gossip from her friend, and she adds several gallons of her own juicy gossip to the grapevine. After she hangs up the phone, she hangs her head. Some of what she said was unkind. Although some of it was true, she didn’t have to repeat it. Amy knows that she gossips too much, and she knows it would be better not to spread hurtful talk. Something in her doesn’t want to do it, but something else in her does it anyway.

Maybe you have your own habit or pattern of behavior that’s bad for you or just plain wrong. Something in you wants to be different, but something else makes you keep doing the same old thing, and you wonder, “What’s wrong with me? I know what’s good, and yet I keep doing what’s bad. Why do I have this war going on inside me, and why does the bad side seem to keep winning?”

The Bible describes this predicament in Romans 7. When we hear God’s law in Scripture or sense God’s will in our own conscience, we might see that God’s way is best. But even if we agree with God’s law, we often do the opposite. In Romans 7:14-20 the apostle Paul says,

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. 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. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

What a tangle! When I’m caught between God’s will and my own sinful tendencies, I don’t understand what I do, and I don’t understand who I am. I do bad things—but is it really I, or is it an alien power of sin living in me? Nothing good lives in me—in my sinful nature, that is—and yet something in me affirms and even likes what is truly spiritual and good. Who am I anyway? Is my real self the one that agrees with God’s law, or is my real self the one that keeps breaking God’s law? Am I two different persons? Do I have a split personality? Why can’t I control my conduct or figure out who I really am? What’s this war within?

Those are questions you may find yourself asking when you keep doing things you’d rather not do. Whether it’s pornography or a drinking problem or drug use or lying or a hot temper or homosexual activity or gossip or whatever, when you’re driven to do things your conscience condemns, you ask yourself, “What makes me go against my own better judgment? Am I to blame? Can I be forgiven? Can I ever be different? Is there any way out?”

Paul ends Romans 7 by talking about this war within and telling the only way to win it. He says,

So I find this law at work: When 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 the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

No matter how wretched we are, no matter what’s wrong with us, the Lord can forgive, rescue, and change us.

The Sinful Nature

We desperately need God to forgive us and change us. Before we explore how that happens, let’s probe a bit further into our core problem. We have a fallen self that is against God, is allergic to God, and reacts against his holy law. The Bible calls this “the flesh” or “the sinful nature.”

Bible-believing Christians speak of three threats to a person’s spiritual and eternal wellbeing: the devil, the world, and the flesh. That’s a deadly trio. The devil, Satan, is strong and sneaky. The world can corrupt us and seduce us away from God. But the devil and the world aren’t our only enemies. There’s also the flesh, our own sinful nature. When we do something wrong, we can’t just say, “The devil made me do it!” or blame it on the world around us. We have to admit that right inside us is a sinful nature that is all too quick to follow the devil, fall in love with the world, and war against what we know to be right.

This sinful nature is called “the flesh” in many Bible translations and other Christian writings. Don’t be confused by this term. Don’t think that “the flesh” refers only to sins of the body, like sexual sin or gluttony. “The flesh” means the entire self—body, soul, mind, and emotions—in the grip of sin. “The flesh” is the whole tangle of ungodly cravings and thoughts and habits of our entire fallen self.

Whether we call it “the flesh” or “the sinful nature,” we have to face the reality of it. When we find ourselves doing things we know are wrong, we might want to say, “Oh, I just made a mistake,” or “I could change that any time I want” or “I’m basically a good person; I just happen to slip once in awhile.” But if we’re realistic, we have to say with the biblical writer, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.”

When the flesh, the sinful nature, is confronted by God’s law, the result isn’t pleasant. The law tells us what we should be doing and condemns us when we don’t do it, but God’s law doesn’t change our sinful nature. In fact, sometimes being told what’s right just stirs up more of what’s wrong inside us. The more we’re told not to do something, the more our sinful nature reacts by doing the opposite. And if we feel guilty about it, our guilt feelings may actually drive us to do it even more. Strange as it sounds, it’s true. The more we know God’s law and sense that it’s right, the more wretched we become.

Surrender to Sin

The war within is so hard, so painful, that we want it to end. One tempting way of ending the struggle is to surrender to sin. This can seem appealing, especially if you’ve been fighting hard with little sign of progress. A young man had homosexual cravings that wouldn’t go away. He fought these feelings, and for a while he believed that God was against homosexual acts. But when he couldn’t change his desires, eventually he concluded it was okay to have a gay partner. He also convinced his parents of this, even though they had formerly thought homosexual behavior was wrong. If their son couldn’t change, God must not want him to change. His mother said, “God created my son gay for a reason, and he’s not out of his will.”

Such thinking is common among people from a religious background who are involved in homosexual activity. Regarding their same-sex tendency, they say, “I didn’t choose it, and I can’t change it, so that means I was born with it. If I was born with it, then God made me this way. And if God made me this way, then my homosexual craving is a beautiful thing to express and enjoy, not a sin to regret and repent of and struggle against.”

Sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? But the reason it sounds convincing is that so few of us think in terms of the biblical understanding of sin. When I mention the biblical understanding of sin, I’m not just talking about biblical commands against homosexual behavior. The deeper problem is the underlying assumption that any strong tendency ingrained in my nature, anything I’m born with, must be created by God and, therefore, good. That’s totally at odds with the biblical teaching about our sinful nature. It’s true that God created humanity good, but Adam and Eve fell into sin, and now every new member of the human race is born with a sinful nature. When God showed biblical writers the truth about themselves, what did they say? “Surely I was sinful at birth” (Psalm 51:5). “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature… What a wretched man I am” (Romans 7:18).

Arguing “I was born that way” to show something is okay would not convince anyone who knows the Bible and knows we’re all born with a sinful nature. But if we assume we’re born good, then whatever seems to come naturally can’t be wrong. Instead of crying, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me?” we announce, “This is the way I am, and I’m proud of it! Don’t anyone try to change me.”

If we experience a war within where our sinful nature fights against God’s will, we might try to convince ourselves that the Bible is wrong, or that God can’t possibly mean what he seems to be saying, or that it simply doesn’t apply to our situation. We can’t bear to believe that anything deeply ingrained in us can be totally at odds with what is right and good. If we were born a certain way, or if we have a cluster of feelings and a pattern of behavior that we’ve tried to change without success, it’s a relief to surrender, to tell ourselves we’re fine the way we are and we really shouldn’t want to change, after all. But if we take that approach, we’re lying to ourselves.

Surrender to Christ

If we are realistic, we will see the truth and goodness of God’s law, and at the same time we will see that our behavior is wrong and rises out of a sinful nature that all our efforts can’t change. This is painful to accept, and it’s even worse because we can’t fix the problem ourselves. All we can do is give up and wonder in desperation if someone else might be able to help us.

If you have a bad temper and can’t change, don’t pretend it’s not so bad to be a hothead. If you keep looking at dirty pictures and videos, don’t pretend it’s okay to see other humans as objects of your lust. If you misuse alcohol, stop telling yourself you can handle your liquor. If you’re in the habit of lying whenever it seems convenient, don’t pretend it’s no big deal. If you gossip rather than building others up, don’t pretend it’s harmless. Let the sad truth sink in: God’s law is spiritual, but you are unspiritual. Nothing good lives in you, that is, in your sinful nature.

I know it’s no fun to hear this. I was once asked to speak at a convention of young adults. The people who invited me wanted me to speak about the holiness of God. “But,” they said, “do it in a way that won’t make people feel guilty.” How was I supposed to do that? How can people sense the holiness of God without feeling guilty? When Isaiah saw God’s holiness, he cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined!” When Paul considered God’s holy law, he groaned, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?”

Let’s not be so eager to avoid feeling bad. You’re far closer to God’s kingdom if you’re miserable and frustrated in your struggle with sin than if you’ve surrendered to sin and think there’s nothing wrong with you. If you have a drinking problem but think you don’t have a problem, you won’t feel as miserable as the person who admits he’s an alcoholic but hasn’t yet found a way to stop drinking. But the miserable person is closer to reality and more likely to seek help outside himself. Before you can be free from what’s wrong with you, you first have to admit that something is wrong and that you’re powerless to change it.

One of the great purposes of God’s law is to bring us to that point. The law can’t forgive us or transform us, but God’s law can show us our predicament and make us give up on ourselves and prepare us to depend entirely on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian leader from an earlier generation, told of a man in deep water who wasn’t able to swim. However, there was an expert swimmer nearby. As Nee watched, he expected this man to rescue the other one immediately. But he did nothing. “Don’t you see he’s drowning?” shouted Nee. But still the good swimmer did nothing. Meanwhile, the drowning man grew weaker and fainter. Nee thought to himself, “How awful that this great swimmer won’t rescue a drowning brother.” But just as the drowning man ran out of energy and stopped thrashing around, the swimmer sped to him in a few swift strokes, took hold of him, and brought him safely to shore. Nee scolded the swimmer for waiting so long, but the man replied, “Any earlier, and he would have pulled me under with him. A drowning man cannot be rescued until he is utterly exhausted and stops trying to save himself.”

So too, when you and I are drowning in sin, the Lord may let us thrash around for awhile, trying desperately to save ourselves and change our ways. Of course God is not worried that we could pull him under, but he knows that before we are rescued, we must first give up any hope of earning the right to heaven or making ourselves holy on our own. God’s holy law leaves us exhausted and helpless before the face of God. If our only hope of holiness and heaven were our ability to do the good things commanded in God’s law, we would be ruined.

But just when we give up and cry, “Who will deliver me?” we may find ourselves saying, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).

Jesus’ death pays for all the times we’ve broken God’s law despite knowing better, so we don’t have to be weighed down by guilt. Jesus died for us—and we also die with him. Our sinful nature is crucified with Christ, and God raises up a new nature within us that is alive with the life of the risen Christ. Jesus’ life-giving Holy Spirit transforms us and makes us truly ourselves for the first time. The Holy Spirit has power far greater than the sinful flesh within us, far greater than the power of Satan and the world around us. The Holy Spirit’s power transforms us in a way that our own efforts never could. Fighting the flesh by his power, we can win the war within.

Without the Holy Spirit, you can’t win the war within. If you’re caught in a war between your conscience and your sinful nature, the sinful nature will win the war. Conscience may say that God’s law is right and that sin is wrong, but conscience does not empower us to do right. The longer the war goes on, the less conscience fights. The more we sin, the more confused our conscience becomes, and the less it tries to be heard.

The Holy Spirit does what conscience cannot do. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just tell us that God’s law is right; the Holy Spirit encourages and empowers us to do right. The Holy Spirit is stronger than the sinful nature. The Spirit and the sinful nature fight against one another, but the Spirit is stronger. The Bible tells Spirit-filled believers, “You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you” (Romans 8:9).

The True You

Does this mean that you become instantly perfect and free from sin the moment the Spirit of God moves in? No, as long as we’re in this life, there will still be times even for born again Christians when the sinful nature acts up—like a body that’s dead but still twitching. Whenever the sinful nature does that, it must be nailed back down to the cross. When you’re in Christ, your old sinful nature is killed, and it must stay dead. Crucifying the old nature isn’t a matter of hating yourself. It’s a matter of hating a sinful nature which is not the true self God designed you to be. When you sin, don’t say, “That’s just who I am.” Say instead, “That’s not the real me; it’s sin dwelling in me—and by God’s grace, sin is not going to have the upper hand.” Count on Christ to forgive your failure, and nail that sinful nature to his cross more firmly than ever. Then depend on the Holy Spirit to keep changing you, until one day you’re holy like Christ himself and at home with him in heaven.

To win the war within, you must depend on the Holy Spirit, not on your own will power. It’s like flying. If you want to fly, what should you do? Well, you can tape some feathers to your arms and legs and flap them as hard as you can, but you’ll never get off the ground that way. All your feathers and flapping can’t overcome the law of gravity. But if you get into an airplane, the law of aerodynamics will overcome the law of gravity for you. You can’t fly on your own, but if you’re in the airplane, you fly as the plane flies.

So too, if you want to soar higher morally and spiritually, you can try as hard as you want, but none of your efforts can overcome the weight of your fallen flesh, your sinful nature. But if you are in Christ by faith, the power of the Spirit of Christ overcomes the weight of sin and lifts you to a higher level in Christ. The Bible says, “What the law was powerless to do … God did!” (Romans 8:3).

If you’ve been trying to do good but have kept doing bad instead, if you believe God’s law is holy but haven’t been able to keep it, then give up on yourself, and go to Christ. He will not condemn you. He will forgive and welcome you. Accept his forgiveness, and then trust him to help you to make the changes you cannot make on your own. Depend on his Holy Spirit for the power to fight the flesh. Get together with a group of other Christ-believing, Spirit-empowered people who have been through the same struggle you’ve been through, who know the addictive, enslaving power of the sinful nature but also know the joyous liberating power of God. When you live in the forgiveness of Christ, in the power of his Spirit, and in the encouragement and accountability of God’s people, your sinful nature will give way to the new, true you. Pray each day for fresh strength from the Holy Spirit. A centuries-old prayer in the Heidelberg Catechism provides guidance for praying against evil:

Father in heaven, deliver us from evil. By ourselves we are too weak to hold our own even for a moment. And our sworn enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh—never stop attacking us. And so, Lord, uphold us and make us strong with the strength of your Holy Spirit, so that we may not go down in defeat in this spiritual struggle, but may firmly resist our enemies until we finally win the complete victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.