Walking by the Spirit refers to our daily conduct, rooted in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection and empowered by the Spirit who redirects our desires to godly fruitfulness. The Spirit is the animating power in our lives, shaping our daily decisions as we wake up in the midst of the spiritual war. Paul’s call is for us to daily take up arms in the battle, to encourage and gratify our spiritual desires, and to keep in step with the Spirit because we belong to Jesus.
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
In seminary, this passage reshaped my vision of the Christian life. At one level, the passage is simple. It contains an exhortation (“walk by the Spirit”), a promise (“and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh”), and an explanation or rationale (the conflict described in verse 17). But as we meditate on this passage, we discover that it also offers a threefold vision for the Christian life as a whole.
Acknowledge the War Within
First, Paul insists that the starting point for the Christian life is recognizing the war between the flesh and the Spirit.
I say “starting point” because of the logic of verses 16 and 17. In seminary, I was taught that one way to clarify the logic of a passage like this is to read the verses in reverse order while keeping the logical relationship intact. In other words, turn an “A, because B” argument into a “B, therefore A” argument. “I eat, because I am hungry” becomes “I am hungry, therefore I eat.”
When we do that, the passage looks like this:
(Verse 17) 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. (Verse 16) Therefore (that’s the logical connection) walk by the Spirit, and you will certainly not gratify the desires of the flesh.
As Christians, we wake up every day in the midst of a war. Fleshly desires pull us in one direction; the desires of the Spirit pull us in the other. The status quo is a frustrated stalemate in which we are kept from doing what we want to do. Spiritual desires frustrate fleshly desires, and fleshly desires frustrate spiritual desires.
Starting with this recognition means we can be realistic about the difficulty of the war. The frustration we feel in the face of the passions of the flesh is real, and Paul encourages us to be honest about it. That’s where we begin as Christians.
Staggering Promise of Not
But according to Paul, we don’t have to stay there, because, second, we have a new destination. We don’t have to surrender. We can live a life in which we absolutely don’t gratify the desires of the flesh. This is a staggering promise. The “not” in verse 16 is intensified in the original Greek; it’s what’s called an emphatic negation. Paul essentially says, “If you walk by the Spirit, you will absolutely and certainly not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Now, it’s important to be clear about what Paul is and isn’t promising. He’s not saying that our fleshly desires disappear altogether. Instead, he promises that we will not gratify or complete those desires. In other words, the desires may still be present and still at war with our spiritual desires, but now, as we walk by the Spirit, we won’t indulge them.
The basic idea is that all desires have a direction, a destination, a trajectory. They incline us towards some perceived good, some object that we believe will satisfy. In short, desires want to take us somewhere.