Flesh vs Spirit: How to Live by the Spirit and Not the Flesh

The apostle Paul claimed that one who walks by the Spirit will not gratify fleshly desires. What does this mean and how is this possible?

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The concept of flesh vs spirit is described in fair detail in the Bible. The apostle Paul seems to have written about it the most, and places a lot of emphasis on living according to the spirit instead of the flesh. He says that the desires of the flesh and the spirit oppose each other. In Galatians 5, Paul makes this incredibly bold claim:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Galatians 5:16

But how is this possible? How does one live according to the flesh or according to the spirit? Especially with such effectiveness as Paul describes. Everyone at some point struggles with sin. Sometimes it can seem as though it is impossible to master these desires. However, it is not only possible, but the way to do it is extremely simple. Even for the most hardened drug or pornography addict – you too can defeat sin’s power in your life.

Continue reading, because we are going to unlock the mystery of how to defeat sin’s power in your life, once and for all.

woman stuck in prison of flesh

The Internal War?

At first glance, reading through the various verses that describe the difference in the flesh and spirit seem to suggest there is an internal war going on in each person. It’s as if there are two personalities inside each person, and they each want something different.

It is true that there are two personalities in a person. In fact, I believe that all people have a type of bipolar. Those personalities are the flesh and the spirit. However, upon closer inspection, we find that only one can rule in a person. That I’m aware of, flesh vs spirit is only described as a “struggle” one time in scripture. That is in Romans 7.

A picture of a tug of war with a giant cliff in between

Romans 7 is where Paul talks about his previous life (before coming to Christ) in which he sought justification by law keeping. Not only is he not successful, but he finds that his attempts at earning (working for) righteousness only lead him to more and more sin.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Romans 7:18-19

Eventually, Paul finds power over sin at the end of the chapter through Jesus Christ. He then explains the source of this new found power over sin in chapter 8. That new found power is being led by the spirit. We will talk more about what this means later.

For now, just know it’s entirely possible to live in such a way where the “desires of the flesh” have no power in a person’s life. Moreover, it’s not only possible to live this way, it’s commanded. Paul labels this existence as “freedom in Christ”. In this way, the “struggle” of flesh vs spirit is the old way of living. The new life is simply a matter of answering the question, “does my spirit or my flesh reign in my life?”

Now that we have laid out the split-personality duality inside you, let’s examine what they are.

What is the flesh?

The flesh is the part of you that exists in the physical world. At times it is referred to as your physical body. However we are interested in the abstract idea of the flesh. That is, the part of your being that seeks control over your mind.

Your fleshly personality is only aware of the physical world and has only one concern at all times: maximum satisfaction. It has no understanding of right or wrong, it simply wants.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

1 John 2:15-17

John describes the fleshly desires as being centrally focused on the things of this world, and connected with “pride” and “desires”. In your mind, you should join the concept of the flesh with desires of the physical world and “self pride” or in other words, the ego.

The Ego and Desire for Satisfaction

These two abstract concerns, “ego” and “desire” summarize the flesh. They are wholly self interested. While desire seeks maximum satisfaction and pleasure, ego centers on comparativeness. The ego seeks only one thing: to be greater than others.

By this we can understand why Paul describes it by saying “the desires of the flesh”.

  • Romans 7-8
  • Romans 13:14
  • Galatians 3, 5
  • 1 Peter 2:11
  • Matthew 26:41
  • Ephesians 4:22-24

The ego is the self-made image of who you think you are. That is, your identity. This However it is not really who you are. This self-made identity is an imposter. That’s because it is made up entirely of comparisons with others. Your true identity lies elsewhere.

A pawn looking in a mirror who sees a king

What is living according to the flesh?

Living according to the flesh (Romans 8:5) is living in a way that is under the command of the fleshly person in you. Stated another way, it is to live by the flesh. In other words, what controls your life is the aforementioned ego and desire for satisfaction at all times.

Fleshy Living is Without Power Against Sin

A person who lives by the flesh has little or no power over these desires or their competitive ego. The things of the flesh simply dominate their life, or in other words reign as master. In self-reflection upon his life before Jesus Christ, Paul said this about his inability to rule over his flesh:

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Romans 7:22-23

While he was seeking justification by law keeping, Paul found himself sinking further and further into sinful desires. This became so advanced that he found himself “captive” to this sin. The word “captive” indicates that he was held prisoner, like a person who had no way out.

Relying Upon Law Keeping is Fleshly Living

Those desires of the flesh became the master in his life and ultimately would have ended in his death. So Paul paints this picture of the life of a person who relies upon law for righteousness, and it’s the picture of a person ruled by their flesh.

The entire context of Romans, especially chapters 6 & 7, is critical for a deep understanding of Paul’s thoughts about law-keeping and living by the flesh. I highly encourage you to immerse yourself in it.

The short of it is that a person who seeks justification by keeping rules, is a person who’s ego and fleshly desires rule their life. This is because justification by law-keeping assumes that one has some sort of innate value. Or in other words, that we have the ability to earn righteousness by our own merit. The word we use for this today is legalism.

What is the spirit?

The spirit (man’s spirit) is the part of you that understands right from wrong. This is the other personality that exists within every person. I believe the spirit is the part of man that can fully understand and manifest abstract concepts such as love, joy, peace, faithfulness, patience, and kindness, etc.

The spirit is your true identity. That identity doesn’t come from any works that we do, or something that we are worthy of (as the flesh would have us believe). Instead, it is the trademark that God places upon you as a being made in His image. It seems this is only true, however, when your spirit reigns in your life.

The concept of the spirit as the abstract counteracts the common idea of “spirituality”. The secular view points to “energy” or “forces” that exist slightly beyond our range of perception. In reality, being spiritual is quite a lot more simple in our lives.

The Spirit (capital S) also refers to one of the three beings that is part of God. In other words, the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit. This actually doesn’t matter too much for the interpretation and application to our lives. Here’s why:

Why There is Disagreement About the Spirit

So often we become burdened by the various arguments over whether certain verses refer to the Spirit of God or of man’s spirit. Brethren spend countless hours debating these topics, yet it seems there is no progress in either direction.

Why are there differing viewpoints about the Holy Spirit? Why does it seem as though Christianity cannot come to unity on the topic of physical bodily Spirit of God indwelling? I believe the reason is because we focus on the wrong thing. By formulating all our theology around the mechanics of the Spirit of God, we miss what it means to walk by the spirit (man’s spirit).

When we focus instead on the picture of what it means to walk by the spirit, or as Paul states to “be led by the spirit”, then our disagreements and debates should fade away. When that happens, we may find the Holy Spirit’s purpose and workings become objectively evident.

If that’s true, then what does it mean to walk by, or live according to the spirit?

What is living according to the spirit?

Living by the spirit is living in a way that is under total command of the spiritual person in you. This kind of living is in total contrast to living by the flesh. It is the complete opposite of what we described before as a person controlled by their passions and desires. A person who lives by the spirit is aware of and has control over fleshy desires.

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 5:17

The apostle Paul also describes this mindset as a person who is “led by the spirit” (Galatians 5:18) and to “walk by the spirit”. Being led by the spirit does not mean that desires of the flesh disappear altogether. Rather, that these desires no longer have power over a person’s actions. Instead, the spirit becomes the master in your life.

So, if your spirit reigns, or in other words, makes all the rules in your life, you are a slave to righteousness. On the other hand, if your flesh makes the rules, you are a slave to sin. This is exactly what Paul says in Romans 7:15-23.

Man is clearly called to live according to the spirit, not the flesh. This is to walk by the spirit and put to death the deeds of the flesh. But how does a person actually accomplish this?

To Walk By the Spirit You Must Be Unified With Christ

Starting in Romans 6, Paul illustrates that being in Christ is of utmost importance. It’s a picture of having unity with Jesus. In other words, being joined to him, much like a husband and wife in a marriage.

This is also why the description of the Church (those who are in Christ, the saved) is the “body of Christ” (Ephesians 5). That language was absolutely intentional. Clearly, we are to be united with Christ.

In Paul’s monologue at the beginning of Romans 6, it becomes clear what he is driving home to his audience:

  • Baptized INTO Christ (3a)
  • Baptized INTO his death (3b)
  • Buried WITH HIM (4)
  • UNITED with him in a death like his (5a)
  • UNITED with him in resurrection like his (5b)
  • Crucified WITH HIM (6)
  • Died WITH CHRIST (8a)
  • Live WITH HIM (8b)

Clearly, Paul wants his audience to understand that we need to be unified with Christ and “in Christ”. After his lengthy description of his life before Christ, and under the law in the second half of Romans 7, Paul says this:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2

Again, Paul reiterates that being in Christ is critical to be freed from the domination of desires of the flesh. This is why he uses the specific language in verse 2 of Romans 8 to describe just this. Certainly, this is quite the contrast to the language he deployed in chapter 7 such as “captive” and “sold under sin”.

Paul has found the key to release from bondage to desire of the flesh, and that key is being “in Christ”.

What does it mean to be “in Christ”?

There is a lot of “oneness” between the three personalities of God. This is especially true with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 3:17, Paul says “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

This statement joins the person of Christ (the Lord) and the Spirit (the Holy Spirit). He echos this phrase again in the very last sentence of the chapter. Then, in Romans 8, Paul uses the term “Spirit of Christ” and “the Spirit” synonymously.

The reason for this is not because the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ are the same person. It’s also not because they exist in the same body, or physically dwell with one another. While yes, it is true that they (plus the Father) exist as one person (God) they are still three distinct personalities.

This language Paul uses to join the two persons is simply because the person of Jesus and the person of the Holy Spirit both have similar character traits. Explained another way, the “Spirit of Christ” phrase refers to Jesus’ character. This character closely aligns, maybe perfectly, to the character expressed by the Holy Spirit. In this way Paul accurately proclaims that “the Lord is the Spirit”.

With this in mind, we can understand why the two are interchangeable in Romans 8. Therefore, to “set our minds on the things of the spirit” (Romans 8:5-6) is to align our spirit with the Spirit of Christ, and the Holy Spirit. In other words, we alter our mind (spirit) to align with the Christ’s character.

To be “in Christ”, then is to manifest his spirit in our lives. When we do this, we become unified with Christ and the Holy Spirit.

What are the character traits of Jesus?

If aligning our spirit (character) with Christ and the Holy Spirit’s is how we walk by the spirit, the logical question is: “What are the character traits of Jesus?” What we are looking for is the core traits that drive the persons of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

John 14:26

In the verse above, the description of the Holy Spirit is the “Helper”. That’s quite a name and brings to mind a character trait of one who seeks for the best of another.

A man helping another man climb a mountain

Jesus said that he came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45). In another place, Jesus’ servitude is described in this way:

Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:6-8

The summary of Jesus’ character is this: humble servitude. As the creator of the universe, the gap he spanned to put on the likeness of man was immeasurable. Not only that, but he didn’t even come into this world as an exalted person of status. Instead, he came as a servant.

Jesus, who was equal with God, emptied himself in the act of becoming a servant. So the definition of the character of Christ Jesus is this type of humiliating, self-sacrificing servitude.

Get “in Christ”: How to Adopt the Character of Christ Jesus

Remember, to get in Christ we must align our spirit with his spirit. In actuality, we must immerse ourselves into him.

Your spirit, though, is the part of you that understands the abstract concepts of love, joy, peace, etc. It is also the part of you that knows right from wrong. Your spirit is diametrically opposite from the flesh which seeks maximum satisfaction and superiority over others.

Accepting Servitude

Since the spirit of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are characterized by becoming a servant, then for us to walk by the spirit is to manifest humble servitude. Jesus gave up vast superiority to serve us and to suffer.

Therefore, this is how we align ourselves with Christ: accepting the position of a lowly servant.

When we truly accept a lower position than all others, we have crucified the flesh and its desires. Remember, the flesh desires dominance over others (ego) and maximum satisfaction. Therefore it makes perfect sense that to walk by the spirit is to believe and live as less important than those around you. This is because the flesh is contrary to the spirit and the spirit is contrary to the flesh.

To Be in Christ Is Deeper Than Just “Serving”

It’s entirely possible for me to complete acts of service, but not be a servant.

Think about that statement for a moment. In other words, I can serve others without accepting the position of servant. How is this possible? This happens when a person understands the need for doing good, but is not willing to humble themselves.

In such a case, the ego part of the flesh reigns supreme in their life. Rather than completing the good works from a motivation of “My brother needs my help”, it comes from “God said to help, so I will.” This is a subtle nuance, but before you outright reject this next statement, I ask that you dwell on it with an open heart.

The latter example is one who seeks justification by works. In other words, a core belief that they are worthy. While the former is one who serves from a core belief that they are not worthy. This causes them to consider others as above, higher, and more important than themselves.

Consequently, the latter example may not serve to their fullest extent. Because they have not placed exceedingly high value on their brother, the fruit of the spirit may not produce in their works. For the true servant, however, the fruit of the spirit will grow abundantly.

A Core Belief That Others Are More Important

Returning to Philippians 2, just before the passage we previously read about Christ’s humble servitude says this:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus

Philippians 2:3-5

Possession of the “mind of Christ Jesus” (my own phrasing) is to count others as more significant than yourself. Paul echos this sentiment in his letter to the Ephesians:

Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21

Notice how the act of submitting to one another comes out of our reverence to Christ. This again illustrates the idea of manifesting Christ’s humble servitude in our own lives.

It’s the one who fully humbles themself, accepts servitude, and believes that others are more important than they are who will naturally do the works of a servant. This is in opposition to the one who does the acts of a servant out of obligation to the law.

Two adults helping an elderly disabled woman

The Whole Law is Summed Up in Serving One Another

Galatians 5 & 6 is a treatise on being a servant to others. You should read it and consider what Paul has to say about flesh vs spirit and the fruit of the spirit. When we submit to one another, we live by the spirit and walk in the spirit. In fact, Paul echos Jesus’ statement saying the whole law is summarized in the idea of serving one another:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:13-14

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

Galatians 6:2-3

This condemnation is to the one who believes the law might be fulfilled by some kind of value we inherently have. Maybe a person believes that because of their skills, bible knowledge, or position. Paul tears that idea to pieces by saying the only way to fulfill “law” is to bear one another’s burdens.

Paul is not saying that there are people who are indeed “something”. Rather, he speaks specifically of the one who thinks he is something. This is the pitfall of any person living by the flesh. This is why he says this in Romans 8:8 – “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Flesh vs Spirit: Which rules in your life?

If you’re reading this article, and made it this far, chances are you’re seeking after God. Therefore, you want to live by the spirit, but perhaps until now you didn’t know how to do that. The beauty of this is that it is not complicated to know how to walk by the spirit. Be a servant, and you will walk by the spirit.

Now you must inspect your own life to determine if you walk by the spirit. This is the moment that can either propel you down the pathway of righteous living and peace with God, or towards sin in the flesh.

One leads to death, and the other to life eternal with God. One makes you belong to Christ Jesus, the other you do whatever you want. Which one will be your master? Will you walk according to the flesh or according to the spirit? Will you fulfill the desires of the spirit or will your flesh hold you captive?

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