Living in the Flesh or in the Spirit – Romans 8:5-8

I have been reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans recently. And I am stuck on one passage that I keep coming back to over and over. I am stuck on it, not because it is particularly difficult to understand. But because it has just grabbed hold of me and won’t let go. Am I living according to the Spirit? Or according to the flesh?

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:5-8 NIV

the Flesh or the Spirit

This passage provides a test. Am I living according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit? In this passage the flesh refers to my own nature, who I just naturally am. In our natural state we all live according to the flesh. And in that state our minds are set on what the flesh desires. Is this a bad thing? Not in and of itself. It is just what we are. For some, the flesh desires things that are hurtful to self and others. And we condemn the expression of those desires. For others, the flesh desires things that are helpful to self and others. Things of beauty, knowledge and understanding, peace and love. We hold these in honor and set them as examples.

But what both of these extremes, and any middle ground, hold in common, is that they are hostile to God. They are unable to please him, and lead to death. It is not to challenging to apply this to a serial killer. We find it altogether different to apply it to a great humanitarian who dedicates his life to helping the helpless. But Paul is clear that if I am following the desires of my own nature I am in deep trouble. It makes no difference where those desires might lead.

Paul contrasts this person with the one whose mind is set, not on what they want, but on what God’s Spirit wants. That one will experience life and peace in relationship with their creator. It is ironic that only in dying to self will I find true life. Only in giving up will I discover what I was created to be.

Taking the Test

It is so easy to read and study this passage without actually taking the test. I have done it for several decades. But it is demanding an answer now. As I walk through my day, do I do what I want, or what the Spirit wants of me? Do I take the time to inquire of the Spirit what he wants? Or do I just act on my own desires?

Am I trying to please God? Or am I doing what I want and hoping that it is pleasing to him? According to this passage, if my response is the latter, then I am not pleasing him. I am actually hostile to him. No matter how good my actions might be, if it is in response to my own desire rather than at the Spirit’s leading, I have fallen short.

I am afraid too much of my life is lived without regard for the Spirit’s leading. But this passage is stuck on a continuous replay cycle. It challenges me to change the channel and listen to the Spirit rather than my own nature and desires. Will I dare to let go of the reins I have tightly held for so long?

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