“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
The law of sin pulls us downward. It causes us to miss the mark that we set for ourselves. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, however, pulls us upward.
You cannot pass a law that forces me to love you or to have a heart filled with joy. You cannot order me to be a peaceful man. You can force me to act like I love you. You can describe what a joyful person should look and require everyone to look that way. But you cannot pass a law that orders me to cease being angry, hateful, or lustful. You can only pass a law that limits the way I can behave when I am angry, or hateful, or lustful. You cannot legislate the condition of anyone’s heart. There is a vast difference between a cheerful manner and a cheerfulness that emanates from the Spirit.
We can control our emotions and behaviors to some extent by willpower. But soon, the body takes over. For example: I decide to eat no more desserts, but personal resolve can melt like chocolate bars in the sun when you are standing in front of a well-stocked dessert bar. Or I decide to quit lying, but find it necessary when pressed against the wall to defend my reputation. Or I decide to stop being angry at my parents, but then they insist on my cleaning up the bedroom and I am furious.
The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus overcomes the law of sin as long as you submit to the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. Note that the law of sin doesn’t go away; rather it is suspended. The Bible says: “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
To live up to the law of the Spirit requires a supernatural miracle. In order to experience the fruit of the Spirit, you must first understand that these qualities are just that–the result of yielding to the Spirit of God. If it is true that these qualities are the result of yielding to the Spirit of God in you, then you are forced to conclude that they are not affected by your interaction with people. Nor are they affected by your interaction with the circumstances of life. People and circumstances will reveal your spirit, not cause it.
In other words, we do not produce a consistent pattern of Spirit-filled behavior by means of training, determination, willpower, good intentions, or self-control. You don’t need to take my word for it; simply observe yourself and pay attention to your reactions to other people as well as your circumstances.
My wife and I were driving along I-95 through Florida on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. We were chatting pleasantly. The cruise control was set at 55 miles per hour and we were in the middle lane. A car on the left whizzed past us and suddenly swerved into our lane. I had to stomp quickly on the brakes to prevent a nasty accident. My wife didn’t see the incident but she felt the effect of the brakes, which caused her body to lurch forward. I calmly told her what had happened. Together we watched that car weave in and out of different lanes until it was out of sight.
Later that day, I recalled the incident. It dawned on me that when that car swerved in front of me, I had to make a split-second decision to either walk in the Spirit or in the flesh. That I responded peacefully with a kind attitude toward that driver was a miracle. I could recall similar instances when, in a split second, I was transformed into an angry man with my heart pounding, my body alert, and a stream of nasty words tumbling out of my mouth.
We make many such split-second decisions every day. Without our noticing, other people make choices that affect us and force us into making a decision. We have no control of the incidents around us, but we do determine whether to yield to the Spirit or to the flesh.
When I note that I yield to the Spirit instead of the flesh, I do so with a sense of grateful relief. How positively wonderful it is to know that I no longer need to manage myself by myself. Now I can let God do it. The Bible says: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Consistent living, then, is a matter of recognizing your own personal inability to produce the kind of spirit that you want, no matter how intense your desire. It involves receiving and yielding to the Spirit of Christ. By the strength of your willpower, you can speak and behave properly. It’s your spirit that you can’t manage. It’s not changing standards and rules that transforms a person. A change of heart is needed.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
People who seek help from counselors are driven to them because they suffer torment that is sometimes beyond what a human can endure. If not given help, many would break down completely. This torment is the result of hate, rebellion, indignation, anger, bitterness, desperation, guilt, resentment, cruelty, or remorse–an “internal” struggle causing tension and often sleeplessness.
Note that these are the reactions of talented, well-educated and highly-trained people. They reason that it’s the other fellow or their circumstances that are at fault. They reason that their reactions, given their situation, are quite normal and natural. After all, aren’t they being mistreated, misunderstood, not appreciated, and rejected? Isn’t it normal to be upset and fight back in order to free yourself from the turmoil within you?
Many counselees say, “Anyone in my shoes would have reacted the way I did. Once I get out of this situation, my natural spirit of goodwill, good humor, friendliness, generosity, and unselfishness will return.”
It is natural for people to become upset in the midst of trouble. Many people have been terribly mistreated since childhood. They have tasted of other people’s selfishness. It is unbelievable how many people are subject to harsh, scornful, vicious, and inconsiderate treatment. Curiously enough, many individuals who have received terrible, shameful treatment in the past will themselves repeat the same treatment, or even worse, toward the people in their lives. They will attack or withdraw from anyone who resembles the past–retaliating, wallowing in self-pity, refusing to forgive. You would think that they would be more considerate and understanding of other people since they know what it is like to suffer from cruelty, harshness, and selfishness. Are they innocent victims of the past and therefore not accountable for their attitudes and conduct?
It is true that a troubled person calms down and is happier when the people and circumstances around him are pleasant. Many counselors reason, therefore, that it is the environment that causes the individual to be upset and to retaliate. They say that man is basically friendly, generous, selfless, and good. These qualities, some counselors say, will be present if the patient can find an environment that will allow the qualities to emerge, or if he can be taught to channel any aggressive tendencies into constructive activities.
But we have learned that trouble merely exposes man’s natural tendency to react in an unfriendly, selfish, or bitter way. This basic evil nature is not so obvious when circumstances and the conduct of others are acceptable to an individual. Help may be found only when people face the truth about themselves and then turn to God for the power to change in the midst of trouble. Their problems won’t disappear; however, their reactions are changed. They soon discover that it is not a problem-free life they need, but a change of heart or to lean more firmly upon the God who has already changed their hearts.
The Spirit of God has a quieting effect on the body. Imagine responding to pressure, perplexities, persecution, and destruction with a quiet spirit. To experience quietness and peace is indeed a treasure.
Once you have accepted responsibility for your life, you will be tempted to backtrack, blame other people for your ups and downs, and leave your troubles and defeats at someone else’s door. But don’t become discouraged or misled. Temptation is something you hold in common with all people. And it, too, must be met with whatever resources you have with a willingness to be responsible for how you respond.
Temptation does not always appear as a terrible, undesirable evil that you clearly shouldn’t do. There will be times when you are greatly tempted by something subtle that you want to do but know you shouldn’t. (Or it could be the reverse–something that you should do, but don’t want to.) At the moment of temptation, giving in may seem so right.
The Bible says: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren” (James 1:13-16).
The temptations that bother most people are not those that would clearly lead into sin. Not many people struggle much with the temptation to steal something outright. But the small things that might go unnoticed are quite something else.
In advance of a temptation, you must make up your mind not to yield to it. Nevertheless, when temptation comes, you must reaffirm your previously made decision, and this will require a definite act of the will. Character is forged from encounters and situations that tempt you to do wrong. The erring attraction is always present.
As you trust God, He will give you assurance that you are on the right path. But trials, troubles, conflicts, other viewpoints, and unexpected failures on your part and on the part of other people you admire will challenge your evidence and throw you back on faith alone. A combination of faith and temptation will make your choice of the Bible as your guide a difficult one to maintain.
Let me challenge you to make a one-year test of studying and applying to your life the truths that you find in the Bible. This will require some time on your part. If you want your prayers of help answered, become familiar with the commands of God in the Bible. Verbalize your longings before God, then wait to see what He will do. If you have asked according to His will (that is, if you have prayed with the desire that His will may be done), you will have what you asked for. It is yours if it fits into God’s plan. And remember that His ways are not necessarily your ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). But also, His ways are not grievous or burdensome (1 John 5:3).
Your task is to accept the Bible as your guide and to obey God’s commands fully. If you do, you will find that the Bible is a mirror in which you see yourself as you really are. And when you see yourself, what you do is still up to you. You can correct what ought to be corrected. If by faith you go God’s way, you will find inner peace along the path as well as at the end of the road.