“When we put willpower or conformity before God’s Spirit, we struggle with God’s grace.”
I need to ask you a question. It may be a little personal, but I’m going to ask it anyway:
What kind of thoughts are guiding your life?
Chances are, they’re not too different from the mindsets guiding two major groups that Paul speaks to in Romans 8. Those two groups, early Jewish Christians and early Greek Christians, each had a unique issue. Early Jewish Christians were tempted to live by willpower. Early Greek Christians were tempted to follow culturally permissive pressures. The grace of God was entirely new to both groups.
Which one do you gravitate toward? Which of those two losing solutions most sounds like you?
If you find yourself in one of those two camps (and, let’s face it, just about all of us do), Paul has an inspired solution: Contrast living by our own desires versus living by God’s Spirit. He says it a little better, though:
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. (Rom. 8:5)
You may be a Christian, but if you’re letting your human appetites (flesh) go unchecked, you haven’t truly come alive. Paul says that the only way to fully accept what God has given us is to focus on what the Spirit desires.
How do we do that? We need these three things.
1. We need a new mindset.
If we don’t take control of the way we think, we’ll never live the life that God has for us. You can’t live a full Christian life if you don’t commit yourself 100 percent. We don’t serve a once-in-a-while kind of God. We serve an all-in, 24/7, knows-every-hair-on-your-head type of God. How we think about ourselves and God is a very, very big deal.
In verses 7 through 17 of Romans 8, Paul runs down what happens if our mindset is focused on our fleshly desires: We become defined by strife with God, struggles with self-control and separation. The end result? Death.
But there’s another side to that equation. If you approach life with a mindset of following what God’s Spirit desires, the results are intimacy with God, internal rejuvenation and inheritance. In the end, you receive life and peace.
That’s a much better deal.
2. We need God’s Spirit.
When God comes into our lives, it’s not a stopover. God says that when Jesus comes in, he makes a home. He takes up residence in your heart. It’s his house, where he’s comfortable. You end up having a relationship and end up being able to focus on the desires of the Spirit.
But why is that so important? Paul writes:
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:14)
If you don’t have God’s Spirit, the things we’re saying right now are going to sound ridiculous. The Spirit of God allows us to understand his Word, and through it he reveals his purpose for our lives. It’s like one of those decoder rings you used to find at the bottom of cereal boxes. The only way you can understand God’s message is through his Spirit.
3. We need to fight back.
The flesh is a bully. It’s true. It likes to push us around. It likes to get us to do things we know we shouldn’t do. It likes to goad us into not doing the things we know we should do.
It’s time we stood up to our bully.
But here’s the problem: We can’t do it on our own. The flesh bully is going to keep shoving us into lockers and giving us swirlies until we confront it with a greater power. God’s Spirit is the only thing that can strengthen us enough to stand up to the flesh.
We try to stand up to our desires, but willpower just can’t get us there. If we were able to will ourselves into perfect obedience, Jesus’s death was a waste. We just can’t—not through willpower, not through conforming to the world’s patterns . We can only overcome sin by the power of the Spirit.
Getting a Grip on Who You Really Are
When we try to live without these three things, we lose sight of who we really are. When we put willpower or conformity before God’s Spirit, what we’re really doing is struggling with God’s grace. We feel we’re not worth it, and we become burdened by guilt. That guilt is heavy, and it crushes our effectiveness for the kingdom of God.
So get a grip.
We need to remember who we really are: sons and daughters of God. We can’t do anything to change the way he sees us. When we struggle and fail against our earthly desires, giving in to guilt can’t buy us freedom. The only way to be truly free is to lean on God’s Spirit. His grace is and always will be enough.
Lincoln Brewster is a nationally recognized worship leader and pastor at Bayside Church in Northern California. This article originally appeared on Medium.com/@BaysideChurch.