Walk by the Spirit, Paul tells the believers in Galatians 5:16. Sure. Easier said than done.
How do I know when my actions are Spirit-driven and when they are not? We human beings are quite capable of convincing ourselves that we’re living by the Spirit when we’re not even close to doing so.
The life led by the Spirit, in contrast with life of the sinful nature, has these markers: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). Years ago I made it my goal to live according to those truths, for I figured that this was a very good list of attributes for any individual to pursue. What I didn’t realize at the time was that each of those qualities has depths of meaning that I had yet to discover.
Two Ways to Know That You’re Walking in the Spirit
I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but here are two things that I have found helpful in my desire to live by the Spirit.
1. The Spirit of God will always agree with the Word of God.
Study the Word of God. It is true, never-changing, its applicability is never-ending, and it is fascinating. For example, the word love has taken on new meaning over the years as I’ve read the Bible. We speak about loving our clothes, our vacations, our families, and God. Clearly those are all different meanings of the word love, but none of them compete with the love of God.
God loves us loyally, unconditionally, and perfectly, and the only way to understand the depths of his love is to read his Word and discover how he has loved those who came before us, and how he has loved us through sending Jesus. We can rationalize quite a lot by appealing to love, but God’s love is the only true standard of love.
God’s love is gracious, merciful, and very patient. There have been times that I’ve wanted to tell someone off, to let them know what I really think, and I justified it by claiming that what they did simply wasn’t right. The individual may have been in the wrong, and there might have been a time for wise confrontation, but certainly not when I was feeling so angry. When I acted in anger, it was clearly not the Holy Spirit leading me; it was my sinful nature all the way. After a few incidents like that, I learned the value of the Ephesians 4:26, 29: “Be angry and do not sin…Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.”
Reading the Bible is the best way that I know of to check what I call love against the love of God. The Spirit of God will never lead you to do something contrary to the Word of God.
2. The Spirit of God will lead you to freedom.
Years ago I attended a retreat on the fruit of the Spirit. We all showed up alert and ready to be inspired by the Word of God. There, we learned about God’s loyal and unconditional love, moved on to joy in any circumstance, rested in peace through faith, challenged each other to show kindness, set our sights on goodness, inspired ourselves to be faithful, and considered how we might be more gentle.
It was emotionally exhausting. When we looked at what each fruit of the Spirit actually meant, we felt increasingly deflated. How could we ever live like these nine little words demanded we live? A burdensome feeling settled on the group.
Thankfully, God used that moment to teach us that we were thinking about it backwards.
A friend of mine spoke on the final fruit of self-control. She said that she naturally had very little self-control, and she probably never would have much of it. She named several areas in which she struggled to exhibit control.
Very simply, she reminded us that no one can exhibit any of these fruits of the Spirit in her own power. We may have a propensity or skill in one or two areas that can pass for actual Spirit-filled fruit. But if we do it ourselves then it is, by definition, not a fruit of the Spirit. In fact, the more we attempt to be more loving, joyful, or peaceful in our own strength, the more we defeat the only hope that we have in the Spirit.
Those nine qualities are fruits of the Spirit, not fruits of our own determination or tenacity.
The fog of failure in the room perceptibly lifted as we all realized, with fresh appreciation, the freedom available to us in Jesus Christ. Freedom from trying so hard and always coming up short. Freedom from the burden of attempting to be something we are not. Freedom from the condemnation that settles upon us when we fail.
How Our Work and the Spirit’s Work Fit Together
Another question arises from this: Is desiring to live by those attributes, setting my mind upon them daily, attempting to take over for the Spirit?
No, it is not. My desire to live a Spirit-filled life is evidence of the Spirit living in me (Romans 8:5). Every believer has the Holy Spirit of Jesus and has the freedom to live according to his power and influence. The unavoidable tension, however, comes from setting our minds upon the Spirit while also inhabiting a damaged nature and living in a sinful world. This is a tension we will experience until we get to heaven.
I wonder if we don’t give enough credit to the Holy Spirit in us. We have the Holy Spirit of God, so why do we so often doubt that he is leading us? I looked through all the New Testament verses that include the word “Spirit,” and the warning I noticed was not to quench the Spirit, not to ignore him. If we listen to the Spirit in freedom checked by our knowledge of the Bible, then we should have confidence that the Spirit is guiding us.
No doubt we will fail. Paul describes such failure in Romans 7, and if he struggled with that, surely we will also. But Romans 7 is directly before the beautiful passage of Romans 8 that says that we are under no condemnation, and speaks of the power of the Spirit in our lives. If God is for us, who can be against us?
Jonathan Edwards put it this way about God’s active and effective grace in our lives:
[We] are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest, but God does all and we do all. God produces all and we act all. For that is what he produces, our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects wholly passive and wholly active. (Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards)
If we set our minds on the Spirit, know the Word of God, learn from our failures and successes, and take refuge in God’s grace, we come closer to keeping in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25).