I have no doubt you have already discovered for yourselves that most important matters in your life may take place without the presence of a second person. Indeed, as you will remember, the Lord Jesus at times sought privacy for Himself on the mountain-top, or in the desert, or some other lonely place. He also taught His disciples to retire into an inner chamber and to close the door during their prayers to God the Father (Matt. 6:6).
Privacy is very desirable for devotional purposes. But even when the retirement is not for a special purpose, such as prayer or Bible reading, thoughts are apt to arise then which do not come to us at other times. These thoughts may be welcome or unwelcome, good or evil. Good thoughts and desires lead to corresponding actions, which scripture calls "walking in the Spirit," because the Holy Spirit prompts these thoughts. On the other hand, evil thoughts, if not suppressed, lead to unholy deeds, which is called "walking in the flesh "
Now this letter relates to the personal walk of the believer, and how this is affected by the thoughts of the heart, sometimes unwelcome and undesirable, which are known only to God and to oneself. Perhaps my readers may be helped if the subject is stated in the form of the following question. How are these natural desires to be counteracted, so that our actions and ways may be such as are becoming in those who bear the name of followers of Christ?
In framing a reply to this important question, I will first quote the following verse: "Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust [desire] of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16). The inward desires of the natural heart are opposed to the will of God, and in this simple and straightforward sentence, just quoted, we are given a sovereign remedy against their indulgence. In order to avoid any fulfilment in us of the suggestions of the flesh, the apostle declares that we should do no more and no less than walk in the Spirit.
What is to be understood by this phrase? Briefly it may be said that to "walk in the Spirit" means to act in accordance with the inward promptings and power of the Holy Spirit. Living according to this scriptural method is simpler than it may seem at first sight. Let us take an illustration which may help, at any rate, to simplify the matter.
The practice of the new life in Christ is somewhat like the art of swimming. Man physically was not formed, like a fish, for an aquatic life. He was created to live on land. If he wishes to enter a watery sphere of action, it is needful that he should acquire the habit of swimming. In order to do this he must first of all learn to have confidence in the water itself. When he finds himself surrounded by it, instead of fearing that it will drown him, he must believe that it has the power of buoying him up, and of preventing him from sinking to the bottom. Then, as he is being floated by this element which proves stronger than himself, he learns to propel himself in whatever direction he pleases.
Now if our beginner endeavours, in the first instance, to move in the water in the same manner as on the land, he will probably sink like a stone. In his new surroundings, he must therefore learn to depend for his support upon the element in which he is submerged before he can successfully attempt to make any progress. He must also adapt the movements of his limbs to the new medium in which the finds himself. If he should follow his first impulse and use those members as on dry land, he is bound to fail. If, however, he obeys his instructor, and acts in the water as he is directed to do, motion under the new conditions becomes a very simple process.
It is true that the swimming lesson is only a very imperfect illustration of the right method of walk, or locomotion, through this world for the believer. Nevertheless, it may, perhaps, by analogy, help the understanding of my readers. To move through the water, the swimmer must for the time being suppress those motions natural to him when walking or running on the shore, and he must "spread forth his hands" to swim. Similarly, as the scripture says, the one who is walking in the Spirit does not fulfil or carry out the desires of his flesh. They are quiescent or suppressed while he is so walking.
The two things, "flesh" and "Spirit," are contrary to one another. Both cannot dominate our actions at one and the same time. This fact is stated very definitely: "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other." The utter contrast between the two is seen most vividly when we compare the dark catalogue of the works of the flesh with that of the fruit of the Spirit given in Gal. 5:19-23. How careful we should be therefore that the right seed-thoughts are allowed to germinate in our hearts!
In connection with this subject, I should like to point out to you that the latter part of Gal. 5:17 is sometimes misinterpreted as if it taught that a believer is unable to do what he should. This misunderstanding arises from a failure to note its close connection with the verse which precedes it, where we learn that the Galatians were fulfilling the lusts of the flesh because they were biting and devouring one another. The apostle therefore corrects them by saying, "Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh." Walking in the Spirit would be the way of escape for them from the works of their flesh.
Why would walking in the Spirit be their means of escape? Because the Spirit was present within them, and He was "contrary" to the flesh and its desires. He was in them to withstand the flesh, so that so long as they were walking in Him they could not do the things they would like to do according to the flesh.
Read the two verses again, and you will see that the words, "so that ye cannot do the things that ye would," do not mean, as some have thought, that a believer is unable to carry out his good intentions. Inability to act without the Holy Spirit is taught in Rom. 7:19 (see Letter No. 14) But the two texts must not be confused they are quite distinct in meaning. In Romans the contrast is between the old and the new natures, but in Galatians it is between the old nature and the Holy Spirit. The words in Gal. 5:17 are translated by some, "so that ye may not do the things that ye would," and these words give the true sense of the passage plainly.
We find then that, in the matter of personal holiness, we must learn that the way to smother every fleshly wish of the heart is to walk in the Spirit. When you read the word of God you discover what the Holy Spirit has written for our guidance in our walk. Perhaps you feel a lack of strength to do what is there enjoined. If so, trust yourself to the power of Another; for we read that the Spirit Himself "helpeth our infirmities."
Spreading out the hands is in scripture the confession of weakness and the attitude of prayer, and Moses with his lifted hands secured the victory of Israel over the Amalekites (Ex. 17), who are a figure of the flesh. Spreading forth the hands is also the attitude of the swimmer (Isa. 25:11), and is taken in this letter as a figure of the means whereby you may walk "soberly, righteously, and godly" in the Spirit, and so make no "provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Rom. 13:14).