How does the Spirit get mature, spiritual fruit in us? He doesn’t wave his hands over us or sprinkle pixie dust. No; he does it through suffering. That seems like a negative way of looking at the process, doesn’t it? Yet the idea of suffering, particularly of crucifying the flesh, is to remove everything that gets in the way of following the Spirit. With the flesh crucified, the Spirit is free to move and work in and through us.
When I allow myself to suffer through something, then I understand how hard it is to suffer, and what hardship is like. Then can I understand how hard it is for others to suffer. Later training can develop compassion for those who hurt like I did, then can move my heart to want to help those who are hurting. This is the fruit of love that is developed in the furnace of hardships. Suffering helps us to identify with others.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with it passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-23)
But to learn our spiritual lessons and develop spiritual fruit, we must undergo suffering, not avoid it. Just daily crucifying of the flesh — of denying permission for the flesh to work — produces the necessary suffering. Let’s say I have a task to do that requires time and dedication, and it’s my responsibility to do it. I check my feelings to see whether I want to do it. My feelings say, “I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to do it.” If do the job in spite of my feelings and work anyway to be faithful to the Lord, then I have denied my feelings, in effect crucifying the flesh, and with persistence will develop the fruit of longsuffering and patience.
We don’t learn endurance by doing only what feels good, do we? We don’t learn patience by quitting work before it’s done, right?
I’m not talking about the kind of suffering where we need medical attention, or are in mortal danger of our lives and need to escape. So let’s take a quick look at what the flesh looks like when we follow it: “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21a).
The final words, “and the like,” means that the list is partial. We can add laziness, weak-willed, deceptions, giving in to obsessive cravings, compulsive lying, speaking and behaving as the fool in Proverbs, and many other dishonorable character traits to the list. The flesh is everything in us that opposes faith in God. If I check my feelings to see if I want to or if I can do it, for instance, then I am not believing God; rather, I am checking my own abilities in place of relying on God’s help.
So if we are motivated to act on any of these inner impressions, then we have given the flesh freedom rather than restrained it. If we indulge in any of these aspects of the flesh merely in our minds, then we still sow to the flesh, and will reap the corruption of our souls rather than cultivate fruitful Christlikeness.
God is evaluating us for placement in his kingdom. What kind of a person does he want ruling on thrones in his empire? People who can’t control their baser impulses, or who have developed the self-control needed to obey his every command?
If suffering has only given us schemes on how to avoid hardship (such as quick denials to avoid confronting it, or using euphemisms to lessen sin’s severity), then we’ve strengthened the flesh and not faith in God. One thing we know about the flesh: it is an enemy of God (Romans 8:7-8). It is to be hated, not pampered. The fleshly impulses that avoid hardship are to be denied, not followed; reckoned dead, not preserved.
The dangers of letting the flesh have its way is sobering. After giving us the list of the works of the flesh, the writer goes on to say, “that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21b). This does not mean that people will lose their salvation, but that they will lose any reward or honor. As our parents can remove us from their wills and leave us no inheritance while we yet remain their children, so God can remove any inheritance in the next life while we remain his children.
Warnings against the flesh abound in scripture, as well as severe consequences for following its cravings. For instance, Paul said he disciplines “my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Paul knew that it wasn’t enough to preach; God wanted Paul to be an instrument the Spirit could freely use, and that meant self-discipline. In the next verses, in chapter 10, Paul then gave us an example to help us understand what it means to be disqualified.
There, we learn that God “was not well pleased” with the Israelites Moses brought out of Egypt in the Exodus because they exhibited the works of the flesh rather than faith in him. As a result, the unbelieving adults in the group died outside the Promised Land, as God said they would. He brought the children in instead. So by letting the flesh rule in our lives, we can only look on helplessly at the promises of God, disqualified from receiving them. But if we crucify the flesh, we gather the blessings and are assured of receiving an inheritance in the coming kingdom.
Hebrews chapters three and four also give us a warning about living by the flesh. It mentions the same incident in Exodus, where most of the adults did not make it to the Promised Land because of unbelief. In their case, the work of the flesh was complaining in the midst of their suffering. That could fit into the list as “contentions, outbursts of wrath.” Only two of the original adults faithfully believed God through the wilderness training in hardship: Joshua and Caleb. If the adults were 500,000 in number, that’s quite a ratio! What is the ratio of those in your church who believe God strongly in suffering? Are you in that number who holds fast to faith, or who complain?
We do not need to seek out hardship in order to suffer and learn from it. Jesus tells us to deny ourselves daily and pick up the cross. This denial of the flesh will provide the necessary materials to produce fruit, and the world will provide the rest of the ingredients. A life dedicated to pampering oneself never produces spiritual fruit or mature character, neither is taking the easy way out. “How hardly shall they who are rich enter the kingdom of God” because of their instinct to trust in riches. Rather, “we must, through many tribulations, enter the kingdom of God.” Sometimes, choosing the Bible and prayer over the TV and Internet games is denying the flesh and entering into struggle of mind, and this suffering will open the doors to knowing the strength and faithfulness of God to a greater degree.
Making choices for God over the flesh is what it means to be a “soldier of the cross.” The battle is for our own souls; the enemy is within us. “Possess the land” in the OT is an allegory for “possess your souls” in the NT. If we recognize that we regularly indulge a trait of the flesh in the Galatian list, then we have neglected perhaps decades of training in righteousness by pampering it. We have lost ground. We are in denial of what should be a soul-stirring fight for our spiritual lives. We have unknowingly made pacts with the enemy as Joshua unwittingly did with the deceptive inhabitants of Gilead, and left an enemy in his midst. The flesh wants to preserve itself at all costs.
Some people are counting the years to retirement so they can leave the job they don’t love. What a great loss of opportunity for growth! At our jobs we can learn teamwork (which can involve growth in humility, peacemaking, responsibility, and accountability), excellence (doing a job to the best of our ability as though the Lord is the boss, and applying our minds and knowledge), and other traits that trains us in maturity. There is no growth when the flesh runs free at work: adultery, fornication, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, envy, murders, drunkenness, laziness, and the like. If we accept these traits in our lives, we are not enrolled in God’s training program for true maturity.
Contrary to popular opinion, life is not going well when you are doing whatever you wish, but when denying yourself to do God’s will. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). These are the two choices always open to us throughout the day. Jesus cautions us to deny ourselves and carry our cross. So which will we choose during the next hour’s warfare? Indulgence or denial of the flesh?
Jesus set the example of the way to life, and he suffered before he obtained glory. He was glorified in heaven, and we will be glorified with him – but only if we suffer for him and are trained by it: “and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Hebrews 8:17). The scriptures are full of the conditional “if.” If we suffer with him in our hardships, then we will, in time, obtain the promise of being glorified with him. Otherwise, we will not receive the honor and rewards that are reserved exclusively for his suffering servants. (For instance, Jesus told his followers that if they denied him, then he will deny them before the holy angels.)
Hebrews 2:10 tells us that Jesus suffered in order to be perfect. This does not mean that he was not already perfect, but that suffering fitted him for the task of being the author of our salvation. Having suffered himself, he knows how to intercede for us who suffer (Hebrews 4:15). We can’t say that he is too remote or uncaring; the cross on which he hung demolishes all those arguments. He suffered — for us. He left heavenly splendor for a sinful world and experienced firsthand the flesh-driven sinfulness of men all around him. Though he inhabited a body of flesh and bone, Jesus did not bow to its demands himself. He remained sinless, following God the Father in all things.
Our flesh would naturally balk at any command that endangers our well-being. Jesus had so much self-control that he stepped into the role of the crucified, enduring the horrific pain of the condemned on the cross. Since by the Spirit he endured the cross, then we who have the Spirit should be able to endure anything. It is this direction of thought the Spirit trains us to develop. But first we willingly suffer the smaller things.
What is the positive aspect of denying yourself, of taking a stand against the flesh as a good soldier? Merely receiving every promise that you have ever longed for: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22). Everything we’ve craved from the world hasn’t satisfied the hunger for love and peace. We’ve sought after all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. There is a better way, and that’s to cut off the craver within and set our hearts on the One who fills all things.
The first epistle of Peter tells us what the salvation of the soul looks like: rejoicing in Christ in the midst of intense suffering and persecution (1 Peter 1:6-9). When the Spirit has fully trained us in suffering, then this is what the outcome looks like: joy in hardship because of the One who is with us through it all. Of course, that includes joy between bouts of suffering as well, for God is always with us.
Suffering the cross is the training ground for a deeper life with Jesus. It restrains the main culprit — our flesh life — that keeps maturity of character and spiritual fruit from growing. Don’t waste your hardships, but use them to learn to trust in God