The Bible often talks about two different paths. One is the path God suggests and it leads to goodness. The other is the path of destruction. One framework Scripture uses to describe these two paths is flesh versus spirit.​​ People sometimes think that being a Christian means the voice of the flesh goes away. This is not the case. Every day, Christians have to decide what path to walk on. The way of the flesh leads to disappointment and destruction but the way of the spirit leads to life. The choice is ours.


The Flesh and the Referee

Tim: And that twisted desire is always there, and that’s what the Apostle Paul calls the flesh. Now, there are other presentations and other illustrations that can be used for that, but that’s a really good one, flesh. And then what Paul contrasts is that the spirit is this new nature that’s given with infinite power and the Holy Spirit comes in, and now you have the ability–we call it The Referee in the ring in the Yellow Balloons devotional series–the referee is us. It’s our will that God gave us. We can actually now choose which one to follow. But it’s actually just like an election, it’s a binary choice, and what the flesh is always doing is trying to convince you that you can do it both ways. Like, “Choose me and I’ll pretend to be the spirit, but actually you’ll still be in control.” And ultimately, when you choose to be in control, you’re actually choosing to be under the control of this thing that will destroy you. That’s one of the big paradigm shifts you have to make. This one leads to destruction. Our friend Matt, who we all know, had a long bout with alcohol addiction, and I’ve talked with him over the years, many times, and his big turning point came when he came to stop thinking of alcohol as a reward for himself and started thinking of it as death. “This leads me to death, it creates a chasm between me and everything I want.” And then his desire for it stopped. Like, this is self-destruction. And I like to say he was an alcoholic but we’re all “selfaholics.” We’re all fleshaholics. Because we all think if we’re in control, we can figure it out when we reward ourselves. And we all have to find a way to choose not to do that and to choose the spirit in order to have the life that God intended for us. Any new believer has that potential put in them, but it has to be unlocked by choosing the spirit rather than the flesh. What’s your way of describing this? 

Joey: I think one of the things, talking about the referee, that you’ve given me that’s really just helpful for this paradigm is that we talk about this flesh versus spirit battle with the idea that one is going to ultimately just kick the other one out. And I think a lot of Christians beat themselves up when they feel tempted, they feel struggled because it’s like, “Well, I thought the Spirit won that battle and it was over.” But the reality is it’s two parts of us. The way I think about it is that the flesh is the part of me that wants to be God, that thinks I know better, that has my own idea of what this should look like. And then the spirit is that part of me that recognizes that only God can be God and that I should steward my choices and I should follow Him and be a servant of God.

T: Because that’s what’s best for me.

J: Because that’s what’s best for me, not because this would be so great. Because this doesn’t work and it’s the path to death and destruction.

T: And this one actually gets me where my design was and where my real fulfillment comes, the spirit.

A Constant Choice

J: We work on a college campus and our students, we talk to them about going out to serve, doing service projects, and a lot of them really struggle when there’s free food that they get

afterwards, or if there’s any sort of reward system, because they think I shouldn’t get anything out of this. It’s another one of these paradoxes that we find our life by losing it, that as we give away, as we serve, as we make that sort of sacrifice, that’s actually the path to our greatest fulfillment, our greatest source of joy and happiness, which is a really difficult thing to accept. So if you have the flesh on one side, which is just saying, “I’m gonna be God and make all the choices and control everything.” And on the other side, you have the spirit, which is, “I’m gonna follow reality as God designed it and be obedient and trust Him.” I think what’s so important is to remember that there’s a third person in that arena, the referee is what we call it, but those two things are always going to be a constant reality in every person’s life. Even as a believer, there’s never gonna be a time when your flesh is not a factor. It is going to be a reality. What is key is that I’m the referee who gets to choose between those two paths. I choose it every day. I choose it in my relationship with my wife. I choose it in the way that I treat people when I am in line at Starbucks or whatever. I am actively standing in between these two voices. We get the angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other, there’s a reason that that little trope has worked for us because it resonates as true. And every day I’m trying to listen to both of those. And when the Bible talks about taking thoughts captive or dying to the flesh, what it’s saying is, “Choose the other direction. Turn from this. This isn’t gonna go away in the next morning, the next hour, it’s gonna continually try to tell you, ‘You’re entitled to this, you deserve this, you should be treated better and you should have it your own way.’” So you can’t ever just get rid of it but what you can do is make a real habit in your life of choosing the flesh. Or, I’m sorry, choosing the spirit.

T: The habit of choosing your flesh happens without any effort.

J: Almost like I drew it up.

The Flesh Gets Worse as You Go

T: So actually, my experience is, the flesh gets worse as you go. Because it’s like, there was a movie called The Incredibles, and there’s this robot thing that would learn your moves and get more and more strong. Every time you did something against it, it would learn that maneuver and get stronger. I think the flesh is that way. It’s a ventriloquist, it’s a thespian. It’s got so many different ways to go, and as you battle it, it finds other ways to do things. So, one thing that was really helpful to me is, so you’ve got these voices going on all the time in there. I think most people don’t know that everybody has those voices, they think they’re the only ones and they’re crazy, but the voices are always there. And I think one of the healthy things to do is recognize your spirit and flesh and talk to the flesh like “I know who you are, don’t try to tell me or somebody else. ‘No, you’re not me. You’re my old me.’ I don’t have to do that, whatever you’re suggesting.” But the flesh, the Galatians 5 passage that talks about this says that “You do not do what you wish.” And so you’ve always got the flesh and spirit vying against one another for you to choose it, and what that tells me is that “you do not do what you wish.” That means the deeper longing is actually on the spirit side, your deepest desires. It says, “The Spirit lusts against the flesh and the flesh lusts against the spirit.” Lust is a deep desire. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Spirit’s lust, or desire, deep desire, is much stronger and deeper. But the flesh’s desire is more superficial, but quicker to react. So your first reaction when somebody hits you is to hit them back, and then the next day you think, “Oh man I wish I hadn’t done that.” Or your first reaction when you’re tempted is, “Oh, I can’t do that,” and then your flesh says “See how bad you are. You have no choice but to do that.” “Oh, I can’t believe I’m thinking that.” Well, when you have those bad thoughts that come into your mind, you don’t have to beat yourself up. Your wicked and evil flesh is doing that, it’s still there. And you just say, “Oh, okay, I know who you are.” You can’t stop bad thoughts. You can choose whether or not to dwell on those thoughts, and you can choose whether to act on those thoughts. And knowing that that’s not you helps you be able to walk away from it. If you start worrying about whether that’s you, it causes you to dwell on it. And once you start dwelling on it, you’re gonna act on it.

Feelings, Flesh, and Destruction

Mark: So we live in an age where it seems like what’s actually promoted in mainstream culture is doing everything that the flesh says because you are your thoughts, you are your desires.

T: Your feelings.

M: You should express those externally whenever you feel inside. It sounds like what you’re saying is that’s actually the opposite of reality, of God’s reality.

T: Yeah, that’s right. They don’t actually practice that because if you feel like smacking somebody, you’re not going to do it. Because then it’s like “Oh, but not that way.” Right? Okay? There are only certain things that they say that about, and it’s only their approved things, which really means what they’re doing is saying, “We want you to serve us.” And that’s ultimately what sin is, it’s an abusive, coercive, destructive master that will enslave and destroy. And you can kinda see that with appetites. I may have an appetite for escape, so I take drugs. “Oh man, that’s great to escape but now I’m addicted. Oh no, how do I get out of that?” And then pretty soon, I’m stealing from the people I love to buy my habit, and I can’t even think straight anymore That’s that gave them over, gave them over, gave them over progression in Romans 1. Like, you fall into addiction and then you do things you could never imagine you could do because that’s sin. That is the progression all sin leads to, and it’s self-destruction,

M: And that’s giving into the flesh.

T: Flesh wants us to go down the path of self-destruction.

J: Well, and let’s go back to the question of “Do I have to follow the rules?” I think it’s important to come into it with this sort of a paradigm of like, “What are we thinking about when we’re thinking about rules and checklists?” And the other thing is just like we talked about in some other sessions in other ways, is that the flesh is clever and it changes. So a lot of times in my own life, my own testimony, I’m following all the rules and still miserable and distant from God. Why is that? Because it’s not about the rules in the technical sense, it’s about the heart posture. So I was trying to follow all the rules as a way to get the thing that I wanted. As a manipulation and control tactic to try to make God do what I wanted him to do. That’s an exercise of the flesh. So you can follow all the rules and be living according to the flesh. So it’s a really dangerous question and a difficult thing for us to contemplate, but at the end of the day the question is, “What is our heart aligned with?”

Debunking the So-Called “Rules”

T: It’s important to recognize that Jesus was severely criticized for not following the rules, and he pushed back and he’s like, “You didn’t follow our Sabbath rules, well those are rules that you made, you men made, and you’ve ruined the Sabbath. Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” So the Bible has, I would say, principles that are always gonna happen, but I can’t off-hand, I can’t think of any rules like we usually think of them. 

J: Right, and again, I said this in a different session, but the Bible talks a lot less of rules, right and wrong, and a lot more of wisdom and folly —- foolishness. It’s a lot more in that type of language. But this is strange, I think, for new believers or for people who have maybe been beaten down by institutional Christianity. But just like any good parent, these rules aren’t just arbitrary to make you obey God, these are guidelines for how to live the life that you really want to live, for how to live life in accordance with your best interest.

T: Let’s take sexual immorality, for example. Okay, so 1 Corinthians 6 says, “Sexual immorality is a bad idea because it’s you becoming one flesh with the prostitute, which is wedding the Holy Spirit with the prostitute.” Whoa, that’s a lot. That’s a heavy thought, right? That’s a heavy spiritual idea, and then it goes on to say, “You really need to take sexual sin, particularly pay attention to that because it’s a sin against your own body, this is more self-destructive than other things.” Well, that’s wisdom. That’s wisdom. Can you do those? Yeah, you can. Is it going to be counterproductive and destructive? Yeah, always. It’s cause-effect.

M: Yeah. I have a son who’s a seeker and a really serious seeker right now. We were having this conversation and he came to the realization that when he reads the Bible and how you’re supposed to live your life according to the Bible he said it’s like a dad. You don’t tell your kid not to put their hand on the stove just because you don’t want them to put their hand on the stove, it’s not because it would be fun.

T: Not because it’s my stove.

M: It’s because you’re gonna burn yourself. I don’t want you to burn yourself. You’re my kid, I love you. So what I want is what’s best for you. So the Bible says, “Hey, here’s what’s best for you. If you do this, your life is gonna be better than if you don’t do this stuff.” And so I think that goes with what you’re saying. Are they really rules? Are we looking at this correctly?

T: Well, there’s reality. I think it’s better to say there’s reality.

J: Well, and I think what’s important about that metaphor too is that if your son does touch the stove, he’s still your son. You still love him. There’s not this dramatic change in your relationship, it’s just like, “Okay, well, you’ve probably learned a little bit.”

M: He won’t touch the stove again. 

J: They’re not rules in the way we think of them as this checklist. Like you said, you thought about it as this checklist of things you have to do or you’re supposed to do. It’s like “This is how God designed reality, this is how reality works, and the rules are a description of how to best operate within that reality.”

T: We were talking about this earlier about promiscuity and partying and stuff like that, and what is that? Those have a set of rules too and what they are are rules for belonging. If you do these things, you belong to our group. And in that sense, Christianity has zero rules because belonging is wholly given as a gift to those with enough faith to look. There are zero rules for belonging. And the world, everything you belong to in the world has rules that are conditional for that unless you happen to have a relationship with someone that gives it to you unconditionally, like a marriage or a family. But that’s not the case in the scriptures at all.