I came to Christ full of doubts and questions. It took years for some of those doubts to be answered, and decades later some of them still return. I’m far from a perfect Christian. Nevertheless, God has only gradually helped me to grasp the assurances and promises that keep me going and growing. Many things in the Bible are still a puzzle to me. Many things I now understand have come only after years of thought and study.
One of the ideas that has always puzzled me is the idea of “Walking in the Spirit.” What does it mean to walk in the Spirit? There are a lot of misconceptions about this.
Walking in the Spirit is not being perfect. When I was in college, I was exposed to the doctrine of “Christian perfection” or “crisis sanctification”. This is the belief that after you are born again you should experience a second crisis moment called “the filling” or “baptism” in the Holy Spirit.” After this experience, you are “perfect”--you don’t walk in the flesh but in the Spirit. In a moment, your faith is perfected.
I thought I had that experience. But it did not make me perfect. I still fell back into the old sins just as easily as I did before.
I will not criticize people who claim to have had this experience. There is no doubt that many of them show definite evidence of being touched by the Holy Spirit. But none of the Christians I know who claim this extraordinary experience show evidence of being perfect. They still get irritated. They still have moments of weakness. They still sin. The idea of anyone achieving an experience can change a person so that they perfectly walk in the Spirit is misleading and untrue. We work towards Christian perfection, but we never achieve it in this life. We can be led by the Spirit, but we do not follow perfectly.
Paul begins this passage with good news for all us struggling saints. God has given us amnesty. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” As Christians we are not condemned when we fail--- Period! There is no sin so heinous that it is an exception to God’s forgiveness. You have been given full and complete amnesty from God because you have believed in His son Jesus and have chosen to follow Him. You don’t have to be perfect to be accepted by God. When you aren’t perfect, you are forgiven. Even on your worst days, God won’t cast you aside.
Walking in the Spirit is not acting Spiritual all the time. Sometimes I meet people who act more “Spiritual” than I do. They’re always talking about the Lord. Some of them speak as if every thought in the mind is Godly, and every word out of their mouth is an oracle of God. They would get dreams and visions all the time, and everything they did seemed to be divinely guided.
Frankly, people like this tend to get on other people’s nerves. Despite their claims of divine guidance, it soon becomes clear that they still can be wrong and make bad decisions. But every decision they make they think is a direct revelation from God.
Sometimes, their faith is genuine. There are people who are closer to God than I am. I am grateful for those people, and admire them. But often, people who are claiming constant divine guidance just sound unconvincing. They aren’t hypocrites, they are just operating under a misunderstanding of what walking in the Spirit means. Being spiritual is faking a smile, quoting scriptures or have a holy-sounding tone of voice. I get the feeling that many of these people are simply pretending, putting on a spiritual mask, because they think that’s what God expects. They have been told that the way to be holy is to fake it until you make it. They aren’t trying to convince everyone that they are spiritual giants—they are trying to convince themselves. Such people need to understand that God does not expect this of them. We don’t have to pretend to be holy to walk in the Spirit.
Walking in the Spirit is not a feeling. Some people believe that if they aren’t happy all the time, rejoicing in suffering, and feeling gushy love towards their persecutors, that they must not be spiritual. They are convinced that God is a voice in their head, not an eternal Creator. They believe when they get that warm feeling inside it must be God. But we can get a warm feeling inside from a lot of things—jokes, friendship, and alcohol. That doesn’t make it God. We also get bad feelings for a lot of reasons—sickness, disappointment, grief, or fatigue. That doesn’t mean God has abandoned us. Feelings can be a terrible idol when we confuse a feeling of God’s presence with God Himself. When people trust in feelings, they dare not admit to anything but holy feelings, or they feel they have lost God.
The Holy Spirit exists independently of our feelings. Even on our worst days when God seems farthest from us, He is still there. He exists outside of our heads, and when we are walking in the Spirit, God is with us even when we have doubts and frustrations.
Walking in the Spirit is not acting spiritual all the time. God is with us when we are sleeping, eating, laughing, paying bills, and working. He is not so jealous of us that we must be looking at Him. God is not codependent. God loves to look at us being ourselves.
Walking in the Spirit is not being right all the time in our choices, actions, or doctrine. Many still equate walking in the Spirit with political or doctrinal correctness. But Christians make mistakes and have differences about all kinds of things. That doesn’t make us unchristian.
Prior to the Civil War many Christians supported slavery. Looking back over time, it is difficult to believe they did, but they were deceived. Many of my Christian ancestors saw nothing wrong with using and selling tobacco, or supporting racism and segregation. These were real Christians--they just happened to be wrong.
Christians differ on many issues—baptism, predestination, church government, and the gifts of the Spirit. We can’t all be right. That is why we have so many different kinds of churches. But examining the lives and spirituality of Christians across the spectrum of Christian belief, any reasonable person would conclude that these differences seem to have little or no connection to the sincerity of efficacy on their belief. There is so little difference in the behaviors of Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals and independents, that it becomes obvious that doctrinal correctness does not bring a greater connection to the Spirit, and the doctrinal error on minor issues is no impediment to walking in the Spirit. God hasn’t made everything clear to us, neither does He impose His will upon us by micromanaging our lives. He warns us about big mistakes, but leaves us to figure out the small stuff.
So what is walking in the Spirit? Walking in the Spirit is having the imitation of Christ as our ultimate go concern. We want to follow Him in all ways.
In 1896, Charles Sheldon wrote In His Steps--the biggest bestseller of his time next to the Bible. The book was about what it meant to imitate Christ in all in our many walks of life. In the Fourteenth Century, the bestselling book was Thomas AKempis’ The Imitation of Christ. In the 1990’s people wore bracelets saying WWJD—“what would Jesus do?” Walk in the Spirit for a Christian is seeking to think, act and feel like Jesus.
Walking in the Spirit is being validated by the assurance of His love. A person who seeks Jesus’ approval does not need anyone else’s. No one can please everyone, but we needn’t try. But when we love someone above all others, then we care what they think and we work to please them. We may not always know how to please Him, and we often fail to live up to our goals of pleasing him, but we try.
Walking in the Spirit is putting Him first. The first commandment of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other God’s before me”--which means “God comes first.”
There are lots of ways we keep Him first. Tithing is one--giving God first priority in our money, and Sabbath keeping is another. So is making a commitment to go first into God’s house. Daily devotions are another way of saying this. Put God at the top of your list of things to do in the morning. Start every way in His presence with prayer and Scripture reading. Religion is just a way of reminding ourselves that God comes first.
Walking in the Spirit is a voluntary surrender to Him over and over in every day and action in our lives. It’s not about supporting the church and it’s not about getting blessings, but keeping Him at the top of our priority list, putting the adoration and imitation of Christ first above everything else.
Walking in the Spirit really is a pretty heavy responsibility! But we can do it because whether we succeed or fail He continually loves us. Romans 5: 8 tell us “For God demonstrated His love to us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loves us when we make mistakes, but also when we deliberately rebel against Him. Christ died for sinners and failures.
God’s primary way of thinking about us is through love. Someone said if God had a refrigerator, our pictures would be on it! He never forgets to love us. In fact, he paid the ultimate price to demonstrate that he loves.
God is patient with our imperfections. He is never abusive or harsh. He corrects us, but gently. His goal is always to make us happy. In John 10: 10 Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Walking in the imitation of Jesus is not a burden, but a path to a happy life.
We can do it because God is strong enough to rule us. When we make God our Lord, then we are trusting in someone big enough to rule us. Bob Dylan sang, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” Our goal in life is to serve the person most capable of taking caring of us. That person is Jesus. He is the one who is most capable of providing all our needs.
That’s what it means to walk in the Spirit. However, it’s not all what it means. It also means having the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
But that power will have to be the subject of next week’s sermon.