Why is it so hard to be good?

Galatians 5:16-21

4 September 2011

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


Why is it so hard to be good?

If we are Christians, we are supposed to be new creations, aren't we? We are supposed to be created in Christ Jesus to do good worksref. If this is true, then why is it such a struggle to be good? And even when I do manage to do something worthy, why is it always polluted with mixed motives, pride and hypocrisy?

Why do I constantly find, as Paul puts it elsewhere, this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with meref?

Is that your experience as well? I expect it is.

The fact is, if we are Christian, we are new creations in Christ. One day, we will be made perfect and complete, but for the duration of this life, we are unfinished work. In every one of us a conflict is raging: something of our old self still remains which has no interest in godliness or goodness whatsoever. It is constantly frustrating our ability to please God.

This inner conflict is a reality for every Christian. The Apostle Paul describes it here in Galatians 5, and I want to look at it under three headings. First, sides: who are the participants in this conflict? Second, signs: how can we see which side is getting the upper hand in the conflict? Third, strategies: what are good and bad ways to make progress in the conflict?

Sides in the Conflict

First, then, the sides in the conflict: who is fighting whom?

Verse 17 says that in every Christian there is a three-way battle: the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you wantref.

In the first corner we have what the NIV translates as the "sinful nature". More literally, it is our flesh. This is our old, unspiritual selves. It is our broken, fallen human nature set in determined opposition to God. This is our rebellious self that always tends to point us away from God, to hide from him, to shrink into the darkness. It is what, and who, we would be fundamentally if God had never entered our lives.

In the other corner is the Holy Spirit. When we become Christians—followers of Jesus,—God comes to live within us in the person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works to make us more like Jesus. He works to sanctify us, to make us more pleasing to God.

So you can see, as Paul says, the flesh and the Spirit are in conflict with each other. There is an almighty wrestling match within us. Our flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit: it wants to hide from God, to live in the shadows, to eject God from our life. The Holy Spirit desires what is contrary to our flesh: he wants to draw us towards God; to transform us to Christ-likeness, to make us good. They are utterly opposed to each other.

I said there are three sides in this conflict. Our flesh, or sinful nature, is one. The Holy Spirit is another. The third is "us": our minds, our selves, our "inner being" as Paul calls it in Romans. We have desires too: sometimes we want to please God, to follow where the Spirit is leading, but we find ourselves frustrated by the sinful nature; other times we are happy to give in to the flesh, and to gratify or indulge our sinful natures, but we find the Spirit holding us back. So, the Christian finds that he is never truly free to do what he wants to do: we are always hampered by one side or the other.

My children are great fans of old Tom and Jerry cartoons. Oh, all right, I am a great fan of old Tom and Jerry cartoons! In one we saw recently, Jerry, the mouse, was shown with a little white angel on one shoulder, and a little red devil on his other shoulder, each of them whispering in his ear. The one urging him to do something evil, but very funny, to the cat, the other begging him to be good. Guess which won!

So it is with us, except on the one side we have our sinful nature (which is not in the least bit funny), and on the other the Holy Spirit. Which are we going to listen to?

Signs of the Conflict

Here, then, are the three sides in the conflict: the flesh constantly pulling us away from God; the Spirit constantly working to draw us to God, and ourselves like the rope in a tug-of-war, sometimes pulled one way, sometimes the other, never able to act truly independently.

Which is winning in your life?

Well, Paul's point in this passage is that actually it is rather easy to see.

There are obvious signs of when a believer is allowing the sinful nature to triumph, and obvious signs of when a believer is living by the Spirit.

Now, I gather that you will be looking at the fruit of the Spirit in some detail over the coming weeks, so I'm going to focus for now at the signs that the sinful nature, the flesh, is at work.

Verses 19-21, The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.ref

The goal of our sinful nature is to bring disorder to our lives. The list Paul gives roughly splits into four areas where the sinful nature desires to disorder us.

The first sign of the sinful nature at work is disordered sexuality: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery. For many, this is an easy target. Many, many Christians are in a perpetual state of guilt and shame due to pornography or other sexual sin. Our flesh has so much ammunition from the world around to throw at us.

A second sign of the sinful nature at work is a disordered relationship with God: idolatry and witchcraft. These both attack our trust in God. Idolatry is when we place our faith anywhere else but in God. Witchcraft is trying to manipulate circumstances to bring about the end we desire; turning from God to depend on other sources. The sinful nature will always try to draw us out of relationship with God. It will blind us to God's goodness, and lead us to trust instead in our careers, our savings, or even the national lottery.

A third sign of the sinful nature at work is in disordered relationships with one-another: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy. The flesh is fundamentally selfish. Whenever we put ourselves first, it is a clear sign that the flesh is prevailing.

A fourth sign of the sinful nature at work is a disordered relationship with ourselves, illustrated here by drunkenness and orgies—a dissolute lifestyle, where we live in self-destructive ways.

Paul indicates that this list is not exhaustive: we could go on adding to it—gossip, pride, greed, self-harm, idleness and on and on. The list simply illustrates ways that the sinful nature works: it disorders us at every level. And fundamentally it is at odds with the Kingdom of God.

So, the signs that the sinful nature is in control are quite obvious; there is nothing mysterious about them. Just as the signs that the Holy Spirit is in control are obvious: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.ref

Strategies for the Conflict

Now, I likened us earlier to the rope in a tug-of-war. It may sometimes feel like that, but we are not really helpless victims in this struggle between flesh and Spirit.

Paul says that we are participants in this conflict as well, and that we must choose which side we're going to ally ourselves with. This is the responsibility he gives us in verse 16: he commands us to live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful natureref.

The Christian can never claim to be a helpless victim of his or her sinful nature. We can never excuse ourselves and say to God "there was nothing I could do". We always have the choice to follow the Spirit, to live by the Spirit, and to overcome temptation. We can never plead diminished responsibility.

On the other hand, the Christian can't expect to effortlessly become perfect. We are always conflicted; our flesh will always be exerting its corrupting influence in everything we do.

So, what strategies should we adopt for overcoming the sinful nature?

Let's say that you are aware of an area of your life where your old, sinful nature is getting the upper hand. Perhaps there is a sexual sin that has you in its grip. Or perhaps you are doubting God's plans for your life. Or maybe there is a family member you have a difficult relationship with: you are critical and judgemental. Or perhaps drink is your secret vice.

The question is: what are you going to do about it? What is your strategy?

There are basically two approaches to dealing with the sinful nature. One works; one doesn't.

The first approach is the one I call "try harder!", and it almost never works. But somehow, this is the approach that almost everyone takes. Week after week you come to church. You are aware of your sin, you are aware of your inadequacy. And week after week you go away resolving that you must try harder.

So week after week, you go and try so hard not to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. You make rules for yourself; you set targets for yourself. You grit your teeth and do your best: you try to be nice to that person; you try not to drink; you try to pray and put your trust in God; you try to keep away from those websites.

Perhaps you succeed for a while, but one day your guard is down and up pops the the sinful nature. And you find yourself sinning again, guilty, dispirited, depressed.

This is the approach that Paul in Galatians calls "law". The whole letter to the Galatians is written to persuade this young church not to return to running their lives by law—some agitators are coming in and telling them that, despite the cross of Christ, they still need to adopt the old Jewish law. But, says Paul several times, it never works! Chapter 3, verse 11, no-one is justified before God by the lawref. In fact, verse 10, All who rely on observing the law are under a curseref.

The law comes from outside and simply says, "you must try harder!" And it is never really effective. You might gain some small and temporary victories, but you will never truly defeat your own flesh simply by trying harder.

The tragedy is that this is what people in churches up and down the land hear every Sunday—whether or not the preacher actually said it! There is a process by which the devil seems to take what comes out of the preacher's mouth and translates it so that when it reaches the hearer all they get is "you must try harder!" I could stand here this morning and tell you to spend your life savings on a Mediterranean cruise,—put your feet up, you deserve it!—and still some of you would go away thinking, "Ben said I must try harder". For many, many people—including soundly converted Christians—that's what Christianity is all about: trying hard to be good.

But Paul says no. It just doesn't work; we can never overcome our sinful nature like that.

The other strategy, the only one that works, is clear from this passage: "follow the Spirit". Verse 16, live by [or walk by] the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful natureref; verse 18, if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under lawref; verse 25, keep in step with the Spiritref.

Remember that the Holy Spirit always desires to lead us towards God. When we sin our first reaction is to hide from God: but this plays straight into the hands of our sinful nature. If we want to keep in step with the Spirit, we will do something radical. Instead of hiding, bring your sin to God. Bring your sin to the cross. Simply say, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.ref

And you will find something astonishing: you will find that your sin has already been nailed up there. Jesus has already borne it. You will find forgiveness from God. And you will find healing from God.

And so dealing properly with our sin, following the Spirit's guidance, actually brings us closer to God, and will therefore defeat our flesh's desire to keep us from him. This is what it means to keep in step with the Spirit: we keep on stepping towards God, no matter what we've done; never turning our steps the other way.

There is no great effort in this. Jesus has already taken the burden of our sin. We simply need to come again and again and again to the cross. This is what it means to be led by the Spirit: he always leads us to the cross.


To come back to the question we started with: why is it so hard to be good? Well, we've found that each of us who is a believer has a conflict within us. We've looked at the sides: our old, fallen sinful nature is at war with God's Spirit, and we are caught in the crossfire.

We've looked at the signs, how to tell who is winning. The disordering of our humanity versus the unity of the fruit of the Spirit.

And we've looked at two strategies, one doomed to failure—"just try harder!"—and one that will save us—"follow the Spirit".

What are you going to do with your sin today? The winning strategy is to bring it to God; bring it to the cross. This is where the Spirit wants to lead you. This is what will make you good. Soon we will share communion as we remember Jesus' death for us. Will you bring your sin to him?