Following the Desires of the Spirit.
If I told you there is a way we can stop sinning, would you believe me? I’m guessing you wouldn’t, and of course you would be right. But at the same time, it actually is legitimate to raise the question. The Scriptures state that there is indeed a way we can keep from gratifying the sinful desires of our flesh. We may not be able to do it constantly, but there is way it can be done. Are you interested?
Here is the statement of that truth, from NASB (2020), a literal, accurate and helpful translation:
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, in order to keep you from doing whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law (Galatians 5:16-18).
Verse 16 plainly says that if we walk (live) by the Spirit we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. So there it is. The way to not gratify our sinful desires is to live by the Spirit. I should mention, however, that the form of the verb “carry out” (subjunctive) indicates possibility more so than certainty. That means we were right to think we cannot stop sinning totally, but the verse does show us a possibility of not carrying out the desires of the flesh. The possibility lies in living by the Spirit.
This again brings us back to our question, What does it mean to live by the Spirit? This passage will tell us at least one aspect of it.
It is important to notice the word “for” at the beginning of v. 17, because that tips us off that the verse is going to be a further explanation of what he just said in v. 16. In other words, v. 17 is an explanation of how or why living by the Spirit prevents gratifying the flesh. This explanation can be clarified in three statements.
First, the flesh and Spirit both have desires. Scripture often refers to the flesh producing sinful desires in us, and we are all too familiar with this in our lives (Romans 13:14; Galatians 5:24; Ephesians 2:3). Not all desire is sinful, however; there are good desires, too (Luke 22:15; Philippians 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:17). Galatians 5:17 indicates that the Spirit produces good desires in us.
Second, the flesh and Spirit desire opposite things. They are opposed to one another. This is stated clearly in Galatians 5:17 and is not surprising.
Third, the purpose of these opposing desires is “in order to keep you from doing whatever you want.” NASB rightly translates this as a purpose clause. The purpose of our having these desires is to keep us from doing whatever we want. We may think the meaning is that our sinful desires keep us from what we really want to do deep inside, that is, please God. But if we remember the context, that v. 17 is explaining how not to gratify the desires of the flesh (v. 16), then we realize the meaning is the opposite. The desires of the Spirit are what keep us from doing “whatever we want,” that is, living however we jolly well please. God has given us good desires by means of the Spirit to counteract the sinful desires of our flesh and keep us from indulging them.
The principle is similar to the notion that, “If you are headed north, you aren’t headed south.” We sometimes talk about a project, game or conversation that is “headed south,” meaning going down or deteriorating. Our very lives can also head south–but not if they are headed north! In sports, defense may win championships, but in Christianity, a good offense is the best defense. According to Galatians 5:16-17 you don’t win by trying not to sin (defense) but by focusing on following the good desires of the Spirit (offense).
One reason it is difficult to see the teaching here is that the passage does not state outright that the Spirit gives us his desires. It definitely implies it, though. Otherwise, if the Spirit had good desires but did not impart them to us, the verse would not fulfill its purpose of explaining how the Spirit helps us resist the desires of the flesh. The clear implication of the verse is that God supplies us with wholesome desires by means of the Spirit in order to counteract the sinful desires of our flesh. Paul’s concern is not to explain just how that happens. Rather, it is simply to state the fact—the Spirit’s desires prevent us from doing whatever our flesh may want to do.
We should note that what the Spirit provides here is powerful. Giving us the desire to do good is significant. He does not merely help us become aware of some good things we could do. The Law could do that much! Rather, the Spirit also gives us the actual desire to do those things. And it so much easier to do the things we truly want to do (Spirit) than things we merely think we ought to do (law).
If we choose to follow these good desires of the Spirit instead of the sinful desires of our flesh, then we are living by the Spirit (v. 16) or, another way of saying it is that we are being “led by the Spirit” (v. 18). We are not subject to law, nor do we need to be. Instead, God’s Spirit gives us good desires that indicate the sort of things we should do and also neatly provides us with power for doing them (the power of desire).
I recognize that other Bible versions of this great passage can give a different impression of the meaning. But if we remember that v. 17 is a further explanation of how it is that living by the Spirit keeps us from carrying out the desire of the flesh, we will be headed in the right direction. And the NASB’s translation of the purpose statement at the end of v. 17, “in order to keep you from doing whatever you want” is not only the usual translation of the Greek word there but also keeps the verse in its context of explaining how a person can keep from following the desires of the flesh.
It is worth noting the parallel with v. 25. The exhortation there is that, since we’ve chosen to abandon the old way of Law and live by the Spirit, let us actually follow the Spirit. Or, said another way, let us go along with his desires.
As we seek to live by the Spirit, we may wonder at times whether a given desire that emerges in us is good or bad. It’s usually obvious, but sometimes it may be unclear. Part of the way we can determine it is by comparing to the lists of typical desires of the flesh and of the Spirit Paul gives us (vv. 19-23). Another way we can know is by being taught the word (Galatians 6:6). Paul makes this statement about the word while still very much in the context of living by the Spirit (see the immediately following 6:7-10). Living by the Spirit does not release us from knowing and following the word that was inspired by the Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Though the Spirit’s work is not limited to inspiring Scripture, still, he does indeed work through God’s word (Ephesians 6:17).
What all this means practically is that whenever a good desire comes to our hearts, we should act on it as soon as possible. Sometimes we may not be able to act on it immediately. For example, we may be at work or driving or something else. Or writing. (I just stopped and sent a text to someone who came to mind yesterday and then again just now.) As I have acted on the good desires I have, I sometimes get affirmation that the person really did need someone to reach out to them. Other times I don’t. I still do not understand the ways of the Spirit thoroughly (John 3:8). But it is a way to find vital power to do what is good. One key aspect of living by the Spirit is to follow the good desires he gives us.