When I hiked on the Appalachian Trail I was drawn by the immensity and splendor of the wilderness. I also think I was trying to prove to myself what a man in his sixties could do. I doubt if I will again be able to do extended hikes as I did then, but I have great memories of mountain scenery, backpacking, the kindness of strangers (“trail angels”), and the therapy of solitude.
A hike is a very long walk. It is an apt description of the Christian life. Eugene Peterson called it, in his book title, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” The apostle Paul referred to it as walking in the Spirit. To walk in the Spirit is to walk by means of the Holy Spirit, or in the sphere of the Holy Spirit.
It is not possible to live as a Christian should live apart from the Holy Spirit. Here I quote from the English Standard Version of Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV). Walking in the realm of the Spirit has been compared to the atmosphere in which a fish survives: water. A fish has the freedom to act like a fish only in the environment for which he was created. Likewise, a Christian can live as a Christian should live only by and in the Holy Spirit.
Paul mentions the Holy Spirit seven times by name in Galatians 5:16-25. This highlights the Spirit’s role in us, subduing sinful influences, guiding us in right living, and helping us enjoy the freedom of God’s grace. These verses teach that there is an inward conflict between the lower nature (the “flesh”) and the Spirit.
“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). This reminds me of the inner struggle against sin Paul described in Romans 7! If you read Galatians 5:19-21 you see a sad litany of destructive habits and sinful offenses which are described as “works of the flesh.” They represent gross distortions of sex, of religious spirituality, and of human relationships.
Walking in the Spirit steers clear of these. Instead, the Spirit’s ministry in the life of a Christian is described as “fruit.” In the following verses Paul describes the Spirit-controlled life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV). This is what walking in the Spirit looks like. If we are walking in the Spirit we will not be gratifying the desires of the lower nature, but we will be demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in our everyday lives.
Of course this means that as we walk by the Spirit we will be led by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does the leading and we do the walking. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14). He takes the initiative to help us walk worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10) and walk by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7) and walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10) and walk in wisdom (Colossians 4:5).
The Appalachian Trail is a carefully-marked path through the mountains. The Holy Spirit intends to lead God’s people in the carefully-marked path of God’s will. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25 ESV). If we sincerely follow the Spirit’s leading, it will influence everything in our way of life: marriage and family relationships, friendships, vocation, leisure activities, proper use of wealth, prayer and devotion, keeping of the Lord’s Day, and concern for our neighbors.
“You make known to me the path of life” (Psalm 16:11 ESV).
Pastor Randy Faulkner