If the Spirit of God Lives in You
In our efforts to understand and encounter the presence of God, we now come to the great classic text Romans 8:1-17. It may be a classic passage, but it’s not really easy. In fact, to grasp it fully it must be, I think, read very slowly and absorbed almost line by line. Now, first, I’m going to say something pretty obvious about this text, something that is very clear from this text, and that I’ve known for a long time. Then in another essay, I’m going to point out something maybe less obvious, but something really essential that we too often tend to just pass over without noticing.
First this: When all is said and done, Paul is saying very simply that there are two ways of living your life. Sometimes life seems complicated – like there are thousands of options or choices or decisions. But Paul is saying, it’s not. It’s not that complicated. There’s only one real choice. And everything else follows from that. And I’ll make it simpler, Paul says. One of the ways of living your life is no life at all.
Or stated another way, there are two ways of living your life. One will make immediate sense to you, and the other won’t. But be very careful here, because the way that makes immediate sense to you is literally a dead end. It may make perfect sense to you. But it goes nowhere.
So you will have to choose. On the one hand, you have life according to the sinful nature (as it’s translated in verse 5). In the Greek, it’s life according to the sarx (). Who would want to live according to the sarx? But sarx is literally “flesh.” And I resist this NIV translation of “sinful nature,” because when Paul speaks of sarx (or flesh) he’s not talking about something that’s at first sight obviously wrong. Jesus came in the “sarx” or “flesh.” In the Prologue to John, the Word was made “flesh” or “sarx.” What I’m trying to say is that sarx is not necessarily evil; it’s not evidently sinful in nature. So at first it may seem perfectly natural to live this way, but Paul is saying: Don’t. There are ways to live that seem perfectly natural that will kill you.
Paul is referring not so much to “sinful nature” as “lower nature.” Life lived according to the lower nature. Living only for this age. Living on the level of your instincts, maybe on the level of your most basic wants and desires. Focused only on what you see right now and what you’re feeling right now. Centered on self. Doing just whatever you right now want to do. What is the destiny of such a life? This way of life, Paul says, leads to death (verse 6). Or in verse 13, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” Literally, there is no future in it.
Now, follow this closely. When our minds are almost completely preoccupied with passing concerns – Will my business make it, or not? Will I have a job this time next year, or not? Will I be able to afford living in this house, or not? Will I find the person of my dreams, or not? nd all of these, as important as they seem right now, are passing concerns, but if my identity is completely wrapped up in these things – if my dreamspace is totally given to them – when I die, what is really left of me?
There is, thank God, another way to live. This other way is life according to the Spirit. Life that reaches outside itself – that reaches out to the things of the Spirit. Life lived above the level of instinct. Life that centers on what lasts forever, not on what is passing away. Life lived according to our higher nature. Life animated or driven by the Spirit of Christ: healing, caring, loving; touching lepers; befriending outcasts (sinners and tax collectors); not condemning the woman tragically caught in sin; forgiving even those who would crucify you. Life that seeks to encounter the presence of God.
And the destiny of this kind of life is what? It’s to progress so steadily toward God that the final transition of death is imperceptible. You hardly notice it. It doesn’t matter. It’s like Enoch in Genesis who went on walks with God and one day just didn’t come back, one day just passed over to the glorious life of being always consciously and mindfully in the presence of God. In Paul’s words from our text (verse 11): If the Spirit lives in you, “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”
But it’s all always a matter of life and death. Lance Morrow in a Time essay some years ago (12 November 1990) described our nation as increasingly addicted, dependent on a “fix” of some kind, dependent on some kind of escapism, something chemical, maybe a beer or two at night, or work, or sex, or eating, or exercise, or whatever. And he describes what happens. The attention grows dull and scattershot. Curiosity dims. The soul begins to die. “When diversion is all, real life vanishes.” That’s Paul’s point exactly. Life according to the flesh leads literally to death.
This is true in all sorts of ways. You get stuck on something, attached to something you feel you can’t be happy without, something you feel you have to have, that you just can’t live without. It eats you up. It consumes you. And it leads first to a dead zone in your soul and then to death. Your heart fills with desiring someone who it is not yours to have, giving to someone the attention that belongs to God.And that eats you up. It consumes you. It makes you dysfunctional in all the other areas of your life, more secretive, less honest, more alienated from those who care about you most. And it leads to a dead zone in your soul and then to death. But it always begins with a mind set on our lower nature, the superficial and passing desires of our hearts.
In vital contrast, the mind controlled by the Spirit is life (verse 6). Or as verse 2 puts it, “Through Jesus Christ, the Spirit of life sets me free.” From my lower nature I was able to do nothing, Paul says. But then I saw what had happened through Jesus Christ and I realized that God bled for me. It’s not just I gotta go to church, or I gotta quit sinning. I stand at the foot of the cross and see God bleeding. And I know that God really loves me. And I begin to sense his presence in me and all around me. I begin to realize that in him I live and move and have my being. I begin to realize that God is as close as the air I breathe. And now I can trust him and I can trust the life he is giving me no matter what happens. And the quality of my life does not depend on things, on what I own, on how smart I am, or on circumstances at all, or on any of these things of the lower nature.
- Dale Pauls