“When will it end?” This question pours endlessly into my email inbox. Struggling saints, wearied by the constant, haunting whispers of their sinful nature, long to know how much longer they must fight before the evil thing is beaten into lifeless silence. Are they doing something wrong? Are their flesh-combatting strategies ineffective? Are they not reading Scripture or praying long enough? Are they even saved? Every time they get some level of victory over a specific sinful disposition or habit, it seems a new (or previously unrealized) manifestation of the flesh surfaces in its place. The endless activity of their indwelling sin sends them spiraling into skepticism—even skepticism about the truthfulness of this great salvation in Christ Jesus. How can the powerful redemption the Scriptures speak of be real when the sin within still feels so powerfully alive?
These doubt-laced arrows of the enemy have penetrated my own heart. I have at times found myself considering the possibility that Christianity might just be a set of pleasant but fictional ideas that produce a sense of peace and hopefulness that are merely psychologically induced. As the activity of my flesh persists, I have wondered if the seeming lack of sin-silencing power in my life evidences the non-reality of the “faith” I profess and “grace” in which I think I stand (Romans 5:2). If God has really sprinkled the divine blood of his only Son over my soul and implanted his own Spirit into my heart, shouldn’t I be freer from the presence and influence of sin than I am?
I tend to think so. However, though I might intuitively assume my flesh should be a bit more docile, the Bible tells a slightly different story—one in which the normative Christian experience is characterized not only by the joy, peace, and power of God, but also by unceasing war. The Holy Spirit has created within us believers a new nature that is inclined to God and suited for holiness. But our old nature—weakened yet still quite lively—declares war on this supernatural redirection of desires (Galatians 5:17). Though the Spirit is always about his illuminating and quickening work within us, the flesh likewise works double-time to entice us back to the idolatrous altars at which we formerly bowed. And until our cursed bodies are swallowed up by glorious immortality, this inner tension will persist. Some seasons will be less intense than others, but the remaining sin within us will never cease in its God-hating and faith-opposing activity.
I have to constantly remind myself that my flesh will not end its warfare until the Lord of War lays utter waste to it at his return. My sanity very literally hinges on my remembrance of and belief in this truth! If I expect to sojourn as a foreigner through this world without its native inhabitants (Satan and the flesh) constantly assailing me, I am always going to question my security in Christ’s salvation—or even the very reality of it! Peace and joy will be hidden from my sight, shrouded by the dark haze of my false expectations and subsequent doubts and fears. I must continually and consciously embrace the reality that as long as my soul inhabits this body of death, sin’s presence and influence are unavoidable. I will be confronted with various temptations every day. I must accept and expect this.
But what does “accepting and expecting this” look like? I have witnessed some professing Christians “accept” the reality of their persisting temptations by giving up—they stopped resisting, laid down their weapons, and just settled into their sins. However, acceptance is not equivalent to surrender. Accepting the fact that the flesh will not cease from its evil activities does not mean raising any white flags. God permits no such passivity in the Christian life. Rather, he calls us to brutalize the flesh with every ounce of spiritual energy his grace provides to us! When we accept and expect continual conflict, we aren’t shrinking back from battle. We are simply protecting ourselves from unbiblical expectations of struggle-free ease and the paralyzing doubts that will surely accompany those expectations—as well as embracing a mindset that is prepared for war and thus more capable of waging it!
When we keep ourselves awake to the reality of Satan and the flesh’s long-term resolve to destroy our faith, we are much more apt to take up long-term strategies of resisting and overcoming that opposition. We won’t just pick up the Bible and put on God’s armor (Ephesians 6:10-20) every morning for a couple of months in order to get victory over one particular manifestation of the flesh. We will resolve to pick up the Bible and put on God’s armor every morning until Jesus returns or takes us home, knowing that another manifestation of the flesh is sure to come running in on the heels of this current one, and another one after that, and another one after that.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, if we expect lifelong war, we won’t seek to find our joy and peace in the absence of it. Many of us are looking with weary eyes and dry souls to the cessation of this conflict to bring us joy and peace when there is a deep well of joy and peace available to us in the midst of the conflict. And that well is the Person who has secured our sure victory in his life, death, and resurrection. As we lay siege to our flesh every day, we do so in 1) the peace of knowing that Jesus has already ensured our ultimate triumph, 2) the joy of being in a satisfying relationship with Jesus now, and 3) the power of Jesus’ Spirit who presently indwells us. We aren’t going into these daily battles alone—he has gone ahead of us; he goes with us; and he is quickly coming behind us. It is in Christ and all that he has done and is doing and will do that we find both rest and the strength we need to wage the lifelong war to which he has called us.