What It Means to Walk in the Spirit
In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). This phrase, “walk in the Spirit,” is a powerful picture used multiple places in the Bible to describe the life of a Christ-follower.
Our faith in Jesus is active, more than just stuff we learned once. Sometimes the actions of our faith are spectacular. Sometimes they are routine. But they are always intensely personal because they are our choices. They are choices that we make because we have a relationship with God. Specifically, we live the way we do because of our relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Who Is the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. The Trinity is the radical, beautiful, divine mystery that describes God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus taught three things about the Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinity.
Jesus became human. People touched Him and talked with Him. Jesus was whipped and hung on the cross while people watched. When the Father resurrected Jesus from the dead, people again touched and ate with Jesus, and then the disciples watched Jesus, in His body, ascend to heaven (Acts 1:9-10).
- The Holy Spirit is a person. Just like Jesus Christ, and just like the Father, each member of the Trinity is personal. They relate to one another in a way similar to how we relate to other people. They each relate to us as well. The Holy Spirit is not a mere force, a divine power, or a vague influence. Jesus identified the Holy Spirit as “another advocate” just like Himself (John 14:16).
- The Holy Spirit is God. Just like Jesus is God and the Father is God, so is the Holy Spirit. He is consistent with what we know to be true of God: eternal, loving, faithful, true, and just.
- The Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. To help us understand that, Christ-followers talk about how we experience the different persons of the Trinity.
Obviously, Christ-followers have faith in Jesus for what He did, but we don’t have the same kind of experience with Jesus the way His disciples did three days after His death!
Instead, we have experience with the Holy Spirit although we don’t often talk about Him that way. Partially, this is because the person of the Holy Spirit intensely seeks the glory of Jesus! The Holy Spirit focuses our attention on Jesus (John 15:26, 1 John 4:2).
The Holy Spirit has been sent to live with us (Romans 8:9), and He seals us as God’s own possession (Ephesians 1:13-14). He is the person responsible for teaching us anything that is true about God (1 Peter 1:12). He is the person closest to us. He selflessly hypes up Jesus.
Walking in the Spirit points directly to the relationship Christ-followers have with the Holy Spirit. Every step we take is changed when God strides along the path with us.
What Is Walking in the Spirit?
More Than a Set of Rules
Well…every step should be changed.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Christ-followers in Galatia, they were not walking with the Holy Spirit. Someone had convinced them of a lie that was causing them to trip, not walk. The lie was simple. The Galatians believed that the right way to “walk” was to obey “the Law,” the rules God gave to Moses in the early books of the Bible.
This may seem perfectly reasonable, but Paul was practically frothing at the mouth to show his friends that “following the rules” can be dangerous. Yes, the rules came from God. Yes, they are good. Yes, the rules show the kind of behavior that God expects and that Jesus lived out.
If it were possible to follow all the rules, to be good in the same way God is good, people would be doing it already. And if people were doing it, Jesus would not have needed to die on the cross (Galatians 3:21).
No, living a good life, being forgiven by God—these things do not come from following the rules. Not even a really good summary rule, like “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
First, we won’t keep the rules all the time. How often would we have to keep the rules for it to count? Who could even decide that?
Second, even if we could keep the rules all the time, we can still follow the rules for the wrong reasons. Is it good enough for God that we do the right thing for selfish and gross reasons? Finally, even if we have the best intentions, what if we misunderstood a rule?
Paul describes the full contrast to the Galatians. First, he lists the acts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). These are obviously rule-breaking actions. But they are more than that.
When we try to be good, truly good like God, we will find shortcuts and reinterpretations. Our efforts to be good can never compare to the wealth of knowing Jesus and to walking in the Spirit.
When we try to live out the virtue of love on our own wisdom and strength, we easily stray into sexual immorality. Our pursuit of abundant joy becomes impurity or drunkenness. We may look for peace at the bottom of a bottle. Or perhaps, we try to enforce our own version of peace in our community, creating rival factions instead. There’s no limit to the way we can become lost on our walk even with the guideposts of the rules.
A Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime
With all respect due to God’s “Law,” Paul points out to the Galatians that rules are like a prison, apart from the relationship with God by faith (Galatians 3:23). Walking in the Spirit is like being set free from prison as Nelson Mandela described his experience:
"After one has been in prison, it is the small things that one appreciates: being able to take a walk whenever one wants, going into a shop and buying a newspaper, speaking or choosing to remain silent. The simple act of being able to control one’s person."
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit has set us free and given us life on every level, let us walk in the Spirit! As we keep in step with Him, we will experience His presence changing us, causing us to produce the fruit of the Spirit in ways that will surprise ourselves.
Yes, rules for living a good life are useful, but they are nothing compared to interacting with the Holy Spirit. Imagine that a man on his wedding day took the wisdom of 100 marriage advice books and delivered beautiful and comprehensive vows to his bride. He will break one of those vows within the first six months, if he even lasts that long!
Even young husbands can tell stories about the times they thought they were following some kind of rule, only to find that he did not know his bride and failed to cherish her. It does not take a genius to point out that a marriage, a friendship, a relationship with your children, or a relationship with your parents is not about rules, even when there are rules.
Walking in the Spirit means having a relationship with the Holy Spirit. Like any relationship, that means taking time to get to know the other person—by talking to God (i.e., prayer), reading the Bible, and asking other people about their relationship with God.
Walking with the Spirit also embraces the fact that in any relationship, we will make mistakes, we may disagree with the Holy Spirit, we may try to walk a different direction. The absolute best news is that the Holy Spirit, as our loving and patient God Himself, does not abandon us when we walk the wrong paths. He walks with us, ready to redirect us and even rescue us from the dangers we encounter.
"You have to go through the falling down in order to learn to walk. It helps to know that you can survive it. That’s an education in itself." - Carol Burnett