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Mistaking the Enemy
Late on a dark and muggy Saturday night in July of 2013, a gang fight broke out in the Gage Park neighborhood of Chicago. Apparently, someone identified a passing car as belonging to a rival gang and threw a brick at it. In retaliation, the car sped up and swerved into the crowd, striking twenty-year-old Jose Ibarra. By the time police arrived on the scene, Jose was dead.
When the dust settled and his hoodie was pulled back, members of the gang realized that they had made a terrible mistake. The car didn’t belong to a rival, but to someone in their own gang. Jose was the victim of friendly fire.
The same thing can happen in a local church. While the church isn’t a gang, it is possible for us to turn on our own, injuring each other with a similar kind of friendly fire. Most of the time, just like the gang-related death in Chicago eight years ago, friendly fire among Christians is a case of misidentifying the real enemy. It is the same for marriages. Among roommates. Even in politics.
It is vitally important that we identify the real enemy in any conflict, lest we aim our fire on the wrong adversary.
When we turn to the Bible, we discover that my true antagonist may not be who I assume it is. It is not my spouse. It is not someone at work. It is not a fellow believer or a stubborn neighbor. My worst enemy is not even the devil.
Who does that leave? Paul tells us in Galatians 5:13-26.
13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
The Sinful Nature
Toddlers do not need to be taught how to throw tantrums. Neither do we need to be taught how to lie, cheat, steal, gossip, and kill. Whether as children or adults, these things come naturally because the inborn human disposition is to think and act according to what Paul calls “the sinful nature.”
The term “sinful nature” is translated from a single Greek word, sarx. Sarx literally means flesh. But when Paul uses this word, he is not referring to outward human skin but to internal human corruption—a natural human condition that is predisposed to sin.
If I have a worst enemy, it is my own sarx. Not yours or anyone else’s. All I have to do is look in the mirror. My flesh is my own worst enemy.
In verses 13-15, Paul attributes the relational chaos in the Galatian churches to the outworking of the flesh. The members of the churches were deceived into putting gospel freedom above serving each other with sacrificial, selfless love. When I preached on this text back in May of 2020, my warning was, unless believers were willing to sacrifice certain freedoms and do what was uncomfortable to love the vulnerable in the context of Covid, churches would be ripe for the devil to divide and conquer. Sadly, we have seen that play out in too many places.
But it is not just churches that are in danger, because Covid is just one of a million “opportunities” for the sinful nature to cause believers to throw bricks at the wrong car, creating conflict that could be avoided if we took aim at the right culprit. Since I am a brick thrower, too, the sooner we all recognize the true enemy is the flesh, the sooner healing and restoration can take place.
However, casing fire on one another is more challenging than we may think. After all, verses 16-18 describe the flesh as at war with the Holy Spirit, "For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other." Yes, the devil is an enemy. But he can have no influence in my life without the partnership of my enemy within.
Maybe we need to repeat it. The devil is not my worst enemy. My flesh is my worst enemy.
If I am blaming anyone else or defending myself for the conflicts I’m fighting, I have misidentified the foe and am fighting the wrong adversary. This truth is reinforced by verses 19-21, which indict the flesh not only as the source of immoral acts but of seemingly lesser sins such as spiritual pride and divisiveness. According to Scripture, they are not lesser sins at all. Then, in verses 22-26, Paul contrasts the dead works of the flesh with the living fruit of the Spirit, which serves as evidence of true regeneration.
In his book on worldviews, Jeff Baldwin makes the case that of all the monsters the world has known or imagined, the flesh (the sin nature) is by far the deadliest and most dangerous. The terminology of verse 15 even sounds monstrous and violent, as believers, living under the influence of the flesh, were biting, devouring, and destroying each other.
Isn’t that what is happening today? It seems as if the flesh is on a feeding frenzy. Whether in television media or on social media, people are biting and devouring each other with accusations and insults. It is tearing communities, churches, and families apart.
But who is the real enemy? Where should I start the investigation? Who should be on my short list of suspects?
Me. I am my worst enemy.
What If I Took This Seriously?
What if I took that seriously? What if I believed my biggest problem is not with you but is in me? How would that change my relationship with you? How would it change how I parent my kids and how I engage with fellow believers and with the world?
I can think of a few ways.
First, an awareness of my flesh will cause me to suspect myself before I charge someone else.
You know how CSI shows work. A crime is committed and the investigation begins. Eventually, suspects are ruled out one by one until the true culprit is arrested. An awareness of my flesh should cause me to suspect that I could very well be the culprit.
What percentage of marital strife would cease if I were to investigate, and interrogate my flesh before I investigated my spouse? What flames of accusation and insult could be extinguished if I checked my own heart for the influence of the flesh? What wars would cease in the church if we stopped blaming, but rather were honest about the prideful self-rightness that lurks within?
An awareness of my flesh will cause me to suspect myself before I charge someone else.
Second, an awareness of the flesh will necessitate I consciously submit to the influence of the Holy Spirit.
This is what Paul means in verse 16 when he writes, "Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." To live by the Spirit is to submit or yield to the Spirit's influence. The Greek word translated "live" in verse 16 is peripateō (περιπατέω). Literally, the word means to walk—to take a step forward.
Whatever the path is before us, we will be led by either our flesh or the Spirit. Will I confess my sin or their sin? Will I forgive as I have been forgiven or will I deny the cross and become embittered? Will I give grace or withhold it? Will I respond to the comment with empathy and kindness or with pompous vitriol or snarky contempt? Will I manifest the dead works of the flesh or the living fruit of the Spirit?
For every action and every word we speak, we have options. To yield to the flesh or the Spirit. But it is only when I am aware of my flesh that I will consciously submit to the influence of the Spirit.
Third, an awareness of the flesh will drive me to continually crucify my flesh with ongoing repentance.
In verse 24, we read that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." To crucify the flesh is to kill it by means of repentance, where I simply confess the deeds of the flesh as evil and hand them over to Jesus, where they are nailed to the cross. In Romans 8:3b, Paul says it like this, “God [sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man.” The phrase “sinful man” in English in the original Greek text is (you guessed it) sarx. Here the theological definition of flesh reverts to the physical, where my sin is condemned in the actual body of Jesus.
When a sinner is reborn and becomes a disciple of Jesus through initial repentance, it is as if we literally crucified all our sin at once by hurling it all upon Jesus. Now, living as a Christian is an ongoing crucifixion of the flesh, not that we may be saved again but so that the power of sin may be subdued.
I think it was a Puritan theologian who said, “I will never have power of sin until I believe it has been forgiven”—incinerated once and for all. Now, cleansed of sin by blood of Jesus and covered in his perfect righteousness, I am able to look my flesh in the eyes and declare with gospel confidence, “You are dead to me!”
We will not say that just once but over and over. Yes, you will get tired of continually casting your sin upon Jesus. I do. But the more aware I am of my flesh and crucify it with repentance the more aware I become of the astonishing grace of Jesus—the grace that has turned an enemy into a friend through the extraordinary kindness of sacrificial love. It is grace that not only saves me but changes me, enabling me to call out and rebuke my flesh as I walk step by step in the power of the Spirit, convinced that in Christ I am fully forgiven and reconciled to the Father, now and forever.
Walt Kelly famously quipped in his Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” You and I can look in the mirror and say the same thing. I have met the enemy and he is me. But thank God that we also have met the Savior, and he is Jesus— the one who turns enemies into friends through the extraordinary kindness of sacrificial love.
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