“A battle is going on inside me,” said a father to his son. “It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One of them is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other wolf is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same battle is going on inside you.” The son contemplated for a while and then asked, “Which wolf will win?” The father replied, “The one you feed.”
This often-repeated allegory of the two wolves applies to all believers in Christ because even though we’ve been born again and securely sealed as God’s permanent possession by the Holy Spirit there’s an ongoing war being waged inside us daily. Frustrating as it may be, we have two natures and they’re in constant conflict with each other. What they fight for is dominance and the winner is, predictably, the one we feed. Simply put, if we fuel our divine nature and allow the Holy Spirit to empower us His righteous influence will rule the day. If we starve our spiritual side and feed our old, sinful nature the flesh will get the best of us. I’m grateful for Paul’s confession in Romans 7:15. He said, “For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate” and later in verses 21-24 “So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am!” One of the greatest Christians who ever lived knew firsthand exactly what I struggle with every day.
A leader in my church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry, I witness with regularity the effects of this moral combat erupting inside my brothers and sisters in Christ all the time. Those hardest hit are recent converts to the faith who are surprised to find the temptations to do the wrong thing and act selfishly haven’t subsided much at all. On the contrary, the enticements to sin have become even more alluring and persistent. The urge to do as they darn well please is stronger than ever and that causes some of them to doubt God’s done anything to help them with their out-of-control hurts, hang-ups and habits that drove them to despair. Somewhere along the way some of them bought into the misleading ads proclaiming that, by surrendering their lives to Him, Jesus would be the panacea for all their troubles and hardships. Not so. They still have their cross to bear (as do we all). The Bible, though, teaches that this aggravating situation is something they should be thankful for! Say what? Yes! It’s evidence the Holy Spirit now resides in them, shining a spotlight into the dark corners of their hearts and making them acutely aware of their character defects while awakening in them a new desire to free themselves from the riptide undertow of their sinful nature. The temptations to rebel against God’s authority have always been lurking about, beckoning them to succumb to their lure but up until their conversion giving in to them wasn’t deemed all that bad or destructive. But now the Holy Ghost has moved in and He’s busy nurturing the new person growing inside them, drastically changing everything in their life. Thus the old person still inside feels threatened and they’ll do everything in their power to drive the newcomer out and regain total control.
All human beings, whether saved or not, are engaged in spiritual fisticuffs with the supernatural purveyors of sin and followers of Jesus in particular must come to grips with that fact of life. Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” He was confirming there are external, invisible entities at work around us, scheming to keep us from doing God’s will. Yet we can’t fall into the trap of blaming Satan and his despicable posse for every sin we commit or for everything that’s gone haywire in this cruel world. More often than not it’s our own sinful nature that’s most at fault. Galatians 5:17 states, “For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.” In other words, while the instigators of temptation may be external, the site of the fiercest conflict is internal and the indwelling Holy Spirit finds Himself caught smack dab in the middle of a spiritual tug-of-war. Paul described this Christian conundrum in Romans 7:7-8 and Billy Graham did an insightful job of translating his words into modern language. He wrote, “Before I heard the law of God and the good news of salvation, I didn’t know covetousness was sin, but then I heard the tenth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ God’s law showed me this sin in my heart, and I suddenly became keenly aware how much covetousness was a live, writhing evil within me. And I realized how great a sinner I was, doomed to die – but for Christ! As a Christian I began to fight this evil desire in me. And what a struggle! I tried to stop coveting and envying, but I couldn’t.” If you can’t fathom what Paul was talking about then consider yourself the rare exception to the rule because most believers know precisely what he’s talking about in this passage. No matter what one’s “iniquity of preference” may be, most Christians know that keeping its incessant siren call quiet is a 24/7 challenge.
Yet all’s not lost. There’ll be an end to this exhausting boxing match when we leave the ring triumphant and go home. Paul concluded in Romans 7:25 and 8:2, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord… For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Sin still runs amok across the face of this fallen planet but we who’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb won’t have to pay the stiff penalty our crimes against God would otherwise carry. However, we must be vigilant and remain cognizant of the fact that while our Savior has calmed one kind of storm in our lives, His forgiveness and mercy have given rise to another that’ll besiege us till we depart this mortal coil. And that tempest is the one that rages between the old and new creatures coexisting within us. Paul wrote about it in Ephesians 4:22-24; “You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.” Keep in mind it wasn’t a matter of the old man or woman in us receiving some kind of spiritual makeover or upgrade when we surrendered to Jesus. That’d be like putting eyeliner on a warthog. No, when we accepted Christ as Lord our soul was reborn as an entirely new creation, imbued with the divine nature of the great I AM. On that day we ceased being offspring of Adam and became children of God Almighty.
I suggest every Christian get familiar with Romans 8:1-13 because no other passage in the Bible lays this dilemma out better and most believers can relate to what Paul wrote. This is how I feel it applies to me personally: I was born a sinner and, for a very long time, I was unaware how much of my life was controlled by my inborn tendency to do the wrong thing. I was digging my own grave and, according to Ephesians 2:1, was figuratively one of the “walking dead.” Despite being brought up in the church I left it behind at age 18 so I could do things “my way.” More than four decades later I finally realized “my way” was in direct opposition to “God’s way” and that “my way” wasn’t working out too well. Then I turned my screwed-up life over to God and, for the first time ever, my eyes were opened to the abject ugliness of my sins. I recommitted my soul to Jesus. The Holy Spirit (living in me since age 9) was released from the cell I’d sequestered Him in and He led me to start reading the Holy Word every day to better understand God’s immutable laws. In the process I became conscious of sins I didn’t even know I had! This reality check depressed me at first but now I know there’s no condemnation because I’m “in Christ” (verse 1) and, due to His sacrifice, I’ve been set free from the law of sin and death (v.2). Rest assured, I know it’s still me in here and that means my old sinful personality that cultivated/fertilized a host of deeply-rooted foul habits over the years is still in here, too. But the Holy Spirit is systematically crowding him out, intruding on his turf and condemning his sins (v.3). The new man in me celebrates the Spirit’s presence because He’s not only quick to point out my sins when they pop up in my behavior but, by His power, He helps me to comply with God’s law (v.4). I’ve learned if I reminisce upon my old life’s sinful acts I’ll relapse into thinking that’s all I’m good for and soon I’ll find myself stuck back in my ego-assuaging quagmire. But if I strive to be Christ-like and try my hardest to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit in me (v.5) He’ll grant me strength, peace and the liberating freedom I’ve always yearned for (v.6). The Bible informs me that, because I’m a disciple of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is alive in me (v.9-10), granting me a meaningful life by resurrecting me from the dead state I was decomposing in for so long (v.11). Best of all, day by day He’s filling my soul with the abundant life I’ve found in Christ and the “old man” has less and less room to maneuver in.
Because of our inherently-limited ability to comprehend complex spiritual concepts, God uses relatable figures of speech throughout the Bible, especially when attempting to illuminate what the Holy Spirit does for us. A good example is found in John 3 when He says we’ve become “born again” by the Holy Spirit. He’s employing something commonplace we can identify with to reveal a profound spiritual truth. In Romans 7 & 8 as well as in Ephesians 4 God utilizes psychological terms like “new nature” and “old nature” (i.e. the “new” and “old” man/woman) to help us savvy in a down to earth, practical way the radical change that happens in us when we let the Holy Spirit guide our hearts and minds. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t walk around like a disoriented schizophrenic, convinced I’m two separate personalities. I know I’m still just one guy in here and when I sin I have to own up it was me who did it. Temptation reared its ugly head and I decided to deliberately disobey God. Satan set a trap and baited it with one of my old desires, motives or self-centered ambitions and I strolled right into his snare without hesitation. While it was the “old man” who grabbed the reins in that situation I can’t pretend it was someone else. It was me. I’m one person in the eyes of the great I AM and I’m wholly responsible for my sinful deeds. I can’t act like I was forced to do wrong. I had a clear-cut choice to either yield to the Holy Spirit – God living in me – or my weak, corrupted animal nature and I opted for the latter.
That being said, if I repent and humbly ask God to forgive me He will. Every time. That’s one request He never says “no” to. God’s willingness to forgive is always stronger than my sin. That’s grace. It’s up to me to remind myself the Holy Spirit still resides in my heart and He’s not giving up on me. He’s given me a new life and He’s there day and night to help me break my old habits, to clean up my act and set loftier goals for myself. Especially the goal of behaving more like my Savior. For the remainder of my Christian life, until that glorious day when Jesus returns and takes me to heaven, I’ll continue to make headway in the slow process of sanctification and of achieving spiritual maturity by allowing the Holy Spirit to instruct me via my study of the Holy Word. The more of a minute-by-minute, concentrated effort to cooperate with Him I make the more I develop an ability to resemble Christ. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
But things are as they are, not as we believers would have them, so we should never let our guard down and think we can pray away the incompatibility of our two natures. The devil’s a resilient enemy who doesn’t sleep. When I emerge victorious from a skirmish, that jerk, as the Bible promises, flees the immediate vicinity but he doesn’t retreat very far. Defeat only makes him more determined. He uses “the flesh” (the ways of the world) to appeal to the old man inside me and draw him out of his musty, cobwebbed cave to sneak into my subconscious mind, fueling my lusts, my covetousness and, of course, my pride as he attempts to pull me down into the bog of sinfulness. There’s nothing I’d love more than for Satan to stop already and go pester someone else but he never cries “uncle.” I’ll always have a target on my back as far as he’s concerned. And sometimes he’ll succeed in stimulating my old desires to the extent I’ll find myself wanting to sin. If not for the Holy Spirit’s indwelling I’d be without hope of fending off the intimidating foe he is. But I’m not hopeless. Christ lives in me! 1 John 4:4 reassures us, “You are from God, little children, and have conquered them [demons], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” In that verse God tells us in no wishy-washy terms that if we focus on the Holy Spirit and turn to Him for reinforcement He’ll supply us with sufficient power and stamina to resist Satan’s best attempts to convince us to sin. Not only that, but He’ll make us stronger with every triumph.
As I said, though, the devil’s no quitter and I figure today he’ll take yet another route to get me to betray my Lord. My “weaknesses of the flesh” are many and they provide him with a plethora of access points into my heart/mind and sooner or later he’ll probe them all. My own defenses are no match for him but the Holy Spirit in me is. When I rely on Him for support He never disappoints and, as I win one round after another, I’m growing stronger in my resolve to remain faithful to God and resist the evil one’s attacks. You may ask why these ongoing hostilities are allowed but the answer’s always the same: Discipline, persistent obedience and unflagging determination to do the right thing are virtues we must cultivate on our own by humbly and constantly submitting our will to that of the Heavenly Father. Dr. Graham said, “In Romans 7 Paul is not saying he cannot help but sin because of his old nature which he can’t control. Rather, Paul is describing the struggle all of us are going to have and telling us we can have victory in Christ by the power of His Holy Spirit that lives within us.” I don’t know about you but I’m eternally grateful for the Apostle’s openness and transparency concerning this matter. His words assure me I’m not helpless in my battle to keep the “old man” chained up.