The first condition Jesus gave for anyone to follow Him is that they begin a battle with self. If I call myself a follower of Jesus, I must deny myself. My self is very much tied into my physical body. It is part of the challenge for Christians to master their own bodies. That is easier said than done, because “no man ever yet hated his own flesh” (Eph. 5:29a). When we are hungry, we feed ourselves. When cold, we cover up. When tired, we take a break. Yet any of these can be overdone, resulting in gluttony or vanity or slothfulness.
Sins of the flesh have been the downfall of many. It has been said that three major reasons ministers fall are wine, women, and money. Two of these are direct results of failing to deny the appetites of the body. Jesus said you cannot follow Him without denying the bodily cravings which lead to doing wrong. The great Apostle Paul testified to the fight it was for him when he wrote, “I buffet my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor.9:27 NAS). Paul did whatever he had to do, including beating down his body, to keep from allowing its appetites to cause him to sin.
Part of the fight is how to deal with physical pain. It is not wrong to alleviate pain, but pain can cause some people to quit the fight. That is what Job’s wife told him to do in his distress. “Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9b). The “death with dignity” movement advocates the path she recommended, but Job fought through the pain. “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).
When Jesus was on the cross He was given vinegar mixed with gall (some commentators speculate it had a sedative effect) which He refused to drink, though He later drank some vinegar without the gall. He drank the full cup of suffering on our behalf all the way to death. His primary purpose was to atone for our sins, but He also showed that pain is not always to be avoided. Although I am very thankful for modern painkillers and sedatives for those who are sick or injured, it is also important to realize that there may be pain in denying the flesh.
If you follow Jesus you have to fight the flesh. It constantly calls out for attention, and either you become its slave or you master it. This is a fight you will have all of your life. The problem is, there is a tempter who will give all kinds of excuses for pampering the body and allowing it to be master. The devil is a great enemy and to win you have to fight him and his temptations.
Our greatest adversary is not flesh and blood. It is the powers and evil rulers from the dark side that we really struggle against. The strong desires of the flesh come and go. They are not sinful in themselves. What make it such a battle are the excuses that the devil brings to indulge whatever the body craves. He has an ally in the fight: the world. The world will urge you to fulfill your desires in ways which are contrary to God’s word. In short, the world promotes sin.
Isaac Watts penned this question in his famous hymn, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”: “Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?” Of course the world is not our friend. Neither are people in the world who aid the tempter in his schemes to have us indulge the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eye, or the pride of life. The world is vile. If we will follow Jesus we must constantly fight the seduction of the world.
Strong defines the world as those influences on earth which “stir desires, seduce from God and are obstacles to the cause of Christ.” Preachers in the past warned of
a time coming when the church would make friends with the world. They predicted disaster for the church. When the church becomes like the world it becomes worthless. Even worse, it becomes God’s adversary. James asked, “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4).
A great friend of sinners in the nineteenth century was William Booth. He spent his life helping the poor, the drunkards, the harlots, the unemployed, the diseased, the homeless, and the hopeless. Thousands were brought to Christ because Booth loved those people who had been ravaged by sin. But Booth was not a friend of the world. He saw the corruption the world brought to people and how degraded they became because of the world and its wickedness. The Salvation Army which he established fought the world and rescued its victims.
That is how we should fight. We should be friends enough to sinners to snatch them as brands from the burning, but enemies enough to the world that we fight to keep Christians from going back to it.
We have to fight. The inspired word from Paul the Apostle makes it clear. “Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12a). It means beating down our own fleshly desires. It also means fighting the temptations of the devil and the allurements of the world. “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4b).
This fight involves our inner beings. It involves our personalities and our sentiments. It means that we appropriate the grace of God not only to the struggles of the flesh, but also to the temperament of our spirits. “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Characteristics such as irritability, strife, and brashness, are to be replaced with heavenly wisdom which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17).
How can anyone really fight this fight successfully? The answer is that the Captain of our salvation has won it before us, leaving us an example that we should follow. When He was reviled, He did not revile. When He suffered, He did not threaten. And He is with us to live in us. The crucified life, where we identify with Christ’s sufferings, produces the life we now live by the faith of the Son of God “who loved us and gave himself for us.” Think of the risen Christ. He is in us. He gives us the ability to fight off the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Are you are losing these battles, giving in to the flesh, listening to the tempter, following the world? There is a way to win. Confess your complete condition to Christ. Turn by faith to Him and away from yourself, the world, and sin. Start the fight of your life.
At the end of his life, Paul wrote that he had “fought a good fight.” What was the proof? He had kept the faith.
Watts concluded his hymn with these great words:
Sure, I must fight if I would reign; increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy Word.
You have to fight.