How to Live a Life Pleasing to God


Many things in the Christian life are not black and white. There’s a lot of gray in matters of dress, entertainment, how we observe Sabbath, and the like.

Imagine the confusion this causes for new believers. They hear a mature Christian say, “Social drinking is OK. Wearing jeans to church is not,” while another equally seasoned Christian says the opposite. There’s potential not only for confusion but also for conflict.

So how should we respond in cases like this? One of the best answers comes from the apostle Paul in Galatians.

Jesus-plus Gospel

In Paul’s first missionary journey, he traveled mostly through modern-day Turkey, establishing churches. Many Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews—Greek-speaking people who lived outside Jerusalem and Palestine in the diaspora—came to Jesus.

There was also a group known as the Judaizers, who were from a mostly Hebrew-speaking Jewish background and had become believers of Jesus. But the Judaizers felt strongly that you must also embrace the Mosaic law, especially circumcision and the food laws.

They went wherever Paul had gone and put pressure on converts from a Gentile background—and probably from a Hellenistic Jewish background as well—saying, “Having come to Christ, you also need to embrace the laws of Moses, specifically these two.”

The Judaizers’ gospel was a Jesus-plus gospel. As soon as Paul found out about it, he wrote Galatians. His letter is extremely relevant today because we too can slip into a Jesus-plus gospel in our eagerness to disciple others.

Sufficiency of the Spirit

In Galatians 3:24–28, Paul speaks of the law working like a guardian, probably a servant who controlled external behavior especially of minors before they came of age in that Greco-Roman society. He essentially says, “Now that Jesus is raised from the dead and the Holy Spirit has come, you are under new management. You live by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by external constraints.” And he asks a couple of questions:

. . . Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:2–3, ESV).

“The flesh” refers not so much to what is patently immoral behavior but rather to a way of living for God by our own strength and our own power. Paul opposes it to life in the Spirit.

Galatians 5:16–26 is the heart of Paul’s argument against the Judaizers’ Jesus-plus gospel: the centrality of Jesus and the total sufficiency of the Holy Spirit to teach us to live a life pleasing to God. Paul uses three phrases to describe this kind of life: walking in the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, and keeping in step with the Spirit.

Did Paul mean to convey three radically different dimensions of the Spirit-empowered life? Or were these different ways of describing the same or overlapping dimensions of the Spirit’s work in us? I, for one, can’t be categorical either way. What follows has been helpful to me. It might be for you.

Walking in the Spirit

“Walking” in the New Testament is regularly used to describe the normal, continuous dimensions of our lives, not the spectacular moments or “fork in the road” moments when we need to make crucial decisions. Walking in the Spirit is His involvement in our regular, ongoing day-to-day lives.

For example, the central labor of my life is preaching and teaching, so walking in the Spirit involves bringing Him into that. An image from Scripture that has helped me is a vision that Ezekiel experienced in the valley of dry bones. It is a picture of Israel in exile, defiled by her sin yet sustained by a promise of a future return from exile.

When I start my sermon preparation every week, I feel like I’m walking in a valley of bones. I have all kinds of thoughts in my head, stuff on my computer, and ideas from books I’ve read. I don’t know if these things will ever connect. So I pray like Ezekiel: “Spirit of God, let the bones start rattling. Please forge the connections.”

Next, I lament that there is no flesh on the bones. I need words taught by the Holy Spirit so I can write the sermon. I again “prophesy to” the Spirit of God to give me the very words to speak (Ezek. 37:4). I wait until I get the words right.

Now comes stage three. The skeleton is properly connected; I’ve got flesh on it, but it must live to have any effect. So I “prophesy” again for the Spirit of God to make the sermon come alive so that by the time I preach, I can say with the apostle Paul, “[M]y speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4–5, ESV).

Whatever the central labor of your life is, bring the Spirit of God into it.

Being Led by the Spirit

Now think of times when you don’t know what to do. For “fork in the road” moments, leading seems to more appropriately describe what the Spirit does. Here again, we can go to the flesh; we can depend on our own abilities. Or we can say, “No, the flesh is opposed to the Spirit. I need the Spirit of God.”

Photo by Caleb Jones

Often, I find He’ll work through the Word of God but not only through careful study and analysis. It’s also the Word that comes with power unexpectedly as in times of meditative reading and prayer or even impressions. The more you walk with the Spirit, the more you’ll be sensitive to the impressions of the Holy Spirit.

In his book How People Grow, Henry Cloud shares when he found guidance from the Spirit.

I was once in a difficult business relationship with a particularly strong-willed businesswoman. Discussing even the smallest issues with her proved to be very taxing. . . .

One day we got into a particularly heated argument and were getting nowhere. . . . I was losing my temper and finding myself having attitudes and feeling moods I have not had or felt since my pre-spiritual teenage years. . . .

I did not know what to do, so inside myself I asked God’s Spirit to work in me and in the situation. I asked him to find an answer and a way out of the impasse. I prayed, “Please help me to see what to do. Please give me the words to say. Please show me how to fix this.” The words I prayed were not as important as my feelings of absolute dependency on the Spirit.

What happened surprised me. . . . [The Holy Spirit] showed me it was I who had to listen to her and accept what she was saying to me. I had to hear her and understand her position. I also had to see where I had been wrong in the situation and apologize. His answer was as clear as a bell.

So I asked the Spirit to help me do that. . . . I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we got past the problem. . . . I needed his help both to show me what to do and to help me carry it out.

Keeping in Step with the Spirit

The Greek dictionary says the original language for “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25) was often used to describe people marching together. They must keep in step. What would happen if one person put his left foot forward while another put her right foot forward or moved backward? You’d get total chaos.

Keeping in step may well be all about timing. Keeping in step with the Spirit is acting as soon as you hear a clear word or impression from Him.

Periodically, my prayers are interrupted by a strong impression to stop and write a note of encouragement to a particular individual. Initially, I would resist such interruptions as “from the devil,” who did not want me to pray. Later, as I began to take a risk and acted on these impressions, I was repeatedly astounded by the person’s subsequent testimony as to the timeliness of the note.

A weightier example is when I was pondering retirement, a two-year process of discernment with guidance from our elders. One summer afternoon I read, “David went home to bless his family” (1 Chron. 16:43). The impact was powerful because this one sentence not only told me it was time to go but also charted a huge dimension of my future calling. My decision to comply was fast, but it was almost a year before the importance of immediate compliance became clear.

Greatest Gift

For all of us in leadership, the most important gift we can give to those we lead is not our favorite list of do’s and don’ts in the gray areas of life; rather, it is to learn to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to keep in step with the Spirit, and to teach those we are discipling to do the same.

To pull this off, we need to be sustained by the conviction that flesh is opposed to the Spirit and that law and grace will never mix whereas truth and grace belong together. We need to be convinced about the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit to lead and empower.

Adapted from a sermon Sunder Krishnan preached May 15, 2016, at Rexdale Alliance Church in Toronto. The author and editor acknowledge some material for this sermon came from other sources and is not all original.

FROM ISSUE: May/June 2018, Vol. 153 No. 3, Pg 4, “The Spirit-Empowered Life”

4 responses to How to Live a Life Pleasing to God

  1. This article was very timely for me.
    The INSTANT I awoke from an accident caused coma three years ago, I KNEW what my next step in life was. I continue to use that Gift from him even thought I work alone.
    But, at times, when I receive no encouragement, He brings me back to that moment only He and I are sure about. It is the only encouragement I need. Now, I can add this sermon. I only NEED to know I am doing what He wants, let the chips fall where He intends them to go. He will sort it all out at the end.
    I thank the Lord that He insisted I accept His Salvtion 64 years ago.

  2. Thank you for reminding us to teach those we disciple to depend on and be sensitive to Holy Spirit. His promise of peace pulls us together and gives the power and strength we need in this difficult life and helps us to give Him the glory!

  3. I started reading this article thinking I was going to get a written directive to the different clothes wore at church, the Sabbath, in other words, being a christian for only a few years, I was going to be told what was right. I was so surprise when it refered me how to work with the Spirit to get my answers. Thank you, you have taught me a wonderful spiritual lesson. God bless you.

  4. I cannot believe how perfectly this article for the cry of my heart today. It is a God-moment. Why am I surprised. I have not stood yet from this chair where I’ve been praying and just that quickly the answer is before me. Thank you for your faithfulness.

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