If you’ve ever taken children to the zoo, you will know that the big animals tend to be more popular than the small ones. Elephants, rhinos, and tigers get more attention than otters, turtles, and geckos. And so it is with works of the flesh.
Ask any churchgoer to list the works of the flesh and they will likely respond with the list found in Galatians 5:19-21: adultery, hatred, idolatry, murder, etc. Paul calls these the manifest or obvious works of the flesh. They are the biggies, the elephantine examples of what it means to live apart from God. But the Bible also provides lesser examples of fleshly living that you may not be so familiar with. I’ve listed some of these below.
Walking after the flesh is when you attempt to get your needs met independently of God. It’s trusting in yourself (your abilities, your understanding) and living solely from the basis of your earthly experience (what you see, hear, touch, etc.).
Here’s the important bit: You can walk after the flesh in the pursuit of good things and bad things. Paul’s manifest works of the flesh – the biggies – are all bad deeds, but some of the lesser works in the list below are not bad at all. This is a critical point. We are not comparing good deeds with bad but flesh with spirit. When you’re walking after the flesh even good things can be bad for you.
A classic example of something that is good yet bad for you is God’s law. The law is not sin, it is good! But try to live by it and you will find yourself walking after the flesh. Because you are weak and sin is strong, you will never succeed. Living under self-imposed law is one of the primary ways we walk after the flesh – hence its position at the top of my list.
Just a reminder: The wrong way to read this list is by identifying things you should or should not do. Christianity is a bit like marriage: you will kill it if you reduce it to a set of rules that must be obeyed. We are less interested in the what than we are in the how. So how do we walk after the flesh? Here are 20 ways:
20 ways to walk after the flesh
1. Try to keep God’s law (Rom 7:9-25): Think that you have to do stuff to be blessed (Eph 1:3), or that you have to perform to stay saved (Gal 2:21). The old covenant is the fleshly covenant; the new covenant is the spirit covenant.
2. Set your mind on earthly things (Php 3:19, John 3:12): Keep your eyes on the here and now. “What you see is all there is” (Col 3:2). Entangle yourself in the affairs of life (2 Tim 2:4).
3. Think about how to gratify the lusts of the flesh (Rom 13:14): If it feels good, do it (Rom 14:17).
4. Pursue your goal through self-denial (Col 2:21-3): Don’t look. Don’t drink. Don’t touch. Fast twice a week. Practice perfectionism (Gal 3:3, KJV).
5. Make sacrifices to impress God (Heb 10:1,8): Be conscious of your debt to Jesus and consider it your duty to serve. Put your ministry or business before your marriage.
6. Load others with heavy burdens (Luke 11:46): Expect your staff to work harder for less pay. Send the message that the work is more important than family or health. Shackle others to your vision. Use emotional manipulation or, worse, scripture, to pressure people to support you.
7. Take pride in your independence (Jer 17:6): Respect no one (1 Pet 2:17). Scorn authority (2 Pet 2:10). Flaunt your freedom (1 Cor 8:9). “Who needs fathers? I follow Christ” (1 Cor 1:12).
8. Worry about your life (Matt 6:25, Luke 8:14, Php 4:6): “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” Entertain fear and doubt. “I can’t do it” (Php 4:13).
9. Cultivate self-belief (2 Cor 12:10): “I can do it!” Boast in your accomplishments (2 Co 11:30). Boast in your wisdom, strength and riches (Jer 9:23).
10. See yourself as a victim (Rom 8:37): “Woe is me. I’m not worthy. My sinful nature made me do it.” Blame God (Jas 1:13). Blame the devil (1 John 4:4). Blame your circumstances (Deu 28:13).
11. Be a man-pleaser (Gal 1:10): Wonder, what will my boss think? How will the board react? How will this affect the tithers? Say only what they want you to say.
12. Make plans in a worldly manner (2 Cor 5:7, Jer 17:5): Do a SWOT analysis; list the pros and cons; make decisions based on money. Manage the risks and stay in control.
13. Use your own resources to grow a ministry (Ps 127:1, 1 Cor 3:6). Work hard to make things happen.
14. Define success by human standards (John 8:15, 1 Cor 1:26): It’s all about the numbers. “How many soldiers do we have? How many attend the prayer meeting? Are donations increasing? Are we doing better than last year? Am I doing better than my predecessor?”
15. Nurture your reputation (Php 3:8): Put on a good show and make a good impression (Luke 16:15; Gal 6:12). Be face conscious. Make a name for yourself (Gen 11:4) and blame the wife when things go wrong (Gen 3:12).
16. Pray long prayers, especially if others are listening (Matt 6:5-8).
17. Regard people from a worldly point of view (2 Cor 5:16): Engage in office politics. View new-comers as potential recruits or leaders for your programs. Cultivate task-based friendships. Choose the best-looking man for the job (1 Sam 16:7). Show favor to the one with money (Jas 2:3).
18. Sacrifice people on the altar of your principles (1 Cor 3:1-4): “I’m right, you’re wrong.” Judge the weak (Rom 15:1). Distance yourselves from those who aren’t as doctrinally pure as you (1 Cor 9:22).
19. Combat worldly problems with worldly weapons (2 Cor 10:4): Put your faith in politics. Start fights (Zec 4:6). Picket the abortion clinic. Protest the gay parade (Is 42:2).
20. Pretend to be Jesus (Mt 24:24): Draw people to your ministry and build toward yourself (1 The 3:8). Teach others to depend on you. Stand in the gap. Try to crucify yourself (Col 2:20).
This is a yukky list and I didn’t enjoy writing it. Just about everything on this list, I’ve done. God help me, some of the things on this list I’m still doing!
Don’t let this list condemn you. A better response is to get mad because we’ve been conned! The prince of this world has deceived us into thinking that this is how things are done, that the fleshly way of life is normal. But this is not normal life for one born of the spirit. We act this way out of habit and ignorance. We walk after the flesh because when we were in the flesh this was how we lived:
You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. (Col 3:7)
I have to say this again: Some of the activities on this list are good. Please don’t think I am against the law or fruitful ministries or planning or praying. I am not. But understand that the carnal mind longs to be told what to do when God is much more interested in cultivating relationship. Are we trusting in the power of our might or are we resting confidently in his? Are we walking as “mere men” (1 Cor 3:3) or are we being revealed as mature sons and daughters of our Father?
Flesh cannot give birth to spirit. Neither can walking after the flesh empower you to live the life God has called you to live.
I encourage you to review the list again and ask the Holy Spirit to help you identify those areas that he wants to deal with today. “But Paul, that’s pretty much everything on that list!” Don’t panic. Your heavenly Father knows you are a work-in-progress. Some of these issues can be dealt with now; others can wait. He loves you regardless, without any reference to your performance.
In this article I’ve given you 20 generic examples of walking after the flesh. In the next I’ll provide some Biblical examples of walking after the flesh. Then I will give you a simple “flesh test” that you can take on your own. This test consists of two easy questions to help you determine whether you are walking after the flesh or the spirit. In other words, it will reveal those areas in your life where freedom and joy and peace are about to come bursting through!
Get weekly grace by email. It’s free!