Jesus talked to those who would follow Him about taking up a cross, counting the cost, and giving up everything (Luke 14:25—33). “The way is hard that leads to life,” He said (Matthew 7:14, ESV). Scripture mentions many of God’s people who have walked that hard road—Daniel, Elijah, Joseph, and John the Baptist are just a few.
Romans 7 shows that living for God is difficult for all of us. The apostle Paul wrote of his own struggle: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (verses 22–23).
Before we knew Christ, we could do nothing but sin. We had no choice in the matter. Our motivation was to please ourselves. Even the benevolent acts we performed had a selfish root: we did good things to feel better about ourselves, to assuage guilt, or to enhance our reputation with others. At salvation, the Holy Spirit moves into our spirits. He breaks the power that sin had held over our lives and frees us to obey God. We are now motivated by love rather than guilt (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
But we still face temptation from without and from within (2 Corinthians 7:5). The Bible calls our old sin nature “the flesh” and warns that those who are “in the flesh” cannot please God (Romans 8:8). Even Christians can be “in the flesh.” Although the Holy Spirit indwells the heart of every believer (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), it is up to each person how much control to allow Him to have. We are commanded to “walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16, 25). It is only by considering ourselves “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:19–20) that we can remain walking in the Spirit.
Jesus did not come to reform our flesh, but to crucify it (Romans 6:6–7). But the flesh does not want to die. The deep desire to please ourselves and compromise with the world does not die an easy death. When we cling to our rights, our opinions, and our agenda, we remain the lords of our own lives. When we lay our will on the altar before God and let go, we die to ourselves. We can then be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” totally controlled by Him (Acts 4:8; 13:52; Ephesians 5:18). It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can live a life that honors God. Only the power of the Spirit can produce good works in us free from legalism and pride.
The desire to be acceptable to the world is the greatest source of compromise for Christians. We don’t want to suffer ridicule or face persecution of any kind. It is more pleasant to gauge ourselves by those around us than by the Word of God (2 Corinthians 10:12). But James 4:4 says, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
When we adopt the false idea that salvation will make our lives easier, we are in for a shock. Those who have come to Christ for the “goodies” He offers often turn away when they realize that accepting Him means they have a new Boss. When Jesus was on the earth, the crowds loved the free food and the miracles, but when He began to talk about the hard things of the gospel, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
We cannot serve both God and ourselves (see Luke 16:13). Living for God means we make a final decision about who is in charge. When our flesh begins to reassert its rights, we take it back to the cross and allow it to die. When sin tempts, the decision has already been made: we seek God’s will over our own. Galatians 1:10 asks, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people?” The answer is plain: “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Living for God may be difficult, but it is not joyless. Paul wrote his most joyful letter while suffering persecution in Rome (see the book of Philippians). We will still face temptation and hardship, but when the glory of God is our focus, living for Him becomes the source of our joy rather than a drudgery (Psalm 100:2; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Peter 4:16).