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For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, Phil. 3:3, NKJV
Imagine going to listen to a motivational speaker, and the first thing he said was, “I want you to have no self-confidence.” You would probably think that you had wasted your money.
What does Paul mean when he declares that Christians should have no confidence in the flesh? What is the flesh?
The flesh, as used in Scripture, can mean different things depending on context. Here it simply means our human nature. Not our physical body or our sin nature, but just our human nature. We are to have no confidence in our human nature and natural abilities. We will look at the balance to this in a moment, but right now, let’s just consider what Paul is saying.
God designed human beings as the crown of His creation. He made us in His own image. We have natural talents and abilities. People have accomplished amazing things. God Himself said of human ingenuity at the Tower of Babel, “And this is what they have started to do, and now nothing which they plan to do will be impossible for them.” [Gen. 11:6]
As Christians, we recognize that every breath is a gift from God. We know that our health and the strength in our limbs and everything related to sustaining life comes from God. We literally can do nothing without His enabling power. This is true of every human being - Christian or nonChristian. We also recognize that God does not use His gifts and power to force us to act according to His will.
In context, Paul is speaking of our relationship with God. There is nothing we can do to please God. It doesn’t matter how good a life we have lived. In the verses below this one, Paul shows that as far as religion and a good life were considered, he had it mastered. But it was worthless. Our works can never meet God’s standards. If it were even a possibility for a small number of people, Christ would not have had to die.
“Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” Rom. 8:8, NASB
I don’t think God could state it any clearer. Since He is perfection, anything less than perfection is an offence. The only way we can come to God is by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross on our behalf. End of story.
However, we can take this even further. Jesus is our Perfect example of what God designed human beings to be.
Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in the same way. John 5:19, NASB
Jesus - the perfect Son of Man and Son of God - said He could do nothing of Himself. In other words, Jesus did nothing on His own initiative. He was not creative in that sense. God designed us with amazing natural abilities, but He did not design us to operate independently of Him. He designed us to have a fantastic cooperative relationship with Him as we work together to do the things He has designed us to do and expand the Kingdom of God. We grow together as we learn to work together.
What was Eve’s main mistake? We can all be tempted. We can all be deceived. But Eve made her decision independently of God. She did not consult Him. If she had, the deception would have been broken right then. Adam did not consult God either, but that was because he already knew the will of God and was determined to disobey it.
For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is only one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. 1 Cor. 8:5-6, NASB
As Christians, we can accomplish things in two ways: in the flesh [with our human nature] and in the Spirit. The outward result can look the same. For example, a person may, through willpower and determination, give up smoking, or they may rely on the power of God to give up smoking. The end result appears the same. A Pastor may rely on marketing and personality to build a church, or he may rely on the power of God. Either way may achieve the same earthly result.
By using purely natural abilities and strategies, we may be able to accomplish great things for ourselves and others on this planet, but they are meaningless as far as God and eternity go. God may certainly use our natural abilities or strategies [including marketing strategies]. The key is, are we using them to manipulate the results we want, or are we working with God to get the results He wants?
As a side note, God certainly expects us to develop our talents and abilities. He is not going to supernaturally give us abilities. We have to work and train with what He has given us. [There may be ‘one-off’ exceptions, like Elijah outrunning a chariot, but they are rare.]. What we are talking about here is growth in usefulness, not ‘one-off’ exceptions.
So the question is: do we have confidence in our flesh or natural abilities or in the power of God working through us? And since the results can look the same or similar, how can we know the difference? Do we need to have a 15-minute prayer session to know whether we should wear green or blue socks in the morning?
A lot of it boils down to attitude and a willingness to submit to the will of God in every situation. The Book of Proverbs gives us the key.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. Pr. 3:5-7, NASB
Also, notice that when the Church was choosing deacons in the Book of Acts, the people brought the names of the men they thought appropriate, but they weren’t elected by vote. They were set in only after prayer. God had the final say.
And they brought these men before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. Acts 6:6, NASB
When there was a hard decision that had to be made in the Church, there was much discussion, debate and prayer. When they reached a conclusion, they could say:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: Acts. 15:28, NASB
This is not to lead us into foolishness like the green sock/blue sock example. When there is a special decision that must be made, we take the time to make sure we are making the one that God would want us to make. But for everyday life, we commit our ways to God, desire to please and honour Him and make the best decisions we know how. We also trust that if we are making a mistake, God will let us know. For example, Paul made his plans according to what he thought was right, but he listened when God directed him in another way.
They passed through the Phrygian [frij e un] and Galatian region, after being forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, [mish e u] they were trying to go into Bithynia, [bi thin e u] and the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; and passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and pleading with him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately sought to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Act 16:6-10, NASB
There are two extremes that people go to. First, they can depreciate themselves. It is the “I am nothing” attitude. Wrong. You are fantastic. You have great abilities. God gave them to you, and He wants to work with and in you to develop them to their fullest potential for your benefit and the benefit of others. Never run yourself down, but never trust yourself without God either.
Second, people can have the attitude that since God is doing the work, they just need to sit back and “let go and let God.” Wrong. That misses the teamwork that God wants in our lives. If we take that attitude, God will back off and say, “When you get to work, so will I.”
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Phil. 4:13, NASB
Now in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; Rom. 8:26, NASB
So whatever we are doing in life, whether building a family, developing a career, battling temptations, and everything else, let us not have confidence in the flesh but in our God working in us, through us and with us.
For more information about Glenn Davis see our About Glenn page and/or his Author's Page.