On the recomendation of my friend Doug Flatherty, I re-started Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson, whose first chapter deals with the work of God's Spirit. At the same time, I was reading Romans 8, looking for God's leading in living by the Spirit. Living by the Spirit is such a balancing act, walking between two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand we have the obvious unhealthy extreme of blatant sin, indulging our "sinful nature" (NIV's translation) with all sorts of sinful things. On the other hand we have self-righteous moralism, in which we are in control of and in charge of keeping our heart and soul on the straight and narrow, managing our own sin. The Spirit leads us away from sin and away from self-reliance, leading us to.. dependence on God in all things.
I love how Peterson translates Romans 8:5-8: Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God's action in them find that God's Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn't pleased at being ignored.
When I read this passage in the NIV, my focus tends to be on the words "sinful nature" and, really, on the "sinful" part. Don't we tend to think of being in the flesh as doing sinful things? But Peterson, bless him, doesn't define the flesh as "sinful" (though it certainly is). Instead, he equates it to a self-focused life. Self-focus inevitably leads us to measure our moral muscle without exercising it, which inevitably to making life work apart from God, either by sin or by religion. Thank the Lord that God's Spirit leads us into an open, spacious, free life. The trick is to believe that this freedom is true-er and better than the self-satisfaction of moralism or the fleeting pleasures of escape into sin.