The Dangers of Spiritual Life

The Spiritual Man, CFP, Vol. 2, Part 6 WALKING AFTER THE SPIRIT, Ch. 1, by Watchman Nee

NOTHING IS MORE VITAL to the Christian life than to walk daily after the spirit. It is this that maintains the Christian in a constant spiritual state, delivers him from the power of the flesh, assists him to obey God’s will always, and shields him from the assault of Satan. Now that we understand the operations of our spirit, we must immediately walk by it. This is a moment by moment affair from which there can be no relaxing. In these days we must be keenly alert to the peril of receiving the teaching of the Holy Spirit while subsequently rejecting His leading. On this very point have many saints stumbled and fallen. To acquire teaching alone is not sufficient; we must also accept the leading. We should not be content with just spiritual knowledge but treasure as well the walk after the spirit. Often we hear people drop the words, “the way of the cross”; but what is this way after all? It is in reality nothing else but walking by the spirit, since to walk in that fashion necessitates the committing of our ideas, wishes and thoughts to death. Exclusively following the spirit’s intuition and revelation demands our bearing the cross daily.

All spiritual believers know something of the operation of the spirit. Their experience of it, however, is often sporadic because they have not fully understood all the laws which govern its functioning. But with their intuition well-developed they could walk steadily after the spirit without any interference from the outside (note: all that is outside the spirit is considered the outside realm). But not having assimilated the laws of the spirit, they interpret life in the spirit as oscillatory, devoid of rule, and arduous to practice. Many are determined to heed God’s will and to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, but they lack a positive forward-propelling heart because they are not sure if the guidance of their intuition is wholly dependable. They have yet to learn to understand the indication of their intuition as to whether to advance or to stay. They are additionally ignorant of what the normal state of the spirit is and are thus incapacitated from being led continually by it. Frequently their inner man loses its power to operate for the simple reason that they do not know how to keep it in a right condition. Though they sometimes do experience revelation in their intuition, they nevertheless wonder why it is, when they are earnestly seeking, that at times their intuition does receive revelation but at other times does not. This of course is due to the fact that on some occasions they unconsciously walk according to the law of the spirit and so obtain revelation whereas at other moments, though asking, they are not asking according to this law and therefore do not secure any revelation. Were they to walk by the law of the spirit continually rather than unconsciously following intermittently, they could always receive the revelation. Unfortunately they are unaware of this possibility. It is nonetheless certain that for us to consistently experience revelation we must know the laws of the spirit and the will of God and must do the things which please Him. Since all movements in the spirit are meaningful we need to learn their import if we wish to walk faithfully. Understanding the laws of the spirit is therefore indispensable.

There are countless Christians who consider the occasional working of the Holy Spirit in their spirit to be the most sublime of their life experiences. They do not expect to have such an experience daily because they surmise that such a special event could happen but a few times in life. Were they to live by the spirit according to its law, however, they would discover that these are everyday occurrences. What they deem extraordinary—something one cannot permanently sustain—is actually the ordinary daily experiences of believers. “Extraordinary” indeed if believers should desert this ordinary life experience and abide in darkness.

Suppose we have received a certain thought. Are we able to discern whether this comes from our spirit or from our soul? Some thoughts burn in the spirit while others blaze in the soul. Believers ought to understand how the various parts of their being operate or they shall not be able to distinguish the spiritual from the soulical. When thinking, they should recognize the source of their thought; in feeling, they should detect the direction from which such feeling comes; and in working, they should be clear as to what strength they use. Only thus can they follow the spirit.

We know our soul provides us with self-consciousness. One aspect of self-consciousness is self-examination. This is most harmful since it causes us to focus upon ourselves and thereby enhance the growth of self life. How often self-exaltation and pride are the consequences of such self-examination. But there is a kind of analysis of incalculable help to the spiritual pilgrimage. Without it we are incompetent to know who we really are and what we are following. Harmful self-examination revolves around one’s own success or defeat, stimulating attitudes of self-pride or self-pity. Profitable analysis searches only the source of one’s thought, feeling or desire. God wishes us to be delivered from self-consciousness, but at the same time He certainly does not intend for us to live on earth as people without intelligent awareness. We must not be overly self-conscious, yet we must apprehend the true condition of all our inward parts through the knowledge accorded us by the Holy Spirit. It is positively necessary for us to search out our activities with our heart.

Many regenerated believers seem unconscious of possessing a spirit. Though they do have one, they simply are not conscious of it. Perhaps they have spiritual sense but they do not realize such sense arises from the spirit. What every truly born-again person should rely on for living is the life of the spirit. If we are willing to be taught, we shall know what is our spiritual sense. One thing is unmistakable: the soul is affected by outside influences, but not the spirit. For example, when the soul is provided with beautiful scenery, serene nature, inspiring music, or many other phenomena pertaining to the external world, it can be moved instantly and respond strongly. Not so the spirit. If the spirit of believers is flooded with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is independent of the soul. Unlike the latter the spirit does not require outside stimuli by which to be activated but is able to be active on its own initiative. It can move under any circumstances. Hence those who are genuinely spiritual can be active whether or not their soul has feeling or their body has strength. These ones live by the ever-active spirit.

Now as a matter of fact the sense of the soul and the intuition of the spirit are distinctly opposite; nevertheless, occasionally they appear to be quite similar. Their similarity can be so close as to confuse Christians. Should they be hasty to move, they will not easily escape being deceived at these times of similarity. Yet if they would wait patiently and test the source of their feelings again and again, they would be told the real source by the Holy Spirit at the right hour. In walking after the spirit we must avoid all haste.

Soulish Christians generally bend to certain directions. Most of them lean either towards emotion or towards reason. Now when these people become spiritual they tend to fall towards the opposite extreme from what they formerly were. Emotional persons will then be tempted to adopt their own cold reason as the leading of the spirit. Because they appreciate how soulish their former passionate life was, they now mistake their own reasoning to be spiritual. Likewise those who were rational believers may subsequently accept their passionate feeling to be the leading of the Holy Spirit. They too are conscious of the soulish cast of their hitherto cold and quiet life; consequently they now interpret their emotion to be of the spirit. These are equally ignorant of the fact that the reversal of position between emotion and reason does not render them a shade less soulish. Let us therefore remember the functions of the spirit. To be led by the spirit is to follow its intuition. All spiritual knowledge, communion and conscience come via the intuition. The Holy Spirit leads the saints by this intuition. They need not themselves figure out what possibly is spiritual; all that is required is to abide by their intuition. In order to listen to the Spirit we must apprehend His mind intuitively.

Some seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit with genuine earnestness. Yet often what they crave is but some joy, for the “I” is hidden behind their quest. They believe if they can feel the Holy Spirit descending upon them or some external force controlling their body or some warm fire burning from head to foot, that then they have been baptized in the Spirit. However true it may be that He does sometimes allow people to so feel Him, it is very damaging for men to seek Him by means of emotion. For this not only can excite their soul life but also may evoke the enemy’s counterfeit. What is really valuable before God is not how we emotionally feel the presence of the Lord or how we even feel love towards Him; rather is it how we follow the Holy Spirit and live according to what He has revealed to our spirit. Frequently we meet “Holy Spirit-baptized” people of this kind who continue to live by their natural life and not by their spirit. They lack a sensitive intuition to discern matters in the spiritual world. Not emotion but communion with the Lord in the spirit is what is valuable before God.

Through our lengthy discussion of the functions of the spirit as described in the Bible, we now can realize that the spirit can be as passionate as emotion and as cool as reason. Only those who are experienced in the Lord can distinguish what is of the spirit and what is of the soul. Those who try to reason out the movement of the Holy Spirit or, as more frequently happens, attempt to feel His movement rather than to seek to truly know God in their intuition and walk accordingly, commit themselves to a life in the flesh. They permit their spiritual life to sink into oblivion.

It may help us to see more clearly the significance of following the spirit’s intuition if we examine the life of Paul. God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, (and) I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus” (Gal. 1.16-17). Revelation, as we have indicated before, is given by God and received in the spirit. When the Apostle John obtained revelation to write, he secured it in the spirit (Rev. 1.10). The Bible consistently testifies that revelation is something which occurs in the believer’s spirit. Now the Apostle Paul informs us here that he was walking by the spirit when he received revelation in his spirit to know the Lord Jesus and to be sent to the Gentiles. He did not confer with flesh and blood because he had no need to listen further to man’s opinion, thought or argument. He did not go to Jerusalem to see those who were spiritually senior to him so as to obtain their view. He simply followed the leading of his spirit. Since he had received God’s revelation in his intuition and had known God’s will, he no longer sought other evidence. He deemed revelation in his spirit sufficient for guidance. At that time, proclaiming the Lord Jesus to Gentiles was a new departure. Man’s soul naturally would suggest amassing more information, especially the opinions of those who had more preaching experience. But Paul followed the spirit alone. He cared not what men, not even the most spiritual apostles, would say.

Thus ought we to follow the direct leading of the Lord in our spirit rather than the words of spiritual people. Does this then imply that the words of the spiritual fathers are use less? No, they are most useful. The exhortation and teaching of the fathers are most helpful, but we nonetheless ought to “weigh what is said” (1 Cor. 14.29). We must be instructed by the Lord directly in our spirit. When we are uncertain whether a movement in the spirit is actually of God or not, we can be helped greatly by those who have been taught deeply in the Lord. But if we already have known for sure—as Paul was—that God has so revealed His mind, then we ought not inquire of men, not even of apostles, should they still exist today.

From the context of this passage we can see the Apostle stresses that the gospel he preaches was disclosed to him by God rather than taught him by other apostles. This is a point of immense significance. The gospel we preach must not be just something we hear from men or read from books or even conceive through our meditation. Unless it is delivered to us by God, it can serve no spiritual utility. Young Christians today welcome the idea of “instructors” and the spiritually mature wish to impart an orthodox faith to the second generation. But who knows what really produces spiritual value? If what we believe and preach does not originate in revelation it counts for nothing. We can gather from the mind of others some beautiful thoughts; yet our spirit remains impoverished and empty. Obviously we are neither to expect a new gospel nor to demean what the servants of God teach, for the Bible distinctly instructs us not to despise prophesying (1 Thess. 5.20). We are simply emphasizing the utter necessity of revelation.

Without revelation, all that has been written is vain. If we desire to be spiritually effective in preaching, we initially must apprehend God’s truth in our spirit. Whatever and however much is acquired wholesale from men counts for nought spiritually. Revelation in the spirit should occupy a large place in a Christian servant’s life. It is actually the first qualification for a worker. This alone empowers one to perform spiritual service and to walk by the spirit. How multiplied are the workers who trust in their own intellect and mind for accomplishing spiritual work! Even among the most evangelical believers it is perhaps chiefly a mental acceptance of the truth and amounts to nothing but death. Should we not ask ourselves whether what we preach emerges from God’s revelation or comes from men?

The Attacks of Satan

In view of the significance of our spirit, which is the site of communion between the Holy Spirit and the saints, should we marvel if Satan is most unwilling to let us know the functions of the spirit for fear we may follow it? The enemy aims to confine the saint’s life within the soul and to quench his spirit. He will give many strange physical sensations to believers and fill their mind with various wandering thoughts. He intends to confuse one’s spiritual awareness by these sensations and thoughts. While confused, God’s children are incompetent to distinguish what is of the spirit and what emanates from the soul. Satan well recognizes that victories of believers rest in their knowing how to “read” their spiritual sense (alas! how many are ignorant of this principle). He musters his whole force to attack the believer’s spirit.

Let us reiterate that in such spiritual warfare Christians must never make any move according to their feelings or sudden thoughts. Never assume that such thoughts cannot be wrong because we have already prayed. It is a mistake to consider every notion which comes to us in prayer as being of God. We seem to innocently think that prayer can right the wrong and that whatever has been prayed out is bound to be all right. True, we have sought the will of God, but it does not mean necessarily that we have already known His will. God makes it known to our spirit, not to our mind.

Satan employs even more drastic measures against believers than that of enticing them into living by the soul instead of following the spirit. Upon succeeding in luring them—through their thoughts or feelings—to live by the outward man, Satan adopts the next step of pretending to be a spirit in them. He will create many deceptive feelings in the believers in order to confuse their spiritual senses. If they are ignorant of the wiles of the enemy, they just may allow their spirit to be suppressed until it ceases to function. And then they heed this counterfeit feeling as though they were still following the spirit. Once their spiritual sense grows dull, Satan proceeds further in his deceit. He injects into their minds the thought that now God is leading them by their renewed mind, thus subtly covering up the fault of men in not using their spirit as well as covering up the work of the enemy. As soon as man’s spirit ceases to operate, the Holy Spirit can no longer find any cooperative element within him; naturally then, all resources from God are cut off. And it is hence impossible for such ones to continue to experience true spiritual life.

Should Christians be insensitive to their condition, Satan assaults them even more mercilessly. He may either mislead them (at a time when they are unconscious of the presence of God) into thinking they are living by faith, or make them suffer without a cause under the delusion that they are suffering with Christ in their spirit. Wherefore Satan by means of a false spirit deceives believers into obeying his will. Such experiences occur to spiritual but undiscerning Christians.

Spiritual ones ought to possess spiritual knowledge so that all their movements can be governed by spiritual reasoning. They should not act impulsively according to fleeting emotion or flashing thought. They should never be in haste. Every action must be scrutinized with spiritual insight in order that only what is approved by the spirit’s intuitive knowledge is permitted. Nothing should be done which is propelled by excited feeling or abrupt thought; everything must be carefully and quietly examined before it is executed.

To examine and test our walk is a very important element in following the spirit. Believers should not while away their spiritual life foolishly; they must examine carefully all thoughts, feelings, etc., which come to them in order to discern whether these arise from God or from themselves. The natural inclination is to take life easy, to adapt oneself to whatever happens. If so, one will often welcome what the enemy has arranged. Usually we do not investigate these matters, but Scripture commands us to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5.21). Herein lies both a characteristic and a strength of spiritual believers. They “interpret spiritual truths in spiritual language” (1 Cor. 2.13 RSV marginal). The word “interpret” here means in the original “compare” (RSV marginal), “mixing” or “putting together” (Darby note), or “determined” (Darby note). The Holy Spirit purposely gives spiritual believers such power for them to use to test anything which enters their life; otherwise, under the manifold deceits of the evil spirit, it would be most difficult to live.

The Accusation of Satan

Satan has another way to assault those who set their heart on following the leading of the spirit’s intuition. This is by counterfeiting or fasely representing one’s conscience with all sorts of accusations. To keep our conscience pure we are willing to accept its reproach and deal with whatever it condemns. The enemy utilizies this desire of keeping the conscience void of offense by accusing us of various things. In mistaking such accusations as being from our own consciences we often lose our peace, tire of trying to keep pace with the false accusations, and thus cease to advance spiritually with confidence.

Those who are spiritual ought to be aware that Satan not only indicts us before God but also to ourselves. He does this to disturb us into thinking we ought to suffer penalty because we have done wrong. He is alert to the fact that the children of God can make no progress spiritually unless they have a heart full of confidence; consequently he falsifies the accusation of conscience in order to make them believe they have sinned. Then their communion with God is broken. The problem with believers is that they do not know how to distinguish between the indictment of the evil spirit and the reproach of conscience. Frequently out of fear of offending God, they mistake the accusation of an evil spirit to be the censure of conscience. This accusation grows stronger and stronger until it becomes uncontrollable if not listened to. Thus in addition to their willingness to yield to conscience’s reproof, spiritual believers should also learn how to discern the accusation of the enemy.

What the enemy charges the saints of may sometimes be real sins, though more often than not they are merely imaginary—that is, the evil spirit makes them feel they have sinned. If they actually have sinned, they should confess it immediately before God, asking for the cleansing of the precious blood (1 John 1.9). Yet should the accusing voice still continue, it obviously must be from the evil spirit.

Here is a matter of serious consequence. Before one knows how to differentiate between the reproach of conscience and the enemy’s accusation, he should ask himself whether or not he really abhors sin. If this particular thing is wrong, am I willing to confess my sin and eliminate it? If we truly desire to follow God’s will, not having yet heeded the accusing voice, we can be quite confident in our heart for it is not in us to want to rebel against God. Then, having determined to follow God’s will, we should examine ourselves as to whether or not we have actually committed that sin. We must know beyond the shadow of doubt whether or not we have done it, because the evil spirit frequently accuses us of many unrelated items. If we have done it, then before we confess to God, we first must find out through the teaching of the Bible and the leading of intuition, whether or not this thing is verily wrong. Otherwise, though we have not sinned, Satan will make us suffer for it just as though we had.

The adversary is skillful in imparting all sorts of feelings to men. He may cause them to feel happy or sad; he may induce in them a feeling of guilt or of none whatsoever. But a child of God should understand that his feeling is not necessarily accurate when he thinks he is not wrong, for often he feels right when actually he is wrong. Moreover, he may not be wrong even when so feeling; it may be just his feeling and not be factually grounded at all. Whatever he feels, he must test it out for sure so as to know where he really stands. The child of God should adopt a neutral attitude towards every accusation. He should not take any action before he is assured as to the source of it. He must not be hasty, rather, he should wait quietly for assurance as to whether it is indeed the chiding of the Holy Spirit or but the charge of the evil spirit. If it originates with the Holy Spirit, he will then deal with it honestly. The believer’s present waiting is due to his uncertainty and not to rebellion. Nevertheless, he absolutely must resist making all confessions to men which are motivated by sheer force from outside, for the enemy often tries to compel him to do this.

Real conviction from the Holy Spirit leads us to holiness while the aim of Satan is solely to accuse. He indicts us to make us indict ourselves. His motive is nothing other than to make Christians suffer. Sometimes after one has accepted the enemy’s imputation and confessed accordingly, Satan may next fill him with a false peace. This is no small danger for it deprives the believer of any real contrition over defeat. The reproach of conscience ceases once the sin is confessed and cleansed by the precious blood, but the accusation of the enemy continues even after what is accused has been dealt with. The former leads us to the precious blood; the latter drives us to despair, causing us to reckon ourselves irredeemable. The purpose of Satan is to engineer our fall through accusations: “Since we cannot be perfect,” sighs the believer resignedly, “then what is the use?”

At times the accusation of Satan is added to the rebuke of conscience. The sin is real, but when it has been treated according to the mind of the Holy Spirit the accusation continues because the evil spirit has joined his indictment to the reproach of the conscience. It is therefore a matter of utmost concern that we preserve an uncompromising attitude towards sin: not merely yielding no ground to the enemy to indict but also learning how to differentiate between the reprimand of the Holy Spirit and the accusation of the evil spirit and learning how to distinguish what is exclusively the enemy’s charge from what is his charge mixed in with the reproach of conscience. We must realize most assuredly that the Holy Spirit never reproves further if the sin is cleansed by the precious blood and forsaken.

Additional Dangers

Other hazards lie in the way of following the spirit besides Satan’s counterfeits and his attacks. Often our soul will fabricate or sense something which urges us to take action. Christians must never forget that not all senses emerge from the spirit, for the body, the soul, and the spirit each has its own senses. It is highly important not to interpret soulical or physical senses as the intuition of the spirit. God’s children should learn daily in experience what is and what is not genuine intuition. How very easy for us, once perceiving the importance of following the intuition, to overlook the fact that senses exist in other parts of the being besides in the spirit. Actually spiritual life is neither so complicated nor so easy as people usually imagine.

Here then are two causes for alarm: first, the peril of mistaking other senses to be the spirit’s intuition; and second, the danger of misunderstanding the meaning of intuition. We meet these two hazards every day. Hence the teaching of the Holy Scriptures is quite essential. To confirm whether or not we are moved by, and walk in, the Holy Spirit, we must see if any given thing harmonizes with the teaching of the Bible. The Holy Spirit never moves the prophets of old to write in one way and then move us today in another way. It is categorically impossible for the Holy Spirit to have instructed people of yesteryear what they ought not to do and yet tell us in our day that we must do these very same things. What we receive in the spirit’s intuition needs to be certified by the teaching of God’s Word. To follow intuition alone and not in conjunction with the Scriptures will undeniably lead us into error. The revelation of the Holy Spirit sensed by our spirit must coincide with the revelation of the Holy Spirit in Scripture.

Since our flesh is continuously active, we must be ever vigilant against its intrusion into our keeping the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. We know the Bible discloses the mind of the Holy Spirit; but were we to observe the Bible perfectly, we still would not necessarily be following the mind of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because often we search the many teaching of the Scriptures with our natural mind and later do them with our strength. Although what is understood and is done agrees perfectly with the Scriptures, it is nevertheless done without dependence upon the Holy Spirit. The whole matter has remained within the realm of the flesh. Wherefore, not only what we know in our spirit concerning the mind of the Holy Spirit needs to be checked by the Scriptures, but also what we know from the Scriptures must be carried out through our spirit. Do we not realize that the flesh craves priority even with respect to keeping the Holy Scriptures? The spirit has intuition; but it also has power. It is consequently null and void if we understand any doctrine in our mind while at the same time it remains unexecuted by the power of the spirit.

One more matter needs to be noticed: a great danger looms before us if we live and walk by the spirit too much. Although the Word does emphasize the believer’s personal spirit, the Word also informs us that the significance of one’s spirit is due to the indwelling Holy Spirit. The reason why we must walk and live in the spirit at all is because our spirit, being the habitation of God’s Spirit, is where He expresses His mind. The leading and discipline we receive therein is His leading and discipline. In stressing the significance of the Holy Spirit we are at the same time emphasizing our own spirit since the latter constitutes His base of operation. Our danger, upon apprehending the work and function of man’s spirit, is to rely entirely on it, forgetting that it is merely the servant of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit and not our spirit is the One upon Whom we wait for direct guidance into all truth. If man’s spirit is divorced from the divine Spirit it becomes as useless as the other parts of man. We should never reverse the order of man’s spirit and the Holy Spirit. It is because many of the Lord’s people are ignorant of man’s spirit and its operation that we have presented in these pages a detailed account of it. This does not mean, however, that the position of the Holy Spirit in a man is inferior to that of his own spirit. The purpose for understanding this faculty of man is to help us to obey Him more and to exalt Him more.

This should exert great influence on our guidance. The Holy Spirit is given primarily for the benefit of the whole body of Christ. He abides in each individual because He dwells in the whole body of Christ and each is a member of it. The work of the Spirit is corporate in nature (1 Cor. 12. 12-13). He guides individuals because He guides the whole body. He leads each of us for the sake of the body. The movement of one member involves the whole body. The guidance of the Holy Spirit in our individual spirits is related to the other members. Spiritual guidance is the guidance of the body. In order that our movements may therefore be related to the body, we need to seek sympathy and agreement from the spirit of “two or three” other members, even after we personally have received guidance in our spirit. This principle must not be neglected in spiritual work. Much of defeat, strife, hatred, division, shame, and pain has been due to the independent moves of those who mean well but who follow merely their own spirit. All who follow the spirit should accordingly test their guidance by its relationship to the spiritual body to determine whether or not it is of the Holy Spirit. In every bit of our work, conduct, faith, and teaching we should be regulated by that relationship of the members one of another” (Rom.12.5) .

In conclusion, then, along the spiritual pathway lurk many snares. A little carelessness brings in defeat. Yet there is no short cut or bypass we can take. We are not insured because we have learned some knowledge; on the contrary, we ourselves must experience everything. Those who have preceded us can only warn us of the hazards ahead so that we may not fall prey to them. If we intend to bypass part of the pathway, we shall be disappointed, but faithful followers of the Lord can avoid many unnecessary defeats.