Performing in the flesh is shorthand for doing work unto the Lord in your own strength, by your own wisdom, and with your own will power. In short, it is service without spiritual grace, and Satan loves to seduce you with it. Such Spirit-less service may be outwardly beautiful, relationally effective, or even successful, but because it is done without faith, it displeases God (Rom 14:23; Heb 11:6) and bears no lasting fruit. Sadly because our hearts are deceitful we may even call such unbelieving service good, when God does not. For that reason, it is always right to return to the Word and ask: What does God say?
What service does God find pleasing? What counterfeit performances originate in unbelief? And how can we tell the difference?
What follows is not an exhaustive list, nor an authorized list of all the ways we perform service without the Spirit. Writing such a list would tempt me (and you) to believe we could number or know all the ways we can sin. Unfortunately, we can’t. Countless are ways we fall short of God’s glory.
Still, I submit the following eight examples of Spirit-less service as a diagnostic, a way of checking our hearts. Are we serving God? Or man? Are we pleasing our Lord? Or performing for others? It’s a question we all face, not just those who stand and preach, or sing, or serve. Indeed, if we are honest, these eight tendencies should prompt confession, and if God (and you) are willing, spiritual renewal.
Eight Ways We Perform in the Flesh
First, giving without gratitude.
Second Corinthians 9:7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” He doesn’t want reluctant gifts or half-hearted offerings. Like with Israel of old, he desires freewill offerings (Exod 35:29; 36:3). God does not need our gifts; he wants our gospel-centered gratitude. Therefore, anything we give to him out of duty, or guilt, or fear of not giving, comes from the flesh and does not please him.
Second, serving without sweet and serious joy.
Deuteronomy 28:47–48 is a shocking passage. It reads, “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.” The threat levied is not due to a lack of service, but a lack of “joyfulness and gladness.” Like giving without gratitude, service without joy comes from the flesh and is rejected by God. Worse, it invites his judgment. The service that pleases God does not have to sizeable or outwardly impressive. He looks at the heart to find servants who tremble at his word and rejoice in his Son.
Third, singing without savoring.
Christian hymns contain some of the greatest gospel truths ever written, but it is possible to sing without worshiping. How easily our lips can slip into the vain repetition of words (cf. Matt 6:7) and our minds can wander from truth (1 Cor 14:15). If the gospel really grips our hearts we can’t stop singing (Eph 5:18–20), but the source of our song is not the command, “Sing unto the Lord!”
True worship comes from a delight in him (Ps 37:4). Songs that please the Lord are the ones that are sung savoring who God is and what he has done. Without such personal enjoyment, singing becomes a human performance rather than a spiritual communion.
Fourth, praying without peacemaking.
Psalm 66:18 reads, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened to me.” It is a scary thought that there are prayers God will not answer. Even more harrowing, God will sometimes tell his people, “Don’t pray,” because I intend to bring judgment on my peace-breaking people (cf. Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). As Jesus said, when you refuse to forgive others, God refuses your cries for forgiveness (Matt 6:14–15).
Similarly, division in marriage hinders the prayers of a husband (1 Pet 3:7). Any prayer offered while refusing to live at peace with others offends God. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23–24). For all of these reasons, we must strive to be at peace with others (Rom 12:19; Heb 12:14). Anything else is fleshly faking, not spiritual living.
Fifth, working without worshiping.
This was Martha’s crime. She traded knowing and worshiping Jesus for serving and working for Jesus. As Jesus gently corrected her, he said, “There is only one thing needful, and Mary has chosen to good portion” (Luke 10:42). And what is that good portion? It is Christ himself.
God did not create us to work for him, but to worship him. Service that pleases him stems from spending time with him. Indeed, as Paul makes clear in Romans 12:1–2, all life is worship, and anything done without God in mind treks toward self—self-will, self-reliance, self-exaltation.
Sixth, worshiping without weeping.
In our fallen world, it is impossible to worship God with continual effervescence. To always and only emit a positive aura ignores the sorrow and pain filling our world and our hearts—not to mention dozens of Psalms. Carl Trueman got it right when he asked, “What can miserable Christians sing?” He corrects Western worshipers when he writes,
A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience. (The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism, 158–160).
So, it is right, as Philippians 4:4 says, to rejoice always but not without giving equal attention to lamentations, wailing, and weeping. Paul strikes the balance when he writes that the servant of the Lord is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). Accordingly, the Spirit-filled woman will laugh and lament, she will cry for joy and weep for sorrow. But those lacking the Spirit will perform only one side, because somehow their preferred constitution—happy or sad—performs as a mask over their soul.
Seventh, preaching without praying.
Most personally, I come to the kind of performance that indicts me. In truth, I can’t remember preaching a sermon without offering prayers for it. But there is a world of difference between saying (token) prayers and really praying. On this point, I am a repeat felon in need of pardon.
God commands us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17), and nowhere is this more needed than when we approach God’s Word. Christian preaching can come without power (1 Thess 1:5), and the greatest preachers are the ones who plead most passionately for God to give the Word success (see Eph 6:19; Col 4:3–4). True preaching is prayerful preaching; without prayer, preaching is just a(n) (ir)religious show.
Eighth, feasting without fasting.
Last, taking the Lord’s Supper becomes a performance when there is no hunger for it or when we take it without preparing our hearts and reconciling ourselves to one another. Therefore, just as God calls his people to remember him by feasting on his body and blood; he also calls his people to fast so that we might feel in our bodies the kind of hunger we ought to have for God.
In our land of plenty, fasting is a foreign concept, but it is one Jesus expected his followers to perform—not for the sake of others, but for him. It seems that without fasting there are certain sins and strongholds that will not be conquered (cf. Mark 9:29). At the same time, there is a way to fast that avails nothing because it is unaccompanied by righteous living (see Isaiah 58). Like prayer without peacemaking, to take communion while disunity pervades the body of Christ is to perform in the flesh an act of worship that grieves the Spirit.
All in all, the Lord is pleased when his people are filled with his Spirit and perform acts of service with faith, hope, and love. Thankfully, we do not work in order to please him. Rather, as his adopted children, our abiding faith—which he himself supplies by his Spirit (Gal 5:23)—empowers us to serve, sing, pray, preach, give, and fast. In this posture of dependence and trust, we work out our salvation in the power of the Spirit–crucifying the flesh and saying ‘no’ to ungodliness. While such mortification includes the denial of sinful activities, it also includes the repudiation of “Christian service” that is filled with self-interest and self-reliance.
May God be gracious to us and empower us to abide him, so that we might bear his fruit by means of his Spirit for the sake of his glory, not our own.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds