Ashlie Michener sat in the back seat of the family Suburban sobbing. Her ponytail was cinched down tight at the crown of her head and the August sun refracted into tiny prisms as it glinted against her damp cheeks. Today was Kindergarten Roundup and Ashlie and her mother were on their way to meet her teacher.
All summer Ashlie anticipated school. June and July crawled past in an eternity of days. The first two weeks of August were interminable. It was as though summer would never end and school would never begin for the anxious, five-year-old Ashlie.
And now she sat crying, almost bellowing, begging her befuddled mother not to make her go to school. Dolores Michener had the patience of Job, but her ordinarily delightful daughter was testing her with this dramatic and sudden reversal.
Mrs. Michener pulled into the parking lot. There wasn’t time to get to the bottom of this crisis right now, so she wielded her parental power: “Ashlie, dear. Your crying will not do any good. We are going into the school and you will meet your Kindergarten teacher. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady and you will be just fine.” She handed Ashlie a tissue and helped her out of the truck.
As foretold by Mrs. Michener, Ashlie did indeed survive Kindergarten Roundup. Her teacher was not an ogre and the Earth was again upon its axis by the time they returned to the Suburban. They finished their morning errands, including a stop for school supplies, which thrilled Ashlie, and then Dolores began maneuvering Ashlie into position for an inquiry.
Mom’s don’t come much sharper than Mrs. Michener. She hadn’t said a word to Ashlie about her meltdown. But now, turning left into the parking lot she stopped at the pizza buffet. Perhaps a slice and a large soda would loosen Ms. Ashlie’s tongue and reveal the haunting mystery.
There was girl talk during lunch, lots of batted eyelashes and crossed legs, but ultimately Mrs. Michener casually inquired, “Honey, you were so excited about going to school. What happened this morning in the car? Why did you change your mind?”
Ashlie sighed. “Mommy, I’m not ready to go to school.” She held the eight-inch-tall plastic glass in both hands as she sucked pop through the straw.
“I don’t understand, Sweetie. Why not? Why would you say you’re not ready to go to school?”
Tossing her ponytail and setting her drink up on the table, Ashlie rested her chin in her hands. The painted fingernails were not normal, but this was a special occasion, and the dawning of a new era of independence.
“Mommy, I can’t tie my own shoes. I can’t read. And, I....” Whatever the third reason was, it was monumental. The green eyes cut to the corner of the room a couple of times before locking again with her mom’s. “Well. I can’t draw a star.”
There it was. The crisis was revealed, the mystery unfolded—a trio of failings that reduced Ashlie to sobs, hijacked the confidence she’d displayed all summer, and frustrated her mom.
As time goes and Ashlie’s life gets more complicated, she will mature and sophisticate her coping abilities—just as you and I have. The fact of this matter is, all of us have an angle for living—but that doesn’t mean it works well. Ashlie had life figured out until Kindergarten Roundup and she realized her coping skills were insufficient for the impending task.
All day, every day of the week, we utilize our angles and resources to accomplish the same goal: gaining acceptance from others and bestowing acceptance upon ourselves. Until this is secured—every day—we can’t continue to progress as people.
While he wasn’t the first to notice the pattern, Abraham Maslow created a pyramid-shaped chart illustrating this dynamic. Each level he identified is dependent upon the level beneath it. After physical health and safety, nothing takes precedence over believing you belong and are loved.
Due to the deficits in her life, Ashlie feared she wouldn’t belong and wouldn’t be accepted at school. Consequently, her self-confidence suffered and she retreated into tears, pleading with her mom for protection from Kindergarten. Although you and I have mastered reading, shoes, and drawing stars, the principle remains: Anything that threatens our sense of acceptance and self-acceptance becomes job one. It’s called coping.
Coping isn’t a biblical word, but it is a biblical concept. The entirety of Scripture can be reduced to one, big idea for spiritual coping: God wants to be included in every aspect of our lives. Stated negatively, every temptation we encounter hinges on whether we will be in charge or whether we will declare God in charge. If we declare ourselves dependent of God’s provision and sufficiency, we live in a way that is pleasing to God. If we live independently of God, our lives are considered separate from God. This is what the Bible calls sin because it is less than what God desires from us and for us.
The biblical term for relying upon ourselves instead of God is, flesh.
Practice independence and you will develop flesh, i.e. habitual patterns for thought, emotion, and behavior that are self-reliant, not God-reliant. Regardless of whether you live an effective life or not, anything that jeopardizes God’s preeminence and sufficiency in your life falls short of His best for you. This is sin by biblical definition and it doesn’t matter an iota if your performance is good or evil in the eyes of society and your peers. If God is compromised in your life, then you are living according to the flesh and that’s not good. God rejects independent, flesh-based effort, and outcome every time because there is zero compatibility between flesh and Spirit in His economy of life (cf. Gal. 5:16-17).
As you might surmise, the Bible is full of examples for what not to do. Take Adam and Eve: They determined—with Satan’s counsel—that their plan was superior to God’s and ate the forbidden fruit. That was arrogant flesh. It offended God and mankind paid a serious price.
Joseph’s brothers decided—with Satan’s counsel—that they would be more loved by their Dad if Joe wasn’t around. They contrived a plan, executed it as seemed appropriate to them, and offended God in the process. That’s jealous flesh.
Moses came to the conclusion that he needed to defend Israel from the Egyptians. His solution? Kill Egyptians one at a time, which he began doing, and encroached upon God’s plan. That’s presumptive flesh.
Jacob lied and usurped his way through life, as did Abraham. That was their flesh. David struggled with sexual lust. His son, Solomon, lusted for women, wealth, and wisdom. Martha was bothered with self-justification and fairness. Saul, who became Paul, battled religious performance as a suitable means to gain God’s favor. Peter’s flesh was impetuous, Ananias’ was deceitful. Thomas doubted, Mark ran, Nicodemus valued his reputation, and the people living in Galatia tried mixing flesh and Spirit.
You get the picture, I trust. Everybody—all of us—has their version of flesh. We have it because we are humans living in a fallen place. We have it because we believe the devil and live as if we are god. We have also developed fleshly habit patterns because we live with others who influence us. None of us are immune. So, if you haven’t done so already, you might ponder how you habitually edit God from your life. This is the line of demarcation between success and failure from God’s perspective.
In the preceding paragraphs there are examples of independent living that range from ineffective living to exemplary living, murder to religious zeal, good to evil. Not everyone has fleshly patterns that land them in prison or under a bridge. And, not everyone has fleshly patterns that earn them accolades and recognition. But on the spectrum ranging from disaster to stardom, we each have our fleshly propensities
Here’s the deal: The entire spectrum is unacceptable to God because He is cut out of the picture. What sort of patterns you have developed for living independently of God makes the devil not one whit of difference. And truth be told, it doesn’t make God any difference either.
As far as Satan is concerned, you are simply a pawn that he is sacrificing on his way to capturing God’s throne and escaping the hell God prepared for him. As we noted earlier, regardless of your fleshly capabilities, ranging from ineffective to exceptional and all points in between, if God is compromised in your life, He has no use for your self-generated results whether good or bad.
God hates the flesh, even exceptional flesh with all its success, achievement, and earthly benefit. Fundamentally, God wants to meet our needs and accept us absolutely through the finished work of Christ. Our contribution to the process is reliance upon Him to live and express Himself through us.
Living lives that are dependent on God doesn’t mean we quit performing well, or giving it our best effort, or that we quit aspiring to improve our performance. It does mean we do not use performance as our source of acceptance. Like Ashlie, all of us are trying to perform in order to bestow love on ourselves and receive love from others. Whether your system is working or failing is irrelevant if you don’t intentionally and willfully declare the Lord Jesus your foundational source of acceptance.
Now that you’ve read about Ashlie, it might be a good time to put on your shoes—tied or not—step out back under the stars, and tell your Father that you’ve come to a conclusion: Depending upon the flesh is not a viable option. You want Him to be your source. Nothing more, nothing less.