THE NATURE OF THE GOOD WORKS OF THE FLESH
God is very much against the flesh because He knows the actual condition of the flesh. God’s purpose is that the believers would be completely free of the old creation and enter completely into the new creation in experience. Whether good or evil, the flesh belongs to the old creation. There is a big difference between the good that the flesh does and the good that comes out of the new life. The flesh is centered on the self; it can do good by itself and does it with its own strength. It has no need to depend on the Holy Spirit, no need to be humble, no need to wait upon God, and no need to pray and beseech God, but only has to decide by itself, think by itself, and perform by itself. Naturally, it is inevitable that it accredits glory to itself, telling itself, "Now I am much better than before!" "Now I am really quite good." Moreover, such deeds do not lead people to come to God but instead cause them to become puffed up in secret. God wants man to come completely helpless before Him, submitting wholly to His Holy Spirit and waiting on Him humbly and trustfully. The goodness of the flesh which centers on the self is always evil in the eyes of God because it is not the work of the Holy Spirit, and it does not issue from the life of the Lord Jesus. Rather, it is the work of man’s own self, and the glory is ascribed to himself.
In Philippians 3:3 the apostle mentioned "confidence in the flesh." "Confidence" in the original text is "belief." He said that he himself did not "believe in the flesh." The greatest work of the flesh is self-confidence! Since one thinks he is able, he does not need to trust in the Holy Spirit. Christ crucified is the wisdom of God, but a believer trusts in his own wisdom. He can read the Bible, preach the Bible, hear the Word, and believe in the Word; however, all of these are done through the power of his own mind, and he does not think that he absolutely must ask for the Holy Spirit to teach him. Many people believe they have received all the truth, even though what they have is something which they have received from others and from their own searching and what they have is more of man than of God! Furthermore, they do not have a teachable heart that is willing to wait on God and to let Him reveal His truth in His light.
Christ is also the power of God. But how much self-reliance there is in Christian work! The time spent in the employment of human methods and arrangements is more than the time spent waiting before God. The time spent on preparing the items and sections of the message far exceeds the time spent on receiving the power from above. It is not that we do not proclaim the truth or that we do not confess the person and work of Christ as our only hope or that we do not want to glorify His name, but that, because our confidence is in the flesh, many of our works are dead before God. In our speaking we rely on human wisdom to present a doctrine in a full way. We use appropriate illustrations and various kinds of expressions to stir up men’s emotions. We also use wise exhortation to cause men to make a decision. However, where is the real result? In this kind of work, how much is the reliance on the Holy Spirit and how much is the reliance on the flesh? How can the flesh give life to man? Does the old creation actually have sufficient power to help man become the new creation?
Self-confidence and self-reliance are the nature of the good works of the flesh. "Dependence" on God is something the flesh cannot have. The flesh is too impatient to tolerate the delay of being dependent. The flesh can never depend on God as long as it feels it has the strength. Even in a time of hopelessness, the flesh is still busy planning, trying to think of a way out. The flesh never has the sense of utter helplessness. If the believers want to understand the works of the flesh, there is no other need than to put the flesh to the test. Anything that does not issue from waiting on God is of the flesh. Anything that can be produced and done without depending on the Holy Spirit issues forth from the flesh. Anything that one can decide according to one’s own will and for which one does not need to seek God’s will is of the flesh. Whenever one’s heart does not have a sense of utter helplessness and a need for complete dependence on the Lord, one’s doings are the works of the flesh. However, this does not mean that all these things are wicked or improper. No matter how good they are or how godly they are—even reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, and preaching—if they are not done in complete dependence on the Holy Spirit, then they issue forth from the flesh. As long as the flesh is allowed to live and is given the opportunity to be active, it is willing to do anything, even submit to God! In all the works of the flesh, however good they may be, "I" is always a big factor, the only difference being that sometimes it is hidden and other times it is manifested. The flesh never acknowledges its own weakness and uselessness. Even should it become a laughingstock, the flesh will still not believe in its inability.
"Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" This word reveals a great truth—what is proper and of the Spirit in the beginning may not necessarily continue to be so. Moreover, the experience of the believers shows us that what is of the Spirit in the beginning can easily become something of the flesh. Oftentimes when one receives a truth, one receives it of the Holy Spirit, but after a while this truth becomes the boasting of his flesh. Such was the case of the Jews in those days. So often in the matters of submitting to the Lord, of denying oneself afresh, of receiving power to save people, one may really depend on the Holy Spirit in the beginning, but after a while, he begins to consider God’s grace as his own glory and reckon what is of God as his own. It is also like this in the matter of one’s conduct. In the beginning, it is really the work of the Holy Spirit so that one experiences a great change—loving what he previously hated and hating what he previously loved. Yet not long after, "self" creeps in. He either considers the changed conduct as his own achievement and commends himself, or he loses the heart of dependence on the Holy Spirit and becomes careless, relying on himself as he continues to go on. In the experience of believers, there are hundreds and thousands of cases which at the outset had the Holy Spirit as the center and then after a while had the flesh as the center.
What is the reason that so many dear children of God fail while they try their best to seek a perfect, consecrated life and desire to obtain a more abundant life? Often while the believer is listening to a message, talking to others, reading spiritual books, or praying, God Himself may appear to show him that it is perfectly possible to have a satisfying life in the Lord. The believer also feels that this life is very simple and very sweet and that henceforth nothing will hinder him from obtaining this life. Then the experience really comes! At this time he receives the blessings, power, and glory which he had never before received. How wonderful this is! However, it passes away quickly. What a pity! Why? Is his faith imperfect? Is his consecration not single-hearted? His faith and consecration are truly and definitely for the Lord. Why then does it become this way? The reason for the loss and the way to be restored seem perplexing. Actually, there is no other reason than that he trusts in his flesh. He thinks he can perfect by the flesh what was begun by the Spirit. He substitutes self for the Holy Spirit. The self takes the lead and hopes that the Holy Spirit will come along to help. The work and the position of the Holy Spirit have been usurped by the flesh. He does not depend completely on the leading of the Holy Spirit to accomplish all the work, nor does he wait on the Lord. This means that he wants to follow the Lord Jesus without denying himself. This is the root of all the failures.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 12: The Spiritual Man (1), Chapter 9, by Watchman Nee)