Jim Cymbala

B. Childress
Jun 09 2013

Nicole Crews grew up in Germany with an African-American father and a German mother who divorced when Nicole was
very young.  Her mother drank – a lot.  Living with an alcoholic was difficult, and Nicole had to shoulder many family
responsibilities for her and her brother.  Unfortunately, when Nicole was only seventeen, her mother died.

Nicole was tall and beautiful, and she started modeling at fifteen.  She enjoyed a lot of success in Germany, but at
twenty-five she decided to move to Miami and work for an agent representing her there.  “After some time in Miami, I
realized the lifestyle there was different than I expected,” Nicole said.  “There was a lot of partying, and I thought it was
too distracting and too dangerous.  So I moved to New York.” (I have to say, Nicole is the only person I can recall who
ever moved to New York City for safety reasons!)

Though she didn’t grow up in church, most people still would have described Nicole as a “good girl.”  She didn’t drink or
use drugs, because she saw what happened to her mother.  But she liked to go clubbing and dancing.  As a model, she
could get into the best clubs and was invited to A-list parties.  But she also focused on her career. “I was totally aiming to
be a Victoria’s Secret model.”

Though her career was successful, Nicole felt empty.  She asked around about churches, and eventually another model
brought her to our church.  “I was always searching,” Nicole said.  “In Germany we heard about gospel choirs and how
they were funky and upbeat, and so I was always drawn to that.  I came to Brooklyn Tabernacle because I wanted to
hear good music.

The first Sunday she attended, we showed a video of our ministry in Haiti, and it awakened something in Nicole.  She
came back the next Sunday, and then the next.  “Then one Sunday in June of 2006, I was sitting in the balcony, and
Pastor Cymbala kind of looked up, and while I don’t remember what he said, I felt like he was talking to me.  I was crying,
and I turned to look at another model friend I was with, and she was crying too.  And I just knew I needed to go down
front and pray to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”

During the next year, Nicole continued to go on casting calls, take modeling assignments, dance at clubs, and attend
industry parties.  But she also came to church on Sunday, attended prayer meetings during the week, and took Bible
classes.  “But something didn’t line up,” Nicole said.  “I kept reading the Word about what made a righteous life, but I
wasn’t living it.  Things I learned in my Bible class kept convicting me.”  Inside she began to feel differently about
situations that had never bothered her before.

“The last party I went to was on Halloween night in 2007.  I got all dressed up and was excited to go.  But within ten
minutes after arriving, I found myself looking at all the crazy stuff going on around me – drugs, alcohol, homosexuality,
casual sex, and just weird stuff.  I looked at what my friends were doing, and I thought,
I don’t belong here.  I knew then it
was totally the Holy Spirit, because I wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I don’t drink and I don’t smoke.  But suddenly I
realized this wasn’t the scene for me.  So I left and never went back to that lifestyle.”

Nicole began to feel the Holy Spirit prodding her about other issues.  “One day I got dressed and I looked at myself in
the mirror and thought,
Why do these clothes look weird?”  She changed the way she dressed.  Necklines came up, T-
shirts and jeans weren’t as tight, and she covered more skin.  “As I felt God’s conviction, I got rid of things in my life.  I
became more modest in the way I dressed.  No one told me to do it.  It just happened over time.”

Nicole modeled lingerie and swimwear, and it had never bothered her.  But once again she felt a gentle tug on her
conscience.  “One day I was modeling lingerie, and I suddenly realized it was all about sex appeal.  It’s all about sex, sex,
sex.  It hadn’t dawned on me before, because it was just a normal part of the industry.  The Holy Spirit was telling me that
there was something wrong with these kinds of shoots.”

Though Nicole worked for an agency that was responsible for sending her out on jobs, she decided she could no longer
do certain shoots.  “I knew I needed to talk to the booker who sent me on jobs, but I hated to confront her about this
because it could be a career killer.  But finally, I did.  I just sat down and told her that some of the jobs were starting to
make me feel weird and awkward.”

When Nicole was asked to do a print job for a skin product, she agreed.  The plan was to shoot body parts – arms, legs,
and hands – of several women of different skin colors.  “What I didn’t know was that the models had to be completely
nude in front of the photographer.  I was so humiliated and felt so degraded, that by September, I officially retired.”

Holy, separated living isn’t preached about much anymore because we fear it might offend and not be visitor-friendly.  
But when the Spirit starts his work, we will always have a new desire for holiness and a quest for Christlikeness.  “As
obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.  But just as he who called you
is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (I Peter 1:14-16).

Nicole believes that not every Christian is called to leave the modeling industry; she still has Christian friends who have
made it work.  But for her, God had different plans.  “The Holy Spirit kept refining me, and I definitely felt like God was
testing me to see how strong my faith was.”  Nicole continued to make big and small changes based on her renewed
mind as God’s Spirit applied Scripture.  As she learned more, more godly changes came about in her lifestyle.

The word
holy speaks of separation and purity.  It must be important to God, for he tells us that “without holiness no one
will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).  Holiness is not a list of dos and don’ts.  Rather, it is Christlikeness.  As the Spirit
works, we will have an increased desire to be holy like Christ.  What else would the Holy Spirit do but impart his own
nature into our lives?

The Battle between Flesh and Spirit

Nicole’s testimony is a great example of how once we trust Christ for salvation, God will begin to mold and shape us.  
Many of us have experienced similar radical changes when we first came to know Christ.  But over time, a battle between
our flesh and the Spirit takes place inside of us.  The apostle Paul wrote, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the
Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever
you want” (Galatians 5:17).  Paul was writing to the saints (“holy ones”) in Galatia, but he acknowledged that they, like
him, had to overcome a carnal undertow from inside that pulled against the Spirit’s purposes.

What is it about the flesh that is so contrary to the Spirit?

Paul continued: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft;
hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the
like” (Galatians 5:19-21).  That’s a pretty nasty list of sinful behaviors.  And it’s the perpetual output of the flesh; in fact,  
it’s all our fallen natures can ever produce.  While we won’t individually practice all the sins listed, the teaching of
Scripture is clear: left to himself without the Spirit’s grace, all Jim Cymbala will do is indulge the “flesh” and live a life of

That’s precisely why Paul started his comments about the flesh by saying: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to
be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13,
emphasis added).  What were they free from?  They were free from the law – trying to earn acceptance with God by
obeying the law.  The Galatians had already accepted Jesus Christ as the sacrificial substitute for their sins.  But this
free gift of salvation must not lead to a life of indulging the sinful nature.  Besides, how could they go back to doing the
very things for which Christ died on the cross?

Some may argue that is not what Paul meant or that once we accept Christ as our Savior, Christians no longer have
natural sinful tendencies.  But Paul wasn’t the only one who cautioned about sinful practices in the lives of believers.  
John also reminded us of this truth: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.  But if anybody does sin,
we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (I John 2:1).  John’s intention was plain – to
inspire God’s people not to practice unrighteousness but to practice Christlike living.  The Holy Spirit brings new
sensitivities and convictions to us if we are really living under his control.  Behavior, words, and attitudes that are unholy
cause a reaction from the Spirit who is holy.  In fact, Christians living loose, carnal lives are usually joyless and lacking
peace.  The Spirit is sending out all kinds of cautions, warnings, and red alerts to bring us back to following Christ’s

Unseen Dirt

The more Nicole’s mind was renewed (Romans 12:2), the more new convictions brought about a greater Christlikeness
in her.  And that process never ends while we live on earth.  The more we draw near to God and desire to live a life
pleasing to him, the more we see things we never saw before.

One day I was at home sitting in the study outside my bedroom.  It was summer, and the blinds were open and the bright
morning sun shone through the slats.  I was talking to someone on the phone, and I remember a direct beam of
sunshine, an incredibly bright ray of light, was focused on my knee.  When the caller said something funny, I laughed
and slapped my knee.  As soon as I hit my pants, a cloud of something, dust maybe, sprung up.  I was wearing a pair of
freshly laundered Dockers, yet a battalion of microparticles had been camping out in my pants!  I had slapped my leg
many times before, and there was probably a cloud every time I did it, but until that day, I had never seen it before.  Only
through the intense light could I see the microscopic dust on my apparently clean pants.

The Holy Spirit is like that light.  We may think we are doing just fine, but when that Light shines on us, we see lots of
things we never saw before.  As the Holy Spirit gains more control of our lives, as with Nicole, we gain a new perspective
on sin.  Things that didn’t used to bother us suddenly do.  We become convicted about things that seemed fine earlier in
our Christian walk.

If a person doesn’t have a growing sensitivity toward sin and doesn’t have a desire to become more like Christ, it’s
questionable whether that person ever had an authentic conversion.  False conversions do take place.  It’s possible to
have mental affirmation that there is a God and that Jesus is his Son.  According to James, even the demons believe
that (James 2:19).  But in a true spiritual conversion, we will always see tenderness of heart, a new reliance on Christ,
and a desire to be more like him.  That has been the pattern for more than two thousand years.  Recognizing our sin   
isn’t enough.  Grieving over it proves God is at work.

Good Grief

The Spirit is present in our life when we realize “I can’t do that anymore” and cry out for victory over besetting sin.  But
we also know the Helper is present when we fail and feel a deep remorse.  No true child of God can casually practice
unrighteousness without eventual pangs of guilt and a desperate craving for cleansing.

Consider Peter.  He belonged to Jesus and was a leading disciple, yet Peter denied the Lord three times.  After the
denials, Peter went off into the night weeping.  Why did he weep?  Was he afraid he would lose his standing as a
disciple?  No, Peter didn’t lose his relationship with Jesus in that moment.   But Peter did acutely feel the pain of his
betrayal and the loss of fellowship with someone he loved deeply.  The Spirit was working to bring the pain that leads to
repentance and restoration.

Paul warned, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30).  If the Spirit is grieved, he’s vexed and sad.  
Although we know our salvation isn’t lost by our sin, we also become painfully aware that there’s a strain in our
relationship.  Communion with God is affected, and we feel an uncomfortable emptiness.  The sun is still there and
shining, but we no longer feel its warmth.  It is as if a cloud blocks it.

One of the deepest pains we can feel is when we break communion with someone we love.  That can happen between
spouses, siblings, or friends.  We suffer deeply when, because of a misunderstanding or argument, we suddenly
damage a relationship with someone we have walked with, talked with, and laughed with.

Sin ruptures our fellowship with God.  Our disobedience breaks communion with him and brings spiritual loss.  But that
pain of conviction can also be used for good as we grow closer to Christ and ask God for grace to rid ourselves of the
sinful things.

should we do about our ongoing battles with the flesh?  If we continue to draw closer to Christ, we become more
intent on being like him.  But consciousness of our daily failings can also trigger the worst possible response –
to overcome the works of the flesh and be more like Christ.  It is an impossible task, because how can I cast out
the flesh –

Stepping Out with the Spirit

Paul gave the only answer to our dilemma: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh”
(Galatians 5:16, emphasis added).  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Just walk by the Spirit.  Problem solved!  But how in the
world do you apply a verse like that?  How do you walk in the Spirit?  What does that look like on a daily basis?

We can picture what it meant to walk with Jesus.  The disciples did that.  If Jesus stayed in Capernaum for five days, they
stayed in Capernaum for five days.  If Jesus stopped for lunch, they stopped for lunch.  If he turned to the right and went
down the road, they followed behind him.  But how do we do that with the invisible Holy Spirit?  Some might say, “Just go
by the Word.”  But it’s that very Word that tells us to walk by the Spirit.  Filling our hearts with Scripture builds faith and
encourages us.  But here we’re told that following the Spirit and keeping in step with him is the only deliverance from
indulging our lower nature and its ugly potential.  How do we do that?

First of all, reliance on the Spirit means we have his help in repenting of those sins that so easily attach themselves to
us.  Many believers lie to themselves and are in denial as to the “secret treaty” they’ve made with disobedience.  The
Holy Spirit alone can help us keep real with God.  Whether we struggle with overt wrong actions or subtler unchristlike
attitudes, the Spirit’s light focuses directly on the infection and helps us sincerely turn away from it.  Repentance is a 180-
degree U-turn from sin and selfishness back to God.

Walking by the Spirit is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week lifestyle.  It’s not about going to church on
Sundays.  It requires much prayer and sensitivity.  Unlike Jesus’ physical movements and audible words, the Spirit’s work
is accomplished through our yieldedness to his prompting and movement.  He wants to work in the deepest level of our
being – the place where our thoughts, desires, and plans are formed.  That is why Paul wrote, “Continue to work out
your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to
will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose”
(Philippians 2:12-13), emphasis added).  As the Holy Spirit does precious work, he influences the formation of desires
within us, deadening our selfish tendencies toward sin.  We overcome the lower nature not by fighting against it
ourselves – a losing battle if there ever was one – but by allowing the Holy Spirit to exert his power, every second of the
day, on our behalf.  In fact, the only one who can put the flesh to death is the Spirit of life.

    Charles Finney wrote:

    If you mean to [be filled with] the Spirit, you must be childlike, and yield to His influences – just as yielding as air.  If
    He is drawing you to prayer, you must quit everything to yield to His gentle strivings.  No doubt you have
    sometimes felt a desire to pray for some object, and you have put it off and resisted, until God left you.  If you wish
    Him to remain, you must yield to His softest leadings, watch to learn what He would have you do and yield yourself
    up to His guidance.

A Christlike life is a mystery.  We live the life – it’s our voice, body, and mind – but it’s not really us at all.
 It’s Christ
living in us through the Holy Spirit
.  But that can’t be learned and put into practice overnight.  Every believer has
experienced the tears of regret when our flesh reasserts itself and we do and say things that we know are wrong.  But
John, the same apostle who wrote a letter to encourage believers not to sin, also included one of the best promises in
the Bible: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
 If we confess our sins, he is
faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8-9).

Many years ago I attended a Bible conference in upstate New York.  I was new to the ministry and hungry to learn.  The
teaching sessions were fine, but I learned the most valuable lesson while walking to lunch.  The main speaker, a
seasoned man of God, was walking with an associate in front of my friend and me.  “You want to know something?” he
said within earshot.  “To be conscious of the Holy Spirit solves 90 percent of our problems.”  That was his little nugget,
and it has stayed with me ever since.  The key is to be aware of and in touch with the Spirit.

The Bible declares that a Christian is a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17).  Christ’s plan was to replace “me” with “him”
through the Spirit’s presence.  That is a far more radical idea than starting to attend church more regularly or reading
the Bible occasionally.  It’s more of a “corporate takeover.”  But the takeover results in a life filled with peace and joy.

Keep in Step with the Spirit

Most of us started our Christian lives with the belief that God was all we needed. Period.  Certainly we knew we had no
part in gaining acceptance with God.  His salvation was a free gift – all we had done was to believe and receive.  But
then following Christ got a little more complicated.  Aware of our failings, we turned not to him but to ourselves!  That’s
why Paul summarized his teaching to the Galatians in these words: “Since we
live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with
the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25, emphasis added).

We are born again through the Holy Spirit in us, and we live by the Spirit.  Having begun that way, should we now revert
back to self-effort in our pathetic attempts to live good lives?  Paul’s directive is to
P – the living presence of God
dwelling in our hearts.  Just as Nicole had to keep in step with the Spirit as God peeled off layer after layer of stuff
displeasing to him, we must allow God to do the same.  The work goes on, not only for Nicole, but for all of us.

In our own strength, we can never act like Jesus Christ.  That’s why he sent us a Helper.  The Spirit of Jesus within us
wants to tenderly and lovingly manage our days.  This isn’t a bad thing.  He wasn’t sent to rain on our parade and hinder
us from enjoying the best of life.  Just the opposite.  He is ready and able to lead us out into the clean, fresh air of
Christlike words, thoughts, and actions.

Lord, we want to be holy like you.


SPIRIT RISING, by Jim Cymbala with Jennifer Schuchmann, Copyright 2012, Zondervan.