There is an enemy of mine, living closer to me than any other. He comes with me wherever I go. He lives with me. No matter how fast I run, he is there. He remains with me because he is Flesh, the desires I have as a human being. As in, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41, NASB)
A British newspaper, The Times, asked the greatest minds of Britain to answer a question, “What is wrong with the world?” Among those queried was the Christian writer G.K. Chesterton. His answer came in these few words:
Flesh makes life a dilemma for me. I am my flesh. My other two enemies, the world and the devil, exist apart from me. But Flesh is a companion never shaken. Paul writes words which give hope and yet perplex me. “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Romans 7:5, ESV). The hope is given as Paul says, “we were living in the flesh.” Paul uses past tense. There is some sense in which Flesh, which surrounds my soul, can be escaped. I’m sure Paul does not mean I become disembodied from Flesh. Rather the corrupt nature of Flesh and its authority over me may be eluded.
We have an amazing amount of power as beings of flesh. God designed us as flesh with free choice. The choices we make are significant. As seen in the case of Adam and Eve, they can change the whole course of creation. But the decision in the Garden of Eden also changed humanity. Because of human choice, Flesh, which was meant to cooperate with God, is now an enemy. Flesh takes on a corrupted nature.
Flesh is corrupted, sinful. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18, ESV). Flesh controls me, keeps me from doing what is right. However, in Romans 7:5, Paul tells me something has changed in relationship to this enemy. To know what has changed, I must first understand what was true when Flesh was controlling my passions, desires, and thoughts.
Flesh wants to rule over my passions. “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1-2, ESV). Focus on verse 2. Paul writes, “so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions.” Flesh controls my passions, and my passions control me. You find this in Cain early in scriptural history:
The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it’ (Genesis 4:6-7, ESV).
Flesh grabbed Cain’s anger, moved him to hate his brother, and, goaded by Flesh, Cain murdered Abel. Flesh manipulates my emotional life to lead me away from living my life for God. This manipulation by Flesh is temptation. Temptation is the subtle tugging of my being to choose sin over the priorities of God.
My thoughts are open to Flesh. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5, ESV). When Flesh is in control, my thoughts are less than pure or righteous. Flesh takes anything I’m thinking and turns my ideas against the Kingdom of God. I look at a homeless person, and I think of their laziness, their lack of value in the world, and configure a path, which brings me away from them. I forget people are made in God’s image. I discard a view of my own sin and see myself as superior. I choose to ignore Jesus’ words, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’”(Matthew 25:40, ESV).
Flesh creates in me desires apart from the life the Spirit of God has for me. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17, ESV). I am made in God’s image, and I know what he wants me to do. Yet Flesh redirects me, away from what is spiritual, even if the spiritual is what I want to do. I should desire what is good for me.
Flesh crafts my desires in the physical, mental, and spiritual realms. My flesh makes me the focus of my own need. I eat in excess, unmoved by those around who don’t have enough food. In my thoughts, I anchor the world to myself, unable to forgive those who offend me, while expecting forgiveness from them. As for my spirit, I stay in bed on Sunday morning, worshipping my own needs rather than choosing to worship God. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tried to resolve this trap by classifying Flesh’s control as a virtue: “Man can count on no one but himself.” But this existential solution only leads one to conclude that Flesh really is a door to despair. I discover no matter how much I listen to my own flesh, I’m disappointed by the results. My excess, my lack of forgiveness, and my laziness set me back, rather than making me satisfied with life.
As Chesterton notes, the problem is my own flesh.
Flesh works much like riding a bike. It is nearly impossible to forget. Destin, a YouTuber, demonstrates this on his YouTube channel, SmarterEveryDay. Welders designed a unique bike—when the handlebars of the bike are turned to the left the front tire moves to the right, and vice versa. Destin tried riding this bike and couldn’t do it. Only after eight months of practice did Destin master the backwards bike, but, once he did, he discovered he could no longer ride a regular bike. Once Flesh learns a habit, it is seldom broken, and Flesh knows only how to ride a regular bike.
There is my dilemma. Following God seems like riding a backwards bike. But Paul gave me hope, “we were living in the flesh.” Past tense. My present can be lived with someone else in charge. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV). Once Destin could rides the backwards bike with ease, the regular bike, his old ride, was no longer in his command. He was transformed. When I come to know Christ there is a transformation in my relationship to the flesh.
Christ in me. The difference is when I become a believer in Christ, I’m made new and my interface with Flesh is no longer the same. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16, ESV). Now while this is a great truth, we may question it in light of our experience. I try, but I fall right back into the pattern of the regular bike or life I’ve always known. However, when I submit my life to Christ, I no longer see my life through the temptations of my flesh. I understand God is working within me to change me. In his power, my flesh can be overcome. I view others as spiritual creatures. Flesh which seemed all there was, is now the servant of my spiritual life in God as I let God become my master.
Paul warns of this tendency to return control to Flesh. “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV). Here’s my problem, I make provision. Destin picked up a regular bike again. He fell off. He fell off again. He tried and tried until, finally, a switch was thrown, and he could no longer ride the backwards bike but could ride the regular bike again. Christ transforms me, I put myself under his control, but then I pick up my old emotions, thoughts, and desires. They fail, but I keep trying until the moment comes and they work once again.
Sanctification is the process by which God is making us holy in this life. Flesh no longer has control, but we will at times try to give it back. We have to keep dying to our old way of life, putting the regular bike aside. Paul says, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11, ESV). But through the Spirit we can end Flesh’s authority over our wills.
Jesus came in flesh, and he identifies with our struggle. He knows temptation. He knows pain. He knows sorrow. He knows death. Jesus gives us hope for our flesh in two ways. First, while on earth, he lived by the Spirit and overcame temptation. He never allowed Flesh to control him. He asks us to surrender Flesh to him, so we can live a life in his power. My dependence is not on my own ability or on Flesh; I benefit from the Holy Spirit working through me. Second, his flesh was transformed, raised from corruption, made eternal. In Jesus, Flesh will be restored to what humanity was given in the beginning. This is the promise of what is to come for each of us when our new bodies come.
For now, the key to the struggle is submitting the flesh to the Spirit, and every time we fall off the backwards bike and find ourselves pursuing sin, we need to get back on again, knowing the day is coming when Flesh will be our enemy no more.
Next issue: Dealing with Satan