I was recently talking with someone and I recalled that there is  a common misunderstanding of the meaning of the Biblical phrase “the flesh.”  There are many references to “the flesh” in New Testament Scripture, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The phrase confuses some who think it synonymous with the physical body.

It is true that there are many times when Scripture uses the word “flesh” to refer to the physical body. However when the definite article “the” is placed before the word “flesh” we are dealing with something else. Only very rarely does the Biblical phrase “the flesh” (ἡ σὰρξ (he sarx), in Greek) refer only to the physical body (eg. John 6:53; Phil 3:2; 1 John 4:2) , but almost always the phrase refers to something quite distinct from merely the physical body.

What then is meant by the term “the flesh” (ἡ σὰρξ)? Perhaps most plainly it refers to that part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly and obstinate part of our inner self that is operative all the time. It is that part of us that does not want to be told what to do. It is stubborn, refuses correction, and does not want to have a thing to do with God. It bristles at limits and rules. It recoils at anything that might cause me to be diminished or something less than the center of the universe. The flesh hates to be under authority or to have to yield to anything other than its own wishes and desires. The flesh often desires something simply because it is forbidden.

The recent Protestant translations of the Bible such as the NIV often call the flesh our “sin nature” which is not a bad term in summarizing what the flesh is. In Catholic tradition the flesh is where concupiscence sets up shop. Concupiscence refers to the strong inclination to sin that is in us as a result of the wound of Original Sin. If you do not think that your flesh is strong, just try to pray for five minutes and watch how quickly your mind wants to think of anything but God. Just try to fast, or be less selfish, and watch how quickly your flesh goes to war.

The flesh is in direct conflict with the spirit. “The spirit” here refers not to the Holy Spirit but to the human spirit. The (human) spirit is that part of us which is open to God, which desires him and is drawn to him. It is that part of us which is attracted by goodness, beauty and truth, which yearns for completion in God and to see His face. Without the spirit we would be totally turned in on ourselves and consumed by the flesh. Thankfully our spirit, assisted by the Holy Spirit draws us to desire what is best, what is upright, good and helpful.

Perhaps it is good that we look at just a few texts which reference “the flesh” and thus here in Lent learn more of the flesh and its ways. This will help us to be on our guard and to rebuke it by God’s grace and learn not to feed it. I make some comments in red with each quote.

  1. The Flesh does not grasp spiritual teachings – [Jesus said] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. (John 6:63) Having taught on the Eucharist, most of his listeners ridicule his teaching and will no longer take Jesus seriously. So Jesus indicates that their hostility to the teaching on the Eucharist is of the flesh. The flesh demands that everything be obvious to it on its own terms. The flesh demands to see physical proof for everything; demands that it be able to “see” using its own unregenerate power. And if it cannot see based on its own limited view, it simply rejects spiritual truth out of hand. In effect the flesh refuses to believe at all since what it really demands is something that will “force” it to accept something. Inexorable proof which faith demands takes things out of the realm of faith and trust. Faith is no longer necessary when something is absolutely proven and plainly visible to the eyes of flesh. The flesh simply refuses to believe and demands proof.
  2. The flesh is not willing to depend on anyone or anything outside its own power or control – For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless….I [now] consider this rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:3-9 selected) The flesh wants to be in control rather than to have to trust in God. Hence it sets up its own observance, under its own control. And when it has met its own demands it declares itself to be righteous. Since the flesh hates being told what to do it takes God’s law and makes it “manageable” based on the flesh’s own terms. So, for example, if I am supposed to love, let me limit it to my family and countrymen but I am “allowed” to hate my enemy. But Jesus says, no, love your enemy. The flesh recoils at this for unless the law is manageable and within the power of the flesh to accomplish it, the Law cannot be controlled. The flesh trusts only in its own power. The Pharisees were “self-righteous” That is to say, they believed in a righteousness that they themselves brought about through their flesh power. But the Law and flesh cannot save. Only Jesus Christ can save. The flesh refuses this and wants to control the outcome based on its own power and terms.
  3. The Flesh hates to be told what to do – For when we were controlled by the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. (Rom 7:5) The disobedience and rebelliousness of the flesh roots us in sinful behavior and prideful attitudes. The prideful attitude of the flesh is even more dangerous than the sins that flow from the flesh since pride precludes instruction in holiness and possible repentance that lead to life. But the flesh does not like to be told what to do. Hence it rejects the testimony of the the Church, the scriptures and the conscience. Notice, according to the text, the very existence of God’s Law arouses the passions of the flesh. The fact that something is forbidden makes the flesh want it all the more! This strong inclination to sin is in the flesh and comes from pride and indignation at “being told what to do.” The flesh is refuses God’s Law and sets up its own rules. The flesh will not be told what to do.
  4. Flesh is as flesh doesThose who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the spirit have their minds set on what the spirit desires. The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace (Rom 8:5-6) The flesh is intent on things of this world, upon gratifying its own passions and desires. On account of the flesh we are concerned primarily with ourselves and seek to be at the center. The flesh is turned primarily inward. St Augustine describes the human person in the flesh as “curvatus in se” (turned in upon himself). But the spirit is that part of us that looks outward toward God and opens us the truth and holiness that God offers. Ultimately the flesh is focused on death for it is concerned with what is passing away: the body and the world. The human spirit is focused on life for it focuses on God who is life and light.
  5. The Flesh is intrinsically hostile to God – The mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:7-8) The flesh is hostile to God because it is pridefully hostile to any one more important than itself. Further the flesh does not like being told what to do. Hence it despises authority or anyone who tries to tell it what to do. It cannot please God because it does not want to.
  6. The Flesh abuses freedomYou, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love. (Gal 5:13) The flesh turns God given freedom into licentiousness. Licentiousness is to demand freedom without limit. Since the flesh does not want to be told what to do it demands to be able to do what ever it wants. In effect the flesh says, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” This is licentiousness and it is an abuse of freedom. It results in indulgence and paradoxically leads to a slavery to the senses and the passions.
  7. The Flesh Demands to be fed – So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Gal 5:16-17) Within the human person is this deep conflict between the flesh and spirit. We must not be mistaken, the flesh is in us and it is strong. It has declared war on our spirit and on the Holy Spirit of God. When the spirit tries to obey the flesh resists and tries to sabotage the best aspirations of the spirit. We must be sober about this conflict and understand that this is why we do not do what we most know is right. The flesh has to die and the spirit come more alive. What you feed grows. If we feed the flesh it will grow. If we feed the spirit it will grow. What are you feeding? Are you sober about the power of the flesh and do you and I therefore feed our spirit well through God’s word and holy communion, through prayer and the healing power of confession. What are you feeding?
  8. The Flesh fuels sin – 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. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-210) This catalogue of sins that flow from the flesh is not exhaustive but is representative of the offensive and obnoxious behavior that flows from the flesh. Be sober about the flesh, it produces ugly children.
  9. This [condemnation by God] is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. (2 Peter 2:10) Clear enough, the flesh hates authority and, did I mention (?) The flesh does not want to be told what to do.

So here is a portrait of “the flesh.” It is ugly. You may say I have exaggerated, that the flesh is not really this bad. Well I am not, just buy a newspaper and see what the flesh is up to. You may, by God’s grace, have seen a diminishment in the power of the flesh in your life. That is ultimately what God can and will do for us. He will put the flesh to death in us and bring alive our spirit by the power of his Holy Spirit. But step one is to appreciate what the flesh is and understand its moves. Step two is to bring this understanding to God through repentance. Step three is, by God’s grace, to stop feeding the flesh and start feeding the spirit on prayer, scripture, Church teaching and Holy Communion. Step four is to repeat steps 1-3 for the rest of our lives. God by his grace will cause the flesh to die and the spirit to live by his grace at work in us through Jesus Christ.

There is no musical better at (humorously) depicting the flesh as Camelot. Here are a few video clips that depict well the flesh

In this first video Sir Lancelot ponders what a great and perfect guy he is. He goes so far as to say that “Had I been made the partner of Eve we’d be Eden still!”

In this clip, the Knights (in the flesh) ridicule goodness and sing “Fie On Goodness!” It well illustrates the tendency of the flesh not only to indulge sin, but also to resist and ridicule what is good.

15 Responses

  1. Irenaeus of New York says:

    “The mind commands the body, and it obeys immediately; the mind commands itself, and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved, and such readiness is there that the command is scarce to be distinguished from the obedience. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to will, and yet, though it be itself, it obeys not. Whence this monstrous thing?”
    -St Augustine, Confessions

  2. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    I liked the “All is Vanity”. A picture is worth a thousand words.

  3. [...] the letters of St. Paul. The phrase confuses some who think it synonymous with the physical body. What does Scripture mean by "the flesh"? __________________ Your socks stink. To view links or images in signatures your post count [...]

  4. RichardC says:

    Helpful post. Thanks, Monsignor.

  5. Romulus says:

    This is VERY helpful, and will be fruitful matter for meditation for a long time. thanks very much.

  6. GONZALO T. PALACIOS, Ph.D. says:

    Monsignor Pope clarifies not only the scriptural use of the term “flesh” but, more importantly, its intimate relation to the spirit. Still, even if we also accept G. K. Chesterton’s words, “… a man is not a man without his body, just as he is not a man without his soul,” there is room for misunderstanding and for underestimating the dangerous role of our flesh. Father Pope’s third step, for example (stop feeding the flesh and start feeding the spirit) could have dire consequences, albeit physical and not spiritual. Thank you, oremus ad invicem, Gonzalo T. Palacios

  7. SoapFalls says:

    So why doesn’t God just change our natures back to how they were before the fall? Why give us the risk of disbelief and damnation? That seems cruel.

    • Freedom, essentially. Adam and Eve chose another way, and we have all ratified it. If we are not free, but God just overrules whatever we do that he doesn’t want, then we are not free and we cannot authentically love. Perhaps God could reduce us the the level of a mere animal but I am not sure your solution is any less cruel than you see the freedom route to be.

      • SoapFalls says:

        Then why does he want us to authentically love him? It opens up the risk of fall and damnation to create something he knows to be weak. That desire for love seems selfish if it means opening up that risk. It would be better if the things had not been created at all.

        • I dunno, why is there Love? One of life’s mysteries. Even an atheist cannot avoid asking “Why is there love?” Why is there justice and why do we humans long to be free? Perhaps if you can answer these questions you can answer why God would risk love. As for me, I don’t know. I just know I am free and invited to love rather than compelled to serve.

          • SoapFalls says:

            I guess so. But it would be nice if God had told us why he wanted that love to begin with, why it is worth seeing some of us walk into evil.

  8. Aloysius Duque says:

    I love it when you define and clarify terms, words and concepts. Best catechesis strategy

  9. June says:

    Here’s something I noticed recently – in John 3:5 Jesus says we have to be born of water and the Spirit. Then in the next verse he says that flesh begets flesh and spirit begets spirit. The footnote said that a council (Trent?) had defined the water in verse 5 as being literal water. So then I thought – the “flesh” in verse 6 – which is sort equivalent to “matter”, right? – must refer to the water in the previous verse. So the water is for the rebirth of the flesh and the spirit is for the rebirth of the spirit. Which makes it seem like matter/flesh is a part of re-birth just as much as spirit is. Thoughts?

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