What does Scripture mean by the term “The Flesh”?

021714There are many references to “the flesh” in the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The phrase confuses some who think it synonymous with the physical body or sometimes with sexual sin.

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 (e.g., John 6:53; Phil 3:2; 1 John 4:2). Rather, the phrase almost always refers to something quite distinct from 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 of 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 anything to do with God. It bristles at limits and rules. It recoils at anything that might cause us 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.

Some modern Scripture translations (e.g., the NIV) often call the flesh our “sin nature,” which is not a bad way of 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 within 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 to be less selfish and watch how 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 the part of us that is open to God, the part that desires him and is drawn to him. It is the part of us that is attracted by goodness, beauty, and truth; the part that yearns for completion in God and longs 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 a good idea to look at a few texts that reference “the flesh” and learn more of the flesh and its ways. This will help us to be on our guard, to rebuke it by God’s grace, and to 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 heard Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, most of His listeners ridicule His teaching and no longer take Him seriously. 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; it 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 requires is something that will “force” it to accept something. Inexorable proof 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 the flesh. The flesh simply refuses to believe; it 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 God’s law says I am supposed to love, let me limit it to just my family and countrymen; I’m “allowed” to hate my enemy. But Jesus says, “No.” He says, “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 fleshly 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 on its own terms.

3. The Flesh hates to be told what to doFor 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 it, because pride precludes instruction in holiness and possible repentance that leads to life.

So the flesh does not like to be told what to do. Hence it rejects the testimony of the Church, the Scriptures, and the conscience.

Notice, according to the text, that 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 refuses God’s Law and sets up its own rules. The flesh will not be told what to do.

4. The Flesh is focused only on itself and its own desires Those 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 of everything. 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 the 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 hates 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 freedom You, 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 the demanding freedom without limits. Since the flesh does not want to be told what to do, it demands to be able to do whatever it pleases.

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 the 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 often do not do what we 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? Do you feed your spirit well through God’s word, Holy Communion, 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 catalog of sins in Galatians 5 is not exhaustive, but it is representative of the offensive and obnoxious behavior that flows from the flesh. Be sober about the flesh; it produces ugly children.

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.

We may, by God’s grace, see a diminishment in the power of the flesh during our 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.

A four step plan:

  1. Step one is to appreciate what the flesh is and understand its moves.
  2. Step two is to bring this understanding to God through repentance.
  3. 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.
  4. Step four is to repeat steps 1–3 for the rest of our lives!

God 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 the flesh quite well.

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

In this clip, the Knights (in the flesh) ridicule goodness and sing “Fie On Goodness!”

20 Replies to “What does Scripture mean by the term “The Flesh”?”

  1. I think you miss the point in emphasizing only the negative aspect; that is to say, you miss how flesh is able to be renewed and restored: “and the Word became flesh (σὰρξ).

    1. Perhaps, but doesn’t St. Paul also fall under your critique? And to some extent Jesus himself, for example the quote from John 6 wherein Jesus, while offering us his Flesh and blood, nevertheless declares that “the Flesh” cannot grasp what he is teaching. Hence, I think, as I make clear in the article, distinctions are in order, and I am focusing on the term “the flesh” in terms of the sinful drive while also stipulating that “flesh” is sometimes used in other contexts.

      We are therefore left with your critique about negativity and emphasis, and in this regard I might ask you to consider that this is one article I have written of over 2,500.

    2. Yes the ‘Word’ became flesh (i.e. took on human form) but the ‘Word’ never had “The flesh” in direct conflict with the spirit.

      Your statement proves what Father was presenting (i.e., “The flesh” (not flesh) is in direct conflict with the spirit.). I think you missed the point that “The Flesh” can take on the sin of Pride and show arrogance which is in conflict with the spirit.

      Also, you state how flesh is able to renew and restore…true if it has never been severly damaged. Reread first and second sentence again.

      Flesh doesn’t renew or restore your spirit…God’s grace does!

      Something WE ALL need to follow:

      Step one – 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.

      1. I’m with Francis.

        Step one and two good Dan – step three (we can just assume four for any diachronic universe like ours) is perfect as well except it is extremely limited.

        All of those means are certainly, if we like, superhighways to grace made available by God to a humanity in need of her Field Hospital. But the creativity and imagination of God (I don’t mean to get boiled in predicate logic problems – I mean something perfectly Orthodox) is not limited to these ways as we can see if we merely open our eyes to the world going on around us.

        Most people living in a world often plunged in total darkness can’t handle a full Radiant Sun – I doubt you or I are even close to fully there yet – do you disagree? It’s enough to make anyone’s eyes burn – I don’t care how virtuous – or is your spiritual pride that complete? Do not grieve the many and myriad works of the Spirit – Love God and prove it by willing the good of others around you. Test things to see that they bear fruit – challenge yourself and your ideas. Receive Tradition with reverence – and bring it into the world in which you are living – today!

        Get creative people – this is colossal waste of talents – all of us.

      2. Dan,

        Well said.

        Thanks for saving me the time to engaging in fraternal correction on behalf of our friend Francis..

  2. Thank you, Monsignor. Providentially, I have an appointment with my spiritual advisor the Saturday before Lent. A plan of mortification for me needs to be on our discussion agenda.

  3. Excellent writing, Msgr.
    The Holy Eucharist is a tough one for most people. But soon they will understand.

  4. Thank you once more, Father for the clarity. And I want to say how grateful I am that all of us who read your words have the opportunity to pray for one another as we read each other’s comments. As we do so, we are “in communion” not only with each other but with ALL the Saints. I just feel it and know it! Thank you Father and thank you all.

  5. Dear Msgr. Charles Pope, thank you for taking the time to explain this, in such easy to understand, eloquent words. I agree with all of what you said. And I already knew most of this to some extent, but not succinctly and I did not understand everything correctly – on my own. I can see now that some things I misinterpreted. Having this article written down brings this whole topic together and makes a thousand lights come on in my head.

    I think a person will have less of an understanding if they don’t already know the subject (you know what I mean?). Someone who has a self-taught understanding on the subject of “the flesh” (without guidance like yours, or from the Church, or from the Holy Spirit) will be so far out of kilter, that they will be confused and even disagree with you! Haha, lol. Because they far exactly in the pit of pride brought on by flesh (or maybe I could say “rugged individualism” as in rejecting help from others, or the authority of the higher power).

    This article makes it easier to understand why certain people that we know (who have no Christian or moral schooling) behave the way that they do. That also applies to sects of peoples, for example, the secular liberal Democrats. Now it is easy to understand why they are so virulent and why they believe the things that they do. And now I can understand and predict very easily, why they see things like abortion, open sexual relations, and promoting those things are “good” to them (just to give a couple examples out of thousands).

    Thank you for publishing this. I have a lot of work to do on myself.

    God bless you Father :))

  6. “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.”
    I may be misunderstanding you here, but below is a sort of general feeling I take from it.
    To declare war on God would seem to imply that it, the flesh, is evil. Is ‘the flesh’ a part of us ?
    I think many non-Christian religions have had an idea of humans being part good and part evil, although I never associated that with Catholic teaching. If the human spirit is good, and ‘the flesh’ is bad it seems a very easy step to the dualism of Gnosticism. I realize you have explained ‘the flesh’ in more ‘psychological’ terms, but ‘flesh’ and/or ‘the flesh’ do have a very material connotation especially when put in opposition to what is spiritual. Along these same lines, it sounds as though there is an evil within us, a part of us, that needs to be extinguished.
    I think Aquinas taught that we seek what is good, beautiful and true. When we sin, we are still seeking a good, but we have put a lesser good above a greater good. Proper relations are out of whack. Because God is Trinity, relational, and because we are called to share in the life of the Trinity, the idea that we need to get into proper relations with God, others and ourselves, is attractive. Along these lines, it would seem that it is not so much something in us that needs to be extinguished, but ordered. We have a lot of natural desires that are good in and of themselves, but as today’s reading from James pointed out can lead to sin. These desires need to be sculpted, cut back where they lead to sin (not extinguished), so that our actions are in conformity with God. However the desires are not bad in and of themselves. They are part of how God created us and to extinguish them would be to deny how we are created. Instead, they need to be mastered or ordered correctly.
    There is still conflict within us, but not because a part of us is bad. It is more like a part of us is missing, not yet assembled. We have a need to ‘get it together’, to be a single unity and not divided, or another way of saying that is to become whole. The Jewish word shalom, peace, means a sort of tranquility like the English word peace, but also implies a soundness, completeness (wholeness). After His resurrection, Jesus often used the greeting ‘peace’.
    What then is ‘the flesh’ ? Maybe it is this disorder, chaos, dividedness, loose ends. In Genesis, God, through Word and Spirit, creates and brings order to the universe. Living things are extremely ordered, relational. Disorder usually spells trouble.

    1. Perhaps you are confusing the term “flesh” with the body? I have clearly distinguished in my article the use of the term “flesh” in Pauline literature as a euphemism for “our sin nature” and hence St. Paul writes:

      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. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk 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 flesh. They are directly opposed to each other (Gal 5:13-16)

      So I don’t really understand your objection in saying that I imply that it, the flesh, is evil. Is ‘the flesh’ a part of us ? I don’t understand your objection because I am not talking about our body, (nor is Paul) as the article clearly states. I am talking about our sin nature as St. Paul describes it in passages like the one quoted. here. Hence your concerns about gnostic dualism does not apply since the “the flesh” in the passages I quote does not refer to the body.

      1. http://blog.adw.org/2014/02/21549/?replytocom=266468#respond
        Then the question would be, is our ‘sin nature’ a part of us ? Is ‘sin nature’ a part of human nature ? And how so would it be a part of us, or ‘ours’. If it is ‘our’, then it would seem to be a part of us. In the passage from Galatians, Paul does not say that ‘the flesh’ is what is contrary to the Spirit, but ‘the flesh’ desires what is contrary to the Spirit, so ‘the flesh’ is here distinguished from what is contrary to the Spirit. What is contrary to the Spirit, is not ‘the flesh’, but what is contrary to the Spirit is what ‘the flesh’ desires. The flesh is spoken of in terms of a noun, i.e. a thing, that has desires, and so I would disagree with Aloysius as well, although I think his comment has a lot of merit.
        My own opinion is that Paul is not a theologian developing an anthropology, but he is writing as a pastor. I think the term ‘the flesh’ refers to what we would call bodily desires such as food, sex, anger, desire to dominate, etc. We tend to feel these in our bodies, they are a sort of impulses, and they seem to emanate and originate from our bodies, and so the term ‘flesh’ is used to name them. They are the desires of ‘the flesh’. A sort of poetical way of speaking of our body as if it had desires apart from us; as if the body was a separate conscious being apart from ourselves. This way of writing serves to describe our experience. Paul also is here in this passage speaking of freedom. Freedom can be understood, as it commonly is in our own day, as doing what one wills. This could be understood as satisfying desires or doing whatever you feel, such as food, sex, anger, etc., and perhaps it was understood this way by some in Paul’s community. However, this is not Paul’s idea of freedom. Paul seems to have a more holistic idea of freedom where that includes not only our will but also our idea of the rightness and wrongness of our actions. This would come from the Spirit. He is trying to combat the idea of freedom meaning doing whatever you desire and is highlighting a need to control impulses and desires by using this ‘poetical’ language of ‘the flesh’ to refer to the experience of of what can seem like the body urging us to act in a manner incompatible with the Spirit. However, Paul is not writing as a theologian who is carefully developing a theology of emotion or a scientific anthropology. These bodily impulses and urges are not contrary to the Spirit 100% of the time, neither are they bad in and of themselves. I think this is left unstated but is assumed because it is not Paul’s concern, he is trying to communicate the idea of Christian freedom and what this freedom is not, and writes more like a poet than a scientist. I think Paul is communicating more on this level of experience, as opposed to a more technical level of developing an anthropology where there exists an evil part of us, be it either ‘the flesh’ or ‘our sin nature’. I think it is more a lacking or incompleteness that is at the root of this experience as opposed to the existence of a positive thing or part of our make-up that is contrary to God. Unfortunately, the down side of ‘the flesh’ and/or ‘sin nature’ terminology is that it can easily be taken to indicate a positive part of our being, something that we were created with, that is contrary to God.

        1. Sounds like you’d enjoy a long talk with St. Paul.

          As for me, I think I documented pretty well from a scriptural point of view a richer notion of the drive than lust and gluttony. IOW I think you have a rather reductionist notion of the concept that overlooks what scripture says in toto and are overly emphasizing the word “flesh” as understood too literally. Be that as it may, these are certainly scriptural themes wherein the Church permits varying emphases.

          [Just an editorial note to you as well as others. When a comment starts to get long, it is good to break it into paragraphs. Seeing a huge block of text with no breaks discourages readers (like me) and makes the reading thereof less likely and less accurate. The honest truth is that most internet readers read quickly and accuracy becomes a problem when there are not helpful breaks in the text that assist the reader. ]

          1. Yes, I agree, Monsignor, about using paragraphs to help visually, and in understanding a person’s thoughts.

  7. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh, That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)

    “For we have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin. ” (Hebrews 4:15)

    “For you shall call his name ‘Y’shua’ (the salvation of God), for he shall save his people from their sins.”

    My Savior is saving me from the sinful inclinations of my flesh nature because he was tempted in every
    way as myself, yet without ever sinning.

  8. Thank you for taking time to write the above insight of “The Flesh”. This past Advent I was led to the riches of the “Roman Breviary” now available in Latin with an English translation using the Vulgate translation, published by Barones Press.

    The understanding of “the flesh” as you shared fits in and brings to “life” what the Septugisima, Sexugisima, and Quintagisima, season that concludes with Tuesday…..Carneval and man at the height of our peversion which used to be symbolically buried the then the “Graced” Ash Wensday, Crossed on you forhead (also where the mark of the beast was to be placed in revelation” Oh man you are dust and to dust you shall return. And the 40 day of Lent that throught the Graces of our batism, (also well given in the leasons of the Roman Breviary in its readings of Noah and the 40 day flood….our bapstim) to be realized in the EASTER ALLELUAS of Salvation.

  9. the flesh is only in directed conflict with the spirit by the soul of desire. if the desire of the soul is of sin then the flesh and mind and self the humanness becomes in conflict with the spirit.

  10. In my mind, “the flesh” always has meant my “animal nature,” the part of me that is mammal and shares instincts and drives like the animals; hunger, sleep, sex, aggression. Also, manifested from this nature; envy, ambition, greed, anger, and other “deadly” sins. So, to me, the instruction against the flesh is to not give into my natural inclinations to act like an animal, but to use my rational mind and informed conscience (informed by instruction into right living by human beings given by God through the Scriptures and the Church) to fight against these things that originate from my instincts and seem good at first, but ultimately will lead to destruction of not only my material life, but my soul.

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