When it comes to the demands of the moral life, one of the tendencies of our fallen human nature is to emphasize our weakness and minimize the reality of our strength. It is surely a tendency related to the cardinal sin of sloth, wherein we experience sorrow, sadness, or aversion to the good things that God is offering us.
There’s a part of us that would rather stay locked in our sins and in our weakness, either because we fear the changes that holiness would bring or, even worse, we find holiness unappealing.
Sloth and the negativity associated with it are drives of the flesh. In biblical terms, “flesh” refers to the rebelliousness of our fallen nature. Paul uses the term (sarx, Flesh) not so much to describe our physical bodies, but rather that part of us that does not like to be told what to do, that is stiffnecked and stubborn, that resists what is holy and good. It is the part of us it does not want to have a thing to do with God. It is that part of us that, when we do try to pray, fidgets and would have us ponder anything but God and the truth He reveals.
Okay, so far the picture looks pretty grim. We are slothful, negative, and locked in the pursuits of the flesh.
But the problem is that too many people stop here and do not go on to reflect that within each of us there is also something called the spirit (pneuma). The human spirit is the part of us that is open to God, the part of us that is drawn to goodness, beauty, truth. It is the part of us that craves justice and looks beyond itself for meaning. It is the part of us that seeks to improve the world, that builds great cities, that creates beautiful works of art, that writes great literature and, most importantly, that seeks God.
It is the human spirit that most distinguishes us from any other animal on this earth, including primates. No other animals, even those closest to us genetically, build cities, form bicameral legislatures to debate law and justice, or create great works of art. No other animals write great literature, or store their collective wisdom in libraries and teach it in universities No other animals long to go to the moon and beyond. No other animals sing, build great cathedrals, ponder the meaning of life, or call on God. The human spirit is magnificent, powerful, and creative. God Himself has put this magnificent power within us.
Yet we so quickly discount this magnificent gift and instead run for the cover of “the flesh” to excuse or explain away our sinful tendencies.
But Jesus, in an important instruction at a critical moment, teaches us otherwise. What is most tragic is that most people completely miss the point, even concluding the opposite of what Jesus is trying to teach.
The teaching comes on Holy Thursday, in the garden of Gethsemane. Finding his disciples sleeping, Jesus rouses them and warns them saying,
Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh, weak. (Matt 26:41)
Sadly, most people completely miss the point. In effect, they say, “Yeah, that’s right! The flesh is weak; that explains everything. That’s why my life is messed up. See? Jesus understands and kindly accepts why my life is a mess.”
But this is the opposite of what Jesus is teaching. The point that Jesus is making is that the spirit is indeed willing! In other words, he is saying, “Lay hold of the fact that within you is your human spirit, which I gave you,and that is eager, willing, and desirous to do what is right. Come to experience the reality and force of the spirit that I placed within you, and that will be quickened with my Holy Spirit. Your spirit is willing!”
The Greek word translated as “willing” is πρόθυμον (prothemon), which is also translated (perhaps even better) as “eager, or ready.” Yes, the spirit is eager for that which is good, true, and beautiful. The flesh is of no avail; the flesh must grow weaker. Feed your spirit; listen to its desires for the good, true, and beautiful. Yield to it and feed it! Whatever you feed grows! Starve the flesh but feed the spirit. Do this by staying awake and praying.
So much of the misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching comes down to the emphasis. Most place the emphasis on the flesh being weak. But Jesus says that the spirit is indeed willing! And here is where the emphasis must fall.
The word “indeed” helps us to understand this. Jesus says, “the spirit is indeed willing…” It is a Greek word (μὲν, men), which is difficult to translate because its meaning varies depending on the context. But one thing is clear: it is an intensifier. It is meant to place emphasis on the verb “willing.” So, the flesh is weak—got that. But the spirit is indeed willing or, literally, the spirit is indeed eager!
This is where the emphasis must fall and this is what Jesus teaches. He is not making excuses for us; he is summoning us to something within us that is more powerful than the flesh: our spirit.
Many Christians do the same thing with St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in the seventh chapter. There, Paul gives a vivid description of the human person locked in the flesh. He writes,
7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin
And many reading this say, “Ah ha, that’s me! Well, that explains it all. And I guess if even Paul was a mess, its okay that I’m a mess too.” Of course it is not clear that Paul is writing about himself, he may be describing Adam before Christ.
But even so, what is more important is that we read on! The break between Romans chapters 7 and 8 did not come from St. Paul. Chapters and verses are wonderful ways of being able to find text quickly, but they tend to break up the text artificially. St. Paul does not conclude his thoughts at the end of chapter 7. He continues to write, and in chapter 8 goes on to describe the human person living in the spirit. And to every wretched problem of Romans 7, Romans 8 gives a direct response.
7:14 – I am carnal, sold into sin –
8:2 the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death
8:9 But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you
7:18 – Nothing good dwells in me –
8:9, 11 the Spirit of God dwells in you
7:23 – I am captive to the Law of sin –
8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.
Thus, St. Paul is giving the same teaching that Christ did: the spirit is willing, the spirit is eager, and the spirit, quickened by God’s Holy Spirit, can overcome every tendency of the flesh—every darned one of them!
Romans 7 and Matthew 26:41 are not meant to be used as a justification for Christian sloth. They do describe the problem of the flesh, but they also indicate that the spirit is more powerful, that the spirit is eager and willing, that we must lay hold of this great gift that God has given us, and is quickened with His Holy Spirit.
No more excuses now about how the flesh is weak—the spirit is eager and willing!
13 Replies to “No more excuses about how the flesh is weak. The spirit is eager and willing!”
This was so motivating! Thank you so much for clarifying exactly what “the flesh” is. Sometimes, dour Christians turn condemnation of the flesh into condemnation of the physical world and anything physical. This post clarifies that our bodies and the physical world are not inherently bad; it’s more the ego, pride, and laziness with which we sometimes improperly rule our bodies that needs disciplining.
Also, in our society the following gospel is preached: “be yourself.” People assume that if they are not being “authentic” then they are doing something wrong. The problem is in how they define “authentic”. Who are you, really? Secular society might say that you are the sum of your passions and anything and everything you want to do. One becomes imprisoned by the flesh by that definition. Paul is saying here that we are really made for holiness, and that those better intentions in ourselves are the ones we need to honor. Those represent who we “really” are. Thus, to sin is not to be ourselves or to be authentic in the ultimate sense of the word. To sin is to be less than what we are, less than what we are destined to be. Thus, we should challenge ourselves to greater levels of holiness and not give up on ourselves!
Thanks for a great post.
Please see the video “St. Dominic & the Most Holy Rosary: A Necessary Devotion. Thanks.
Awesome! My Pastor (awesome in his gifts, I do not compare) mentioned in his Homily this past Sunday that Romans was his favorite of St. Paul’s letters. His Homily blended with yours has made for a wonderful stream of prayer! Thanks and God bless!
Thank you so much for this. I needed to hear it.
Yes, no more excuses only remorse and cry of forgiveness and reconciliation and reconstruction and of course, love. Hurry, we must do them before the call to return back to the FATHER. All circumstances in my life point to this fact. Have not we notice how the world is in turmoil and chaos? Men continuously work towards ‘de-genesis-ing’ the world from order to darkness There is a tremendous explosion of information left and right you do not know which is which to guide ones life except when you are in the shadow of the Church. ‘Under the Shadow of YOUR wings I will find a hiding place, YOU are my Refuge, my Fortress in Whom I can trust.’
BEAUTIFUL!! Thank you so much for publishing this.
It is also a good time to meditate on the need for the virtue of magnanimity. “The virtue of being great of mind and heart.” Few have addressed this as well as C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man and the Weight of Glory.
You have no idea how much I needed this kick in the pants. Thank you.
Dear Msgr. Pope,
Thank you. First time I’ve ever heard those scriptures clarified. Especially helpful is when you wrote:
“Thus, St. Paul is giving the same teaching that Christ did: the spirit is willing, the spirit is eager, and the spirit, quickened by God’s Holy Spirit, can overcome every tendency of the flesh—every darned one of them!”
Thank you too Rev. Msgr, for the words that help to build up , to persevere and not make excuses !
The Precious Blood devotion recommended for this month could be a good help from The Spirit , in this regard .
http://www.usccb.org/bible/mark/7 – there is a site that names these evils from inside being the real ‘demons’ ( not naming the site since it has contents that are against Church teaching .) – yet, there is also that passage where The Lord rebukes Peter for speaking like a ( fallen ) human – reminding us , how much we need The Spirit and how vigilant we need to be, to what goes on inside !
Thank God for His power , given to us by the Precious Blood that stands for His Spirit and life –
such as , the shedding of the blood – at the Circumcision, to free us, as well as others that we can invoke it upon , even from familal evil spiriits of all unholy attachements, that have come in, may be even down through generations …( The Lord of the Universe, as a helpless , little baby , in tears and blood , to undo the pacts! )
the Agony in The Garden, for all occasions of misunderstandings and abandonement .. for deliverance for all who try to be into spiritual witchcraft of manipluation etc –
the Scourging – to break unholy attachements and to heal the pain of all separations ..
the Crowning with thorns – to deal with prideful tenedencies in self as wellas the other, by invokingof same on other too ..
the Shoulder Wound , carrying The Cross, – the burden of our debts and demons , from Adam on down ..
and The Cross, with the Mother there , who is allowed to feel ‘helpless’ as though her prayers are not being ‘heard ‘ – to strenghten us to persevere , in the loving trust like She did, in the midst of of all and The Son , in silence , taking on the pain of The Mother too, to wash off the deep , hidden pain of all the breaks in every relationship , from Adam on down – with God , in family relationships ..all of which manifest in so many ugly, ‘demonic ‘ ways , that defile persons from within !
And all of that love , being offered up , in the most , acceptable , perfect manner , at every Holy Mass , by The High Priest Himself, with the Mother too, interceding for us !
May The Spirit empower many , to be nourished and made free , for His glory, by often contemplating His Wounds and mercy !
Thank you Monsignor! Love this post!!
You answered my question of 2 days ago…its not about humility or obedience!
No more excuses about my flesh being weak. Date forward, the spirit willling to action!
In the quote of Romans 7:14 Saint Paul mentions that we are sold under sin. After selling ourselves for quick, briefly lasting, gratification we are bought back by the Blood of the Lamb and brought back by the Spirit but, are we willing to accept the Spirit or, are we trying to have some of each as the Spirit withdraws.
Sometimes, in life, there is only an option of “either or” when the two choices are incompatible with each other.
The marriage bed does give one form of gratification but, is connected to the family unless one, the other, or both has retained the organs which make for gender but severed the connection to conception.
I admit that my early adult years were hedonistic, self centred and focused frustrating due to an obsession with instant gratification and that I have no children; that I know of. So, having been relieved of the frantic aspect where do I go now that I’m in my sixties. To The Lord of course for, He alone, makes all things possible. I regularly seek to pray for His will – Step Eleven “… knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”
Thank you , Msgr., I never knew what you taught us in this beautiful nugget! I thank God for you and your Ministry! You are a good and faithful son!
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