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!