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 or merely 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 most often 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, it almost always 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 the part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly, obstinate part of our inner self that is operative all the time. It is the part of us that doesn’t want to be told what to do. It is stubborn, refuses correction, and doesn’t 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 to be 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 all right unless the term “nature” is understood in the stricter philosophical sense. (For sin is not something that we should posit as coming from our nature, but rather as emerging more from our fallen condition, from the fact that our nature has been wounded.) 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 to be less selfish; then 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 the part of us that is open to God, that desires 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, the part that 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, upright, good, and helpful.
Perhaps it is good that we look at just a few texts that reference “the flesh” and thus 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 following 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 it 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; 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 demands is something that will “force” it to accept something. Absolute 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 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 its own power to accomplish, 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 the power of their own flesh. 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 the possible repentance that leads 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 refuses God’s Law and sets up its own rules. The flesh will not be told what to do.
4. Flesh is as flesh does – 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. 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 to 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 hostile to anyone 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 demands freedom without limit. Since the flesh does not want to be told what to do it demands to be able to do whatever 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 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 become 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 and I feed our 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 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. The Flesh hates authority – This [condemnation by God] is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority (2 Peter 2:10).
It’s clear enough: the flesh hates authority. And did I mention that 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 that I have exaggerated, that the flesh is not really this bad. I am not. Just buy a newspaper and read 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 the first step 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 with prayer, Scripture, Church teaching, Holy Communion, and Confession. Step four is to repeat steps one through three 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 than Camelot. Here are a couple of video clips that depict well the flesh.
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 second 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.