There are many references to “the flesh” in the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The phrase is confusing to those who think it synonymous with the physical body. While Scripture many times uses the word “flesh” to refer to the physical body, when it is preceded by the definite article, it usually means something more. Only 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).
What, then, is meant by the term “the flesh”? Most plainly, it refers to the part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly, and obstinate part of our inner self that is always operative. It is the 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 one to be diminished or something less than the center of the universe. The flesh hates to be under authority or to yield to anything other than its own wishes and desires. It often wants something simply because it is forbidden. The Protestants often call the flesh our “sin nature,” which is not a bad definition. 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 see how quickly your mind wants to think of anything but God. Just try to fast or 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, 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; the part that longs to see His face. Without the spirit we would be totally turned in on ourselves and consumed by the flesh. Thank goodness our spirit, assisted by the Holy Spirit, draws us to desire what is best, upright, and helpful.
Let’s examine a few texts that reference “the flesh” and in so doing, learn more of its ways. This will help us to be on our guard, and by God’s grace to rebuke it and learn not to feed it.
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 ridiculed it and will no longer take Him seriously. Jesus indicates that their hostility to the teaching 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 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 because 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.
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. Because the flesh hates being told what to do, it takes God’s law and makes it “manageable” based on its own terms. For example, if I’m supposed to love, let me limit it to my family or countrymen; I’m “allowed” to hate my enemy. Jesus says that we must love our enemy. The flesh recoils at this because 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 the power of their own flesh. The law and flesh cannot save, however; only Jesus Christ can save. The flesh refuses this and wants to control the outcome based on its own power and terms.
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 a prideful attitude. The prideful attitude of the flesh is even more dangerous than the sins that flow from the flesh because pride precludes instruction in holiness and possible repentance that lead to life. The flesh does not like to be told what to do, so it rejects the testimony of the Church, the scriptures, and the conscience. Notice that according to this passage 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 from indignation at “being told what to do.” The flesh refuses God’s law and sets up its own rules. Yes, the flesh will not be told what to do.
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, on 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 incurvatus in se (turned in upon himself). The spirit is that 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.
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.
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, demanding freedom without limits. Because the flesh does not like 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 a slavery to the senses and the passions.
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 its best aspirations. 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 must 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?
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 behaviors that arise from it. Be sober about the flesh; it produces ugly children.
So here is a portrait of “the flesh.” It is ugly. You may say I’m exaggerating, that the flesh is not really that bad—I’m not. Just look at the news and you can 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.
The first step is to appreciate what the flesh is and understand its moves. The second 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. The last step is to repeat the first three steps 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.