What is”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. 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 (eg. John 6:53; Phil 3:2; 1 John 4:2) , but almost always  the phrase 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 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 a thing to do with God. It bristles at limits and rules. It recoils at anything that might cause me 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. The Protestants often call the flesh our “sin nature” which is not a bad term in summarizing what the flesh is. In Catholic tradition the flesh is where concupiscence sets up shop. Concupiscence refers to the string 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 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 that part of us which is open to God, which desires him and is drawn to him. It is that part of us which is attracted by goodness, beauty and truth, which yearns for completion in God and 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 good that we look at just a few texts which reference “the flesh” and thus here in Lent 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 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 taught on the Eucharist,  most of his listeners ridicule his teaching 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; 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. Inexorable proof which faith demands 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 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 flesh 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 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 possible repentance that lead 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 is refuses God’s Law and sets up its own rules. The flesh will not be told what to do.
  4. Flesh is as flesh doesThose 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 that 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 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.
  6. The Flesh abuses freedomYou, 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 to demand freedom without limit. Since the flesh does not want to be told what to do it demands to be able to do what ever 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.
  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 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 do not do what we most 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 and do you and I therefore feed our spirit well through God’s word and holy communion, through 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. This [condemnation by God]  is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. (2 Peter 2:10) Clear enough, the flesh hates authority and, did I mention (?) 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 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. 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 step one 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 on prayer, scripture, Church teaching and Holy Communion. Step four is to repeat steps 1-3 for the rest of our lives. God by his grace 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 well the flesh

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


In this video one of the Knights depicts the flesh by ridiculing the “Seven Deadly Virtues.”  The song concludes by Roddy McDowell singing: “With all those seven Virtues, Free and happy little me has not been cursed!”

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

19 Replies to “What is”the Flesh”??”

  1. Good work, Monsignor. You make the dividing line between sheep and goats wider and more defined. An eye opener, for guys like me who let it get blurry if the focus is not maintained. Thank you.

  2. God Bless you Father for another spiritually fulfilling post! I really appreciate when you talked about trying to pray. As I pray the rosary and meditate, the thoughts that interfere with me make we want to start over or feel the need to go to confession. It’s frustrating because they just “pop in there”. I am able to vanquish them as soon as they occur, which I know now is the spirit fighting back, but still I feel guilty especially since I did not mean to have them. Are having these thoughts sinful or is it just my flesh lashing out and I am not responsible? Any clarification would help. I really want to, especially during Lent to atleast understand and combat them with all my might. They are a big part of the reason I go to confession often. They are the result of sinful behaviors in the past such as viewing pornography, defying authority (even though I thought it was for the good of all not just myself) as well as fits of rage over those who have treated me badly. I can honestly say since I returned to church, receive Holy Communion, go to confession and pray the rosary daily, I am a much different person then I was a few years ago. I wasn’t a bad person but I definitley was riding the line of being a slave to the flesh or a servant of the spirit. I wanted the Lord in my life, but I wanted the things of this world as well. I always felt I was being pulled between a good and virtuous life or a self- centered sinful one. Since I chose the Lord I have noticed my desire for the flesh has decreased, but the attacks of the flesh are more intense when they do occur. The more intense they get, the harder I pray. I also noticed they are sins that I never considered committing before. As mad as I would get I never took the Lord’s name in vain, but lately I find myself fighting off doing so. So, thank you for this enlightening post, I feel better knowing the source of the problem is the natural rebellion of the flesh and I am not losing my mind. God Bless you MSGR. and, please, any insight as to my responsibilty when the flesh attacks would help me greatly.

    1. Yes, all of us will battle the flesh until we die. But hopefully the struggle gets better and the spirit grows and the flesh dies. As for distractions, I think we cannot control them well directly. Rather our control over them is more remote. As we use custody of the eyes and ears, as we we refrain more from overstimulating things like TV and video games, as we grow acustmoned to prayer and its rythmn, little by little distracting thoughts are less of a bother. Again, its the spirit growing and the flesh diminishing. Sometimes too it is good to go with distractions and let them be the way the conversation between you and the Lord takes shape. Sometimes when we talk with a friend the conversaton may go anywhere, why not with the Lord? Hence the paradoxical way to deal with distractions to sometimes to go with them.

  3. Excellent post. I think I was confusing “flesh” with something else of the Bible (not sure what, actually….), so this cleared things up for me.

    It also made me realize how all of us probably battle with the flesh daily. I know I do. Definitely an eye-opening post, and I will be doing some heavy duty thinking and praying!

  4. Thank you for an understandable explanation of “the spirit” versus “the flesh” as used in Paul’s epistles. A side effect is that I may understand my own behaviour better.
    Again, thanks.

  5. Dear Msgr. Charles’
    I can’t express how needed and timely this lesson on the flesh is to me. Your words have opened my eyes to things I’ve been struggling to understand for years. Again, thank you. As I am a catichist and have three different groups that I am always teaching on many and varied subjects, may I copy this article to pass along to them? No monies are ever exchanged, my pay is strictly recieved from above.
    May God continue to Bless you and all your brother priests, Bishops and our Holy Father.

  6. Are having these thoughts sinful or is it just my flesh lashing out and I am not responsible?

    I would venture to say that for the typical person, the answers would be —
    Are having these thoughts sinful? yes and no
    Is it just my flesh lashing out? yes and no
    I am not responsible? yes and no

    There are a lot of factors at play here, one of which being that we live in the world, a world which seems to be increasingly hedonistic, but if you go and read St. Augustine’s Confessions, for example, you see that he struggled with the exact same problems.

    One thing to remember is that the object of the thought itself might not be a sin in itself, but instead a good that has been distorted and corrupted. For example, sexual desire. Being created by God, sexual desire in itself is necessarily a good, but it is a good only insofar as it is ordered toward and consistent with the truth for which God intended it, i.e. as an occasion of love within marriage. To be sure, God purposely put a strong sexual desire in us precisely to drive us toward marriage, and so that we might “be fruitful and multiply.” It is when such desire is contrary to, or a privation of, that good and truth that it becomes an evil. The body itself (male and female), being created by God, is necessarily a good, to be sure, it is “very good.” It is when one allows the goodness of the body to be degraded to the level of worldly “flesh,” seeking inordinate worldly pleasure, being a distortion, perversion, and privation of the good that is the body, that it is an evil.

    To the extent that inordinate worldly desires, such as lust, or other wrongful thoughts originate entirely with you, they are sinful thoughts for which you are responsible. And to the extent that they do not originate with you, but you willingly dwell on them and entertain them, the more sinful they become.

    However, many times such thoughts do not originate entirely with us — we have been infected, our good body has become mere “flesh” by being infected with worldly hedonism and utilitarianism, and it is the world and this diseased flesh that whispers such thoughts and temptations into our ears as if they were demons. Then, of course, we cannot discount the possibility of real demonic forces putting thoughts into our head.

    What to do then? Sometimes we are successful in immediately putting such thoughts out of our heads. Of course, it helps to avoid “occasions of sin,” for example, if we don’t want to think about sex every five minutes, it helps not to be looking at Internet porn every day. However, even if we do that, still we are living in a sex-saturated and pleasure-oriented society where we are constantly bombarded with messages directed toward this appetite or that one, from sex to food to booze and beyond, so something more is needed.

    It also helps to seek God’s grace, including the graces received in Confession, because with such grace, you can find that such thoughts do not pop into your head against your will as often. With grace, you can control your passions rather than your passions controlling you. And you find that, even if you cannot put them entirely out of your head, you can pay no attention to them or otherwise defeat them. It is interesting that Jesus did not simply make Satan vanish when tempted out in the desert. Rather, Satan repeatedly spoke to Him — put thoughts in His head — but Jesus remained in control, He controlled the temptations, rather than the temptations controlling Him.

    With grace, the vice of lustful thoughts really can become the virtue of chastity. Bad habits can be converted to good habits. But it is important to remember that we are on a journey, we are still sojourning in this land. Although we are not of this world, we are still in the world, and it often seeks to intrude upon us and keep us from our destination. Thus our will to fully accept grace is sometimes imperfect. So the conversion from lust to chastity might be a gradual one. Or, it could be something you struggle with month after month without much headway and then, one day you allow that grace, which had previously been bouncing off of you, to actually sink in and, in an instant, the struggle is over, the demon is defeated.

    Yes, such grace does truly exist. I know it to be true because it happened to me. That doesn’t mean that girls in low-cut tops will no longer walk by me — they do — but it is a lot easier now to pay no attention to them.

  7. I wonder if the reason why the human mind is so ready to accept lies is as stated here “Jesus indicates that their hostility to the teaching on the Eucharist is of the flesh”.

    The big lies doing the rounds — about 9/11 being a government conspiracy, the Da Vinci Code, Neil Armstrong and the bouncing in the studio can all be attibuted to people’s refusal to seek the truth. The flesh is the master in such cases.

  8. Thank you for the post; it was most timely. It reminded me of a few things I had forgotten.

  9. I have been married to the man from Camelot for 46 years. For the last 15years I have been living on my own as he was perfect and I was not, so he left one day and never returned. His Camelot is just down the street from me.

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