Fighting the Flesh
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (vv. 5–6).- Romans 8:1-11
Augustine of Hippo, in his famous Confessions, relates a story from his youth that has become well known. One day, Augustine hopped into a neighbor’s orchard and stole some pears. He did not do this because he was hungry, but simply because he wanted to experience the thrill of stealing. Augustine used this to point out the depth of our depravity. One might understand—if not condone—a thief who steals a loaf of bread because he is hungry and has no money to buy food. But theft for the sake of theft, as in Augustine’s episode with the pears, escapes rationalization altogether. Such is the darkness of sin that we harm others even when there is no real benefit for ourselves.
This irrational drive to do evil for evil’s sake, the lust of the flesh, is the second major enemy we face as Christians. Before our conversion, sin is second nature to us because we all suffer from a fallen nature that is inclined to evil. But the Holy Spirit gives us a new heart in regeneration that hungers for the things of God (John 3). Since the Spirit at that point does not eradicate all remnants of our fallen nature, we enter a lifelong struggle with our flesh.
In biblical categories, the opposition of flesh and spirit does not mean the opposition of the physical to the spiritual. As noted above, it is a fallen nature that we do battle with, and this fallen nature is the manifestation of a spiritual condition of being opposed to God. The Spirit does not take this nature away from us at once upon our conversion. Paul discusses the war between our flesh and the Spirit in Romans 8:1–8, and there it is clear that the Apostle does not believe the physical world is physically bad. Christians can freely enjoy the physical pleasures of this world; it is when they start to love these pleasures above all else that there is a problem.
Throughout Christian history, many groups have taken passages such as Romans 8:1–8 and used them as a mandate for severe self-denial in the form of self-flagellation and other extreme ascetic practices. This reflects an underlying theology that says the physical world is inherently evil even though God pronounces it very good (Gen. 1). Fighting against the flesh is not the easy step of avoiding movies, dancing, and other physical pleasure, but warring against those points at which our inward being is still corrupted by sin. It means standing against envy, evil thoughts, and a number of other issues. It is simple to abstain from things God has not forbidden but much more difficult to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.
Only as we understand the enemy of the flesh can we begin to please God. The Lord is not content for mere external holiness. He wants our hearts, and he measures holiness based on what lies within (1 Sam. 16:7). Fighting the flesh means, primarily, fighting against those attitudes of the heart that are opposed to the Lord. As we focus on the inward man, our external obedience will improve, but external obedience is of little value if we do not love God with our whole hearts.
Passages for Further Study