Until we Christians recognize our flesh for what it truly is, we can’t begin to see our need for a moment-by-moment dependence on God.
We think we’re spiritual –doing the good that He wants. And we don’t embrace the fact that everyone’s flesh is involved in His orchestrated plan –regardless of their willingness to participate.
Everyone is born with a body, a soul and a spirit. Furthermore, within the soul are the mind for thinking, the will for deciding and the emotions for evaluating experiences.
God designed us so that we can operate autonomously (self-sufficiently) without His constant intervention. This autonomous being is our “flesh.”
It heeds a process for determining our responses to what we experience. First, when something happens, our emotions surface; they’re based on past experiences and imagined future outcomes. Those emotions bias our thoughts –which affect our decisions –which direct our actions. And those actions contribute to future experiences. That’s the natural cycle of the flesh.
Through that natural cycle, we decide which direction to turn, what to eat, when to sleep, which career to commit to, what hobby to take up, where to live, who to associate with. By experiencing the results of those decisions we form a set of rules to navigate through life –making minor adjustments as we go.
We naturally categorize those experiences. The ones that are pleasing, we call good –the ones we don’t like, we call bad. Genesis describes this categorizing as having “the knowledge of good and evil.” It’s knowing –being thoroughly familiar with and judging the differences between– what’s good and what’s evil.
By the way, the definition of the word “good” is “valuable” –and “evil” is “worthless.” The problem with us judging is that we can’t look into the future. We’re not truly qualified to know what’s going to end up being valuable and worthless. Only God knows how all things are going to work together.
But our flesh –that autonomous, self-sufficient being– attempts to fulfill God’s role. It’s been fooled into thinking that its rules, its decision-making process, its ability to judge, is perfect. So when it’s confronted with another set of rules to live by that it didn’t derive –the Ten Commandments or principles for Godly living or doing the right thing– it rebels (sins).
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; (1 Corinthians 15:56)
But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me. (Romans 7:8-10)
However, we don’t have to operate only through our flesh. There is another option –it’s through our spirit. That’s how God appeals to us when He offers salvation. And that’s how we speak to, and hear from Him throughout this earthly life.
The spirit cycle begins with a failure of the flesh. When our minds realize that without God we can not make things resolve the way we want. Emotional peace is lacking.
When the mind listens to the spirit –which conveys the Holy Spirit’s desires– the will directs the body and the fruit of the Spirit is experienced.
The natural cycle is upended. The old way began with the emotions driving the mind to affect the will and the result was emotional chaos. The new way is the spirit pleading with the mind to direct the will and the result is spiritual fruit.
The flesh is neither good nor bad. It’s what God designed. But if that’s our soul’s only influence, then we’re doomed –doomed to destruction.
That’s the situation that Eve and Adam were in –without God –dead –in need of the fruit of the tree of life. (Then God wrapped them in the Lamb who died for them.)
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. (John 6:63)
We might naturally live out our days content with just our flesh in control. But God doesn’t leave us that way. He intentionally frustrates us so that our own rules for navigation fail to meet our expectations. (That’s what Romans 8:18 through the end of the chapter is about.)
The elephant-in-the-room question is “If the flesh isn’t good or bad, then where does sin (or rebellion) fit in?” The answer is found back in the garden ().
“They have become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; he might stretch out his hand and eat from the tree of life.” In their minds, they had elevated themselves to be equal with God. That is what brought death.
Thankfully, He left the tree of life accessible (). Angels stand guard with the flaming sword. They serve as a welcoming beacon for those who seek Jesus and they are forboding warriors against those who are still trying to be God.
Our flesh uses its rules for making decisions all day long –believing that it’s absolutely right in all that it decides. When things don’t go as planned, it makes excuses –blaming others –blaming anything but itself.
It insists that it’s not proud; yet it rejoices in pointing out others’ failures to perform according to their own standards.
When people claim that God’s laws are what they live by, our flesh is swift in judging and broadcasting the inconsistencies in their lives –labelling them as hypocrites.
On the other hand, when our flesh finds segments of God’s laws that agree with its own rules, then it boastfully says “I’m glad to not be like one of those sinners” (from).
Our flesh is a finely-tuned judgment machine that doesn’t disappear when we’re saved. So how can we live a life that’s beneficial to God, His kingdom –our brothers and sisters in Christ?
It’s accomplished in two successive stages. The first stage is starving the flesh –taking away its fuel, its power. Above we read that “… the power of sin is the law” (from ) and that “… the law produced in me coveting of every kind … apart from the Law sin is dead … when the commandment came, sin became alive …” (from ).
Stop attempting to obey the law –trying to do good and avoid evil. That seems to be in opposition of some Scriptures but we’ll see a little later that Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and even the gospels proclaim the end of the law as a guide for believers.
The second stage is being wary of emotions. Fear, anger, rejection, resentment, despair (and their companions) overwhelm us when we’ve been relying on the flesh. So allow the Spirit to do the leading.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
How is this “present your bodies” accomplished? It certainly isn’t by comparing ourselves to the Ten Commandments, nor by following “rules for Godly living” nor by “doing the right thing.” Those are where we started and what we found doesn’t work.
It’s done the same way for us as it was for those in the Old and New Testaments. They experienced something that got their attention and they responded to Him saying “Lord. Here I am.” It’s accompanied with an attitude of wanting Him to renew our minds so that we are useful vessels for Him.
Spontaneously following His Spirit is the very opposite of performing according to planned responses (rules) for the various situations that we face.
The former is living by grace –trusting Jesus to have done it all and then experiencing His peace. The latter is living under the law –obediently trying to satisfy His demands and always wondering if we’re good enough.
We looked at the Bible’s laws as descriptions of how God’s creation works, as descriptions of Jesus’ life story, and as confirmations that we aren’t God –only He is.
Let’s continue with grace. “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).