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A Righteousness by Faith #19: What We Get from the Flesh Instead of the Spirit

So I say, walk 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 flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Galatians 5:16-18

Flesh is such an odd word. When we talk about our inner lives, it is weird to suggest that our ‘flesh’ is somehow trying to destroy us. It almost sounds like I have a body that is trying to do me in, like Wormtail’s silver hand in The Deathly Hallows.

What Paul is pointing to is that, before meeting Jesus, you and I built a life around doing what pleases us. We had a love/hate relationship with this life, but it was what we knew. Now that we have put our faith in Jesus, God has given us all we need to live a different life. All we need means the presence of the Spirit, whose power does in us what we cannot do for ourselves.

So what exactly does Paul mean by ‘flesh’? I sometimes think because we use certain words all the time we think we understand their definition. Flesh is not some literal part of your body, like your skin or muscles or some internal organ. Perhaps the simplest definition is: flesh is whatever is in you that resists the reign of God over your life. It is flesh because it grants you permission to do things that will bring destruction sooner or later, but feel right at the time of choosing to do what you prefer.

Although we may naturally equate the flesh life to being openly wicked, flesh takes different forms in people’s lives. Sometimes the flesh life looks pretty respectable. Look at five kinds of flesh demonstrated by different people who encountered Jesus.

First there is what I call USDA Prime flesh, the kind that allowed Nicodemus to rise to a level of power and influence as a religious leader of Israel. Second is USDA Choice flesh. Zacchaeus fits this category—someone who is savvy in business and profits, usually asked to serve on the church financial team although probably not possessing the qualities of an elder! Then there is USDA Standard flesh, the store brand variety that could be either a good or bad choice, with maybe just a hint of gristle. Peter trying his best to follow Jesus easily represents this kind.

A fourth group is USDA Utility flesh, which is hamburger quality. People living life all ground up by immaturity, bad choices and limited prospects, such as the woman by the well in John 4. Finally, there is USDA Waste flesh, marked as useless and tossed out. This describes the woman caught in adultery in John 8.

When you look at these representative people of each category, you recognize all of them were in need of a Savior. And that none of them were able to fix themselves by the acts of their flesh. All of them were experiencing trouble in life because of how they were reigning over themselves, aka living in the flesh. The same is true for the people Paul is warning—and for us.

The conflict of the flesh and the Spirit is the difference between having a righteousness by faith and the one that is by the Law. Righteousness by faith is produced in all of us who recognize the ravages of self-rule. Depending on the flesh to produce righteousness will subtly lead back to the destruction we thought we escaped when we put our faith in Jesus. Churches are full of people who are, step by step, sliding towards being controlled by anger, lust, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony and pride—not because they planned to. It is just that the flesh always ends up back at the pit and people jump in.

Paul knew this. Paul will describe the works of the flesh just after this warning. But catch what he is really concerned about. The people he loves are in danger. They are buying the idea that they can fix themselves. They believe if they follow the rules, they have it in themselves to become whole, holy—good people. This conflict goes all the way back to the lies of Satan in Eden and continue to trap people to this day.

Paul believed it himself at one time. So he became a murderer for the sake of his version of righteousness. It did not even seem contradictory to him. Then Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. His spiritual eyes were opened to the truth about righteousness and the Spirit. Thereafter, he never would be okay with people being misled on it.

So what kind of flesh do you have? Do you see yourself in any of the five categories above? Has your flesh led you to achieve an outward appearance of righteousness that leaves you empty at the same time? Or struggling to please God? Or failing at being good in a very public way? If so, perhaps you are ready to be led by the Spirit and be freed from trying to be good for God.

-Steve Smith