Flesh and Spirit

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A student wrote me recently to ask: “I just have a question that has been bothering me for a while. Why did St. Paul say to the Galatians that ‘the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh’? St. Paul also tells the Romans that ‘the law of the mind’ struggles against ‘the law of the flesh.’ If we are made ‘good,’ as it says in Genesis, then why do we have this dichotomy?”

This is a very good question. Indeed, it is a terminological problem that has led many Bible readers astray throughout history.

It’s clear that St. Paul believes (with the rest of the Jewish tradition) that, as the Book of Genesis says, all of creation is “good,” “very good.” But he also believes that we have subjected God’s good creation to “vanity.” That is to say, we have misused it and emptied it of its meaningfulness, thereby rendering it “vain” or “empty” or worse, an instrument of our desire to dominate others.

Take, for example, the body. We could use it as an instrument of true love and concern for others. That, after all, is why God gave us a body. We can hug people, wash their wounds, and lift heavy burdens for them. And yet, instead, we frequently use our bodies as instruments of vanity: “Look at me; look at how wonderful I am; look at how cool and stylish I am — so much better than those losers.”

It’s not unimportant, of course, that one can make the same vain misuse of one’s intellect. Sins don’t begin in the body, after all. They have their origins in the mind and in our own pride.

So when St. Paul contrasts “the flesh” or “the world” to “the spirit,” he is talking about “the flesh” or “the world” as we use them in rejection of God. The world and our flesh were given to us as a free gift of love to be used as instruments of love. Instead we call it “mine, mine, mine” and we use it to dominate and destroy others, which is not what God had in mind at all. It’s like a person who wins the lottery and then spends the money in such a way that he destroys his life trying to show off to others.

We could use cars to help carry people places they need to go, but we use them to show off. We could use clothes to protect people from the elements, but again, we use them to show off or worse, to incite lust. We could build buildings to help make people comfortable and build community, but we use them to show power and wealth and to keep out the unwanted.

Saint Paul by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
Saint Paul by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Everything is subjected to our vanity. And by being so subjected, they become meaningless, empty “junk.” There’s nothing worse for some people than last year’s car or last season’s clothes. And of course, having to live or work in many hip modernist buildings usually brings with it its own sort of masochistic self-punishment.

Why do we misuse God’s gifts in this way? Quite frankly, because we’re stupid. Not “stupid” in the sense of not knowing how to do things technically, but “stupid” in the sense of “unwise.” In the Old Testament, the contrary to Wisdom isn’t ignorance. It’s folly.

So, instead of foolishly being driven, as we so often are, by our lusts, fear, and anger – all of which have very palpable expressions in our flesh (sweaty palms, shortened breathing, reddened or flush face) – St. Paul is suggesting that we should be “led by the Spirit” – that is, by God’s own Holy Spirit. We should become like Christ: love incarnate, animated by God’s own Holy Spirit, sharing in the love that unites the persons of the Triune God.

Too often we think that by having more, we become more. It’s more likely that when we unite ourselves to material “stuff” for its own sake, worshipping it the way ancient people worshipped idols, we can become as lifeless as it is. When, on the other hand, we unite our spirit to the Holy Spirit, material “things” can take on a new life, the sort of life they were meant to have, as instruments of love and communion.

There are people who are “dead” to others around them and to the world they live in because they worship things. You may have met people like this. Then there are other people who love things, but they love things precisely because they can share them with the people they love. These are people who are truly alive because they see themselves as living in a world not merely of dead matter in motion, but in a world infused with spirit, infused with potential everywhere and in everything to serve with God’s own love.

The question is, which world do you think you live in? Do you believe that the world (and the human body, human flesh) is a gift of God’s love? (Seeing the world in this way would, of course, involve faith.) Or are you convinced that the world is nothing more than dead matter in motion, having no purpose, no goal, no ultimate end and no lasting happiness? That’s another view. The second is no more demonstrable than the first, of course, even though people sometimes mistake it for a conclusion of reason. But so as not to mistake the second view of the world for the positive sort of affirmation of existence that lies behind “faith,” let’s just call this second view of the world “opinion.” And of course people are entitled to their opinions.

I can’t tell you which to accept or believe. But I can tell you that there are consequences of each for how you’ll probably decide to live your life.

St. Paul seemed to think so.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.