Galatians Part 4 – Flesh and Spirit
In the previous blog we began to unravel the divergence between what Paul calls the ‘flesh’ and the ‘Spirit.’ This is one of the great themes of the entire saga of the scriptures and is certainly the major purpose of this letter. Before we go any further, we must first get past the confusion that surrounds the definition and meaning of the word ‘flesh.’ Unfortunately, this word has been used, inaccurately and recklessly, to merely refer to anything related to the visible physical realm, over and against the supposedly higher and invisible ‘spiritual’ realm.
This kind of dualistic thinking about flesh and Spirit has a long history with plenty of precedents. In church history there are many accounts of ‘saints’ and mystics exercising extreme states of bodily deprivation in the hope of to producing a spiritual outcome—pole sitting, hair coats, beds of nails, starvation and mutilation of the body—to name but a few. However, it must be said that the effort to become ‘spiritual’ by putting down the body is, ironically, very much a product of the flesh.
Confusion about the word ‘flesh’ is completely understandable, given that the Greek word sarx,translated as ‘flesh,’ has several usages. While there are several meanings of the word, it is mainly used to refer to the fallen human mind and its grand aspirations to drag itself out of darkness and into some kind of do-it-yourself spiritual enlightenment. Flesh, in this sense, covers everything from our ambitions for self-fulfilment; to all the things we do in an attempt to gain a sense of self-justification. The way the translators of the New International Version of the Bible use the phrase “human limitations” to render the word ‘flesh’ in Romans 6: 19 captures this meaning perfectly. Flesh; used in this way, is referring to the limited perspective and self-interested bias of our corrupted humanity.
Corrupt though the flesh may be, it can be—and very often is— oriented toward things transcendent and noble. Indeed, many of the better parts of human history and philanthropic enterprise owe their existence entirely to the ambitious initiatives of the flesh. This is where things can get a bit tricky, because the high-minded aspirations and apparently honourable actions of the flesh have all the appearances of being ‘spiritual.’ However, the flesh is all about self and does not trust in God.
The ‘Spirit,’ on the other hand,is all about the gracious intervention of God to save us out of our hopeless situation. To illustrate this point Paul employs the story of Abraham saying: “Consider Abraham” (Gal 3: 6). Abraham was made right with God, not by his own strength, but by trusting God. Now if we are to be considered as ‘children of Abraham’ then we must share his faith. Thus, in Galatians 3: 11-12, the as the Message translation puts it, “The obvious impossibility of carrying out such a moral program (i.e. – self-salvation through the Law) should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way. The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God does for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you.” (see also John 16: 8-12, Matt 22: 1ff, John 13: 1-8, Hebrews 10: 26-29).
The way of the flesh is all about ‘getting things’ from God: while the way of the Spirit is all about receiving what God is giving.