Spirit and Flesh, Part 2
In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul speaks of “the realm of the flesh” and “the realm of the Spirit” (Romans 8:9). He sees a clear and demarcation between these two ‘realms’ even saying, “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8: 6). So how do we distinguish between what is flesh and what is Spirit? It may seem like an easy question to answer but in fact it is a bit trickier than it may at first appear.
The word flesh must be properly defined. For the most part when Paul is speaking of flesh, he is not referring to the physical body, or its biological desires. Instead he is referring 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. It covers everything from our needs for self-fulfilment; to all the things we do in an attempt to gain a sense of spiritual composure and well-being.
Far from being basic and earthly, flesh can be oriented toward things transcendent and noble. Indeed, many of the better parts of human history and philanthropic enterprise owe their existence entirely to the initiatives of the flesh. This is where things can get a bit confusing, as the high-minded aspirations and apparently honourable actions of the flesh have all the appearance of being ‘spiritual.’ The flesh has historically been the initiator of all kinds of spirituality and religion and to the uninitiated, flesh and Spirit can look pretty much the same. Much that passes for Spirit is actually nothing but flesh.
One of the schemes of the flesh is the construction of a dualistic view of the world that sets well-defined boundaries between things that are considered ‘spiritual’ and things that are material and ordinary. This system divides heaven from earth, the soul from the body, the mind from emotions and others besides. Alongside this the flesh also invents ways and means of bridging these gaps. Usually this takes the form of gaining special insight, keeping moral rules or observing religious rituals that represent a kind of ‘stairway to heaven.’
However, this system of the flesh always leaves us short-changed. No matter how high-minded and honourable the aspirations of the flesh may be, it is simply incapable of grasping the reality it so earnestly seeks. As Paul has it “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8: 7-8).
The Spirit, on the other hand, is not about climbing a stairway through human effort, but is in submission to the grace of God. A simple way of discerning the difference is to simply ask the question: “Who is the subject, and who is the object in this scenario?” If the subject is us and God is the object, then you can be certain it is flesh. On the other hand, if the subject is God and we are the object then that has all the hallmarks of the Spirit.
As Paul has it in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15: 9-10). Notice that Paul is saying he does what he does in response to the initiative of God.