Paul’s notion of the flesh (σαρχ in the Greek) is perhaps one of the most important concepts for understanding New Testament, particularly Paul. Matter of fact, it may be the most important concept for Paul’s theological anthropology, as ‘flesh’ describes the universal state of human life. While ‘flesh’ has been understood as sinful nature (as the NIV used to translate it as), this seems to metonymic confusion, where the product is confused with the producer. Fleshing out (pun intended) Paul’s usage of flesh would discover many related concepts beyond sin; it is used in reference to genealogy, circumcision, mortality, desires,, and rebellion. While it is certainly related to sin in being a cause of sin, if not the vessel of sin, flesh is not reduced to the idea of simply being a sinful nature. Its wide range of associations suggests it represents the very embodied, material existence of human life. ‘Flesh’ is the very stuff of which human life is made and constituted, and it is very stuff that leads us to disobedience from God according to Paul
The manner in which it leads to sin and disobedience to God is implied in Romans 7:5, where Paul attributes “sinful passions” to the flesh. The Greek word for passions (πάθημα) refers to inner feelings.. The problem of the flesh is strongly related to the problem of human emotions. Emotions are the bodily, physiological response we have to events that motivates us to think, act, and speak in a particular way. Anger motivates desires for vengeance and retribution. Fear motivates fleeing responses. Sexual attraction motivates seeking sexual activity. As such, emotions are deeply related to desires, just as Paul associates them in Galatians 5:24.
Unfortunately, Christian tradition has made a habit of associated the presence of desires as sin: to feel sexual attraction is lust, to wish for a correction of injustice is to be unforgiving, etc. This is most readily expressed is teaching young teenage males not to “lust” after women because the thought is sinful and adulterous. Likewise, the feeling of anger and wanting recompense towards someone can be interpreted as a lack of forgiveness. This leads to a set of emotional norms we place on Christians to not feel and think certain ways because they are in and of themselves sinful.
However, Paul’s usage of the word we translate as “desires” does not seem to function well to describe the mere presence of some emotionally laden goal we want. Rather, it is associated with strong, excessive expressions. In Romans 13:13-14, Paul connects “reveling and drunkenness,” “debauchery and licentiousness,” and “quarreling and jealousy” with the flesh and it’s ‘desires.’ To want to feel good and celebrate can lead to excessive partying and consumption; to want to fulfill sexual desires can lead to excessive sexual behaviors; to want to better one’s life can lead us to fight against others who would prevent that or have what we want. Nevertheless, Paul does not seem to be referring to existence of desire, but its unrestrained pursuits and expressions. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a nixing of desires, but is more of the regulation of one’s desires to good expression and ends.
However, due to the tendency for us followers of Jesus to judge certain emotional and motivational states, we explicitly and implicit forbid certain ideas from coming into our conscious awareness by either trying to control our thoughts or by distraction. As such, the many desires that come from our embodied existence get placed into what the psychoanalytic tradition, particularly the Jungian branch of psychoanalysis, refers to as the shadow self. Robert A. Johnson defines the shadow self as “that dumping ground for all those characteristics of our personality that we disown.” Put another way, we are not aware of every motivation and desire that comes from our body; when we try to distract ourselves from and ignore certain desires, it still exists in the body but it is not a part of our understanding about our own selfs. As a result, so far as we are successful in controlling the desires we are conscious of, we become unaware of all those goes on inside ourselves and instead begin to idealize ourselves as better than we would if we saw ourselves accurately.
The reality about the body, however, is that while consciously thinking about something can increase the desire, not thinking about it will not necessarily reduce the wants, passions, motivations, and desires. The flesh as the spring of desires does what it does, apart from our intentionality to be different. This is along the lines of the very struggle the Apostle Paul laments in Romans 7:14-25. If we try to control the desires of the flesh by ignoring these desires, then it leads to a problem. When satiation is delayed, our physiology will adapt; most of the time the adaptation prioritizes the delayed need or want even more than previously. The most salient example of this is hunger. We may push the desire for food out of our minds for a while if we are not in a place to eat, but eventually the body will compel itself upon ourselves and we will be focused on finding nourishment. What exists in the shadow will eventually come to the light. As Johnson says, “If [the shadow self] accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage or some indiscretion that slips past us; or we have a depression or an accident that seems to have its own purpose.” Paul employs the metaphor of athletic training and disciplining the body. Living one’s life for the sake of the Gospel entails an active part in controlling what could get in one’s way. Similarily, in light of freedom from sin that Christ provides, Christians should submit their bodies as instruments of righteousness to live out that freedom and realize it in sanctification. Paul’s point is an active dedication to what God ultimately wants is the pathway to following Jesus; it is not built upon distracting and avoiding the desires of the flesh but actively dedicating ourselves to the will and desire of God. For those in Christ, the way to overcome the excess that comes from the desires of the flesh is to a) not making any provision for the flesh by not justify the excess as we are so often want to do and b) actively dedicated our lives and bodies to a different direction providing for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This does not eliminate the desires we have as embodied creatures, but it confines them to appropriate fulfillments (food in moderation, sex in the confines of marriage, expression of anger without retaliation, etc.)
This means, however, that we have to be aware of our “shadow self.” This means a humility to recognize that in reality we are not as much in comformity to our ideals as we might wish we were. Few things can be more threatening to our pride in ourselves than the idea that we are not the person we idealize ourselves to be. For instance, a narcissistic individual may idealize them as cool, calm, and in control when their behaviors are being impacted by their own feelings. It can be even more agonizing to struggle with vanquishing a feeling or desire in pursuit of perfection and to find it will not go away. For years, I remember praying to God and asking for the gift of celibacy because the idea of sexual desire was threatening, for both the reason of the standard evangelical struggle with sexuality and due to recent traumas from the past. The struggle to conquer this “disowned” aspect of humanity, beyond not being healthy was ineffective. It can even operate to be counter-productive as desire can potentially be sated by substitutes, such as recognized in the process of sublimation where unwanted desires are channeled in a different direction, but the failure to recognize these desires means these alternative and healthy avenues of satiation are far from personal intentions. For instance, anger can be channeled with the imprecatory psalms where desires for vengeance are not enacted, but simply expressed to God to allow God to choose to fulfill or not. However, in denying anger, one can not take the intentions to engage in a ritual acknowledgement and symbolic act in conformity to the desires of the shadow.
Overcoming the control of the flesh and circumventing the uncontrolled expression of a shadow self entails both safe and appropriately direct expression of desires and the dedication of our body and actions to the higher goals that the Spirit of God leads us into. This is no easy task. It is even impossible on our own, because as ‘enfleshed’ creatures, we can not possibly serve God on our own. However, that is precisely the significance of the Incarnation that we celebrate this Christmas! As Carolyn Moore over at the Art of Holiness says in her blog post The most profound theological truth you will hear this Christmas...,
And because he has made perfect peace with these two parts of himself, he is able — Spirit-Man — to offer us both pattern and permission to find peace with our two halves. Jesus has accomplished in his body through the perfect union of divinity and humanity what we all long for most: peace.
In other words, Jesus is the answer to that fight that goes on inside us. The one answer with power to speak peace into the divided mess that is us is the perfect union of Father with Son — of deity with humanity. Because he has broken through that barrier for us and now lives in perfect unity within himself, Jesus — fully God, fully man — has carved out our pathway to peace.
For the the Gospel of John, the Word became flesh and for the Apostle Paul, Jesus takes on the likeness of sinful flesh. It is precisely this reality of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ that provides the freedom from the problem of the flesh and sin. Romans 7:14-24 climaxes with a cry for freedom from the body and its control over one’s own actions; Paul outlines that Jesus is the solution in Romans 7:25-8:4, as His humanity allows for our obedience through the Holy Spirit.
As a result, fighting against the flesh and bringing to light the shadow in a holy way is not a matter of simply self-will and practice; it is something that we must be freed to live into by Christ and guided through by the Holy Spirit. If being enfleshed means we are on our own incapable of obeying God, then every attempt on our own to attain wholeness and holiness will simply be the result of moving one desire out of the shadow by moving another into its place as so much of our desires conflict with each other. Only in a new, fresh direction that transcends (but not ignores) our embodied reality can we direct ourselves away from giving any desire of the flesh prominence and thus excess and ignoring the rest to lurking shadows of our self. Therefore, Paul’s mini-treatise on being lead by the Spirit in Romans 8:1-17 transitions in a cry creation looking for redemption of the body; the struggle against the desires, and the sufferings that are connected to desires, is not ultimately through self-control, symbolic action, distraction, etc. but through the realizing of the new creation first enacted in the resurrected Christ being realized in our own selves.