Someone recently asked me about Paul’s use of “flesh” in his New Testament letters. It’s a good question.
The term sarx—“flesh”—in Paul’s era meant “muscular tissues.” Or, with animals, their “meat.” But Paul clearly had more in mind as he linked human “sinful passions” to “the flesh” (e.g. Ro. 7:5). So that sin engages our physical or bodily “self” as part of our spiritual struggles.
Let me suggest that sarx is tied to the habits of our heart. And this connection is what Paul wanted young Christians to understand. In effect, we are creatures of habit, and our flesh is always guided by the habits of our heart. We see this in his letter to the Romans.
First, what are habits? We live with physical, social, emotional, and spiritual patterns that become automatic: choices and actions blend together without notice. Instead of actively thinking about what and how to feel or behave our habits provide automatic steering while our more creative thinking goes elsewhere.
Driving, for instance, is a key physical habit. Once we learn it, it’s easy. But when I started with a 4-speed, clutch-operated, underpowered Volkswagen I was dangerous! Now, with habits formed, I barely notice the particular features of driving.
Socially, when we move into a new setting—a school, job, or church—we’re busy with new activities that finally smooth into habits. We know where to sit, what chores to complete, and who makes the best lunch companions. We have patterns—habits—in calling for advice, sympathy, and information. Society, in fact, is mainly a blanket of habitual bonds.
The same is true for our emotional habits. We all know which conversations we seek and which we like to avoid; the sort of movies we love to watch; how we like to celebrate; and who to call or visit if we need a dose of joy. And above all we habitually avoid emotional pain.
So Paul is a realist when he reminds us that these habit patterns are embedded in who we are. And our habits—as body-enclosed-beings—are what he means by “flesh.” We affirm this when we talk about building “muscle memory” or when we comment, “Wow, this dessert is addictive!” Addictions are, in fact, feisty habits that insist on being satisfied. A narcissist is constantly seeking attention. A builder is always putting things together. And a glutton is always finding sweet or fatty snacks through food-foraging efforts.
And now we have these patterns tracked by busy marketers spending real cash to find where we’re most vulnerable. Once they know our good and bad habits, they can target their ads accordingly and effectively. Privacy evaporates as exposed habits are a new form of gold.
Paul gets all this. And he realizes that habits form around our heart desires. We always end up finding ways to do what we love the most. And before people meet Jesus they “worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator” and “for this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (Ro. 1:25-26). And all of these are essentially selfish or self-fulfilling.
Yet once we meet Jesus, and his Spirit awakens our dark and hardened hearts, we start to have a new set of appetites and values, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Ro. 5:5). And new spiritual habits form.
Yet our new spiritual desires haven’t had time to form strong habits. Instead our demanding old habits fight against our devotion to Christ. So while I may “delight in the law of my inner being [as a newly minted Christian with the Spirit at work] … I [still] see in my members [i.e. my body] another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Ro. 7:22-23). Paul reminds us that only a newly resurrected body, still to come, will completely defeat our former body-embedded social, emotional, and spiritual bad habits (Ro. 8:24).
This is the flesh. And Paul’s solution for new believers is to keep responding to the Spirit as he pours out God’s love in our newly awakened hearts: “For to set your mind on the flesh is death, but to set in mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Ro. 8:6).