What follows is the hurricane for the soul, the earthquake of the spiritual life. The three aspects of this devastating reality are: the flesh (or sinful nature), the world, and the devil. Together these three threats can bring a devastation that is more destructive than any natural disaster. In the following section we will spend time developing a biblical & spiritual theology of each of these threats.
The Flesh/Sinful Nature:
What is the flesh? When I first heard the term “sins of the flesh” as a young Christian I thought that something about my flesh was sinful. On one hand I knew that God created me--flesh included. For new and old Christians alike the term “flesh” can be a confusing word. So what does it mean?First off when “flesh” is mentioned negatively in the Bible it’s not referring to our bodies. Rather, it refers to our sinful nature, the remaining indwelling sin in our lives.
The “flesh” or “sinful nature” is a composite of attitudes and actions that are bent towards self-preservation and self-glorification. It’s important that we understand that they are both attitudes and actions. Attitudes are often overlooked as rooted in our sinful nature, more commonly we focus on actions. We have accountability groups for sinful actions, but not for attitudes. Part of the problem is that oftentimes sinful actions are deeply related to broken or rebellious attitudes. Below is Galatians 5:19-21, evaluate what you think is an attitude and what you think is an action:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
When you really look at these verses you’ll see that each attribute of the sinful nature is both an attitude and an action. The actions of “selfish ambition” come from a selfishly ambitious heart.
Also, notice how each attribute of the sinful nature is bent towards self-preservation and self-glorification. We have a “fit of rage” or spread “dissension” when we are worried and anxious about our livelihood or about keeping some relationships, or when we are seeking to glorify ourselves.
Another aspect of of our sinful nature is that it always turns good things into ultimate things. When Paul writes in Galatians 5:17, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit [...]” he uses a Greek word for desire that actually means “over-desire” (epi-themiea). Every pastoral book in the New Testament that seeks to help Christians grow in their life with God uses epi-themiea when speaking of the desires of our sinful nature. The sinful nature, our indwelling sin, over-desires good things and makes them broken and destructive things. It seeks to put God on the periphery and the a certain thing (money, sex, power) in the center. In short, we’re incredibly proficient at creating idols, things we, essentially, worship.
John Calvin has written that “the human soul is a factory of idols.” What he meant was that we are constantly seeking to move God to the periphery and placing the self, with it’s over-desires in the center. Because we continually remove God from the center and place a thing in the center, or ourselves in the center, we are essentially saying that this thing is what I trust in. This thing will give me what I really want. When an idol is in the center, and God on the periphery, our belief in God shifts to a belief in a thing.
Hope is all about what the thing will provide.
Salvation becomes the satisfaction of our over-desires.
Richard Lovelace writes, “The desires of the flesh have something more behind them than [mere cravings]. Our indulgence of these drives has a deeper, underlying motivation: the compulsion not to believe God and to rebel against him. Every vice is therefore more than simple weakness. It has the bitter undertaste of rebellion and the poison of unbelief, which Luther believed was the deepest root of all sin” (Renewal as a Way of Life, 74). When something is an idol it is something we worship; if you are worshipping an idol and living according to the sinful nature then your belief in God is peripheral.
Oftentimes we don’t see how the flesh is operating in our lives, or how pervasive it is. We don’t see any ‘huge’ vices. We think we’re doing just fine. Just as rocks skim over the surface of a lake we ‘skim’ through life without being attentive to the depths of our hearts. One of the most profound statements ever written regarding the spiritual life is the following: [n]early all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. When we dive deep into a thorough investigation into ourselves and God, rather than ‘skim’ through life, we will always find the flesh more active than we at first thought and consequently God’s grace more active than we at first thought. Too often, “We have settled down and gotten used to [our sinful nature]; our consciences are dulled to [its] existence the same way our ears adjust to background noises, or our noses to bad odors” (Renewal as a Way of Life, 78). My guess is that if we truly knew ourselves and knew God fully we would be shocked to see how often God is found on the periphery of our lives.
We will talk more extensively about how to battle against the sinful nature in future sessions but it should be mentioned that any effective work against the sinful nature will not merely focus on actions, but rather the attitudes of our heart. As Puritan theologian and spiritual writer John Owen has written: "A man may beat down the bitter fruit from an evil tree until he is weary; while the root abides in strength and vigor, the beating down of the present fruit will not hinder it from bringing forth more." Any battle against the sinful nature must involve changing the attitudes that produce actions.