“For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17).
When the Apostle Paul wrote these words, he was saying that he had discovered that he had no strength of his own to carry out the good that he wanted or willed to do in his life. He also said, “…how to perform that which is good, I find not…” (Romans 7:18). After wrestling with this knowledge for a while, he came to the conclusion that he could carry out no good thing without Jesus Christ.
Why is this? It is because the “flesh” wants what the Spirit does not want, while the Spirit wants what the flesh does not want. And this is because “…these are contrary the one to the other…” They are total opposites, hostile toward each other in an ongoing conflict that never ends. If the Spirit side wants to do good, the other side opposes it and wants to do what is evil in God’s eyes. But when the evil side wants to do evil, the Spirit of God in those who believe in God opposes and tries to restrain it.
Now just what is “the flesh”? In the Bible, “flesh” does not refer particularly to our physical body, but to our human nature that leaves God out. It applies to the way man is as he has adapted to living in the world system. It refers to man’s “lower nature” where “no good thing” dwells.
The spirit of man is willing to do what God wants, once the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Jesus) has access to it. But man’s flesh has been so weakened through sin that it always gets in the way of the good the Holy Spirit wants to do in and through our lives. Paul came to the realization that no good thing lives in our flesh. The good things live in our heart and spirit.
“For to be carnally [fleshly] minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity [hatred] against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:6-7).
The spirit of man cannot carry out the good things he wills to do because of this lack of harmony within him—unless he can tap into a strength higher than his own. Those “who walk in the spirit will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” because of this higher power in them, which the Bible calls “grace.” “And these are contrary …” meaning they are opposites and never in harmony with each other over anything. The Spirit of God leads us in the right way, but our carnal nature leads us in another.
When we are born again, we receive a new nature within us that comes from God. This is one very good reason to want to be born again. But those who become born again, like Paul, soon discover that we can still do the evil we used to do before we were born again. How perplexing this is to us, as we wonder why we can’t carry out the good we now desire to do. Our opposition comes from our old self, our “flesh.” Our old carnal, fleshly self always sides with what it loves, and what it loves is always contrary to what the Spirit of God loves.
What does God do about this? He imparts His supernatural grace into our born again soul, so that we can overcome all the lusts of our carnal, fleshly self and be free from their domination. In the Bible, “grace” refers to God’s compassion, mercy, and forbearance, His favor and forgiveness. Therefore, sin no longer has any right to dominate our body, because the new reigning power in our soul is grace. Our old self no longer leads the way to more sin for us, because the stronger power of the Holy Spirit that comes through God’s grace restrains it. Then God can inspire us to seek holiness in our soul instead.
Are we now going to continue to let our weak flesh do what it pleases? No, our new self now needs to watch and pray, as Jesus told His disciples.
Our flesh is not evil in itself, being a basic part of our make-up as human beings. But it continues to be weak, even though our spirit is becoming more and more strong. Our goal should be to overcome the influence and domination of the flesh by tapping into the strength of the spirit. How do we do this? By watching and praying. “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak´ (Matthew 26:41).
Watching is not just being awake, but using our powers to guard against the evil the flesh wants to yield to. And while we are on guard against evil, we would be wise to ask God to help us overcome it. When we are on watch against evil, we are able to see temptation coming. Then, when we turn to prayer, we receive the strength we need to stand against the temptation when it arrives. Peter’s spirit was willing to watch. But, through his flesh, the evil one weighed him down to keep him from doing so. This is why Jesus warned His disciples to watch and pray. When they failed to, they gave the devil an advantage over their fleshly nature.
Even Jesus needed to watch and pray. When He was praying in the garden of Gethsemane before going to the cross, He was weighed down with sorrow to the point that His flesh was barely able to keep from giving in “even unto death.”
(“Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry [wait] ye here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38)). He was asking His disciples to watch with Him during this most trying time of His life. Yet, even when Jesus was at His weakest point, He showed that He was the only One who could give all strength. He exhibited all grace even when He was undergoing and being crushed under divine judgment like no other man has ever known. Jesus was willing in His spirit to totally yield Himself to the heavenly Father’s will. His spirit was able to master His flesh and bring Him to victory. This meant that He would have to suffer and die on the cross, He who had never yielded to sinful fleshly desires in His entire life.
We are no longer to let sin have the rule in our physical body. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof” (Romans 6:12). No longer are we to obey the sinful impulses, but are now to achieve victory over them. We can’t just come to the point of not doing evil; it is time to learn to do good. Jesus set the example for us. He will not accept those as His own who continue to yield themselves to be the slaves of sin. We have been trying in our own strength, in our flesh, to overcome, and we should know by now that this way does not work. What we are missing is that we need to tap into a power higher than our own to achieve victory. We need to depend on His Spirit working in us to overcome our sinful fleshly desires. Then we will no longer be the slaves of sin and the flesh, but willing slaves of Jesus Christ, obedient to His Spirit.