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What is the Flesh?

There are many references to “the flesh” in New Testament Scripture, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The phrase confuses some who think it synonymous with the physical body. It is true that there are many times when Scripture uses the word “flesh” to refer to the physical body. However when the definite article “the” is placed before the word “flesh” we are dealing with something else. Only very rarely does the Biblical phrase “the flesh” (? ???? (he sarx), in Greek) refer only to the physical body (eg. John 6:53; Phil 3:2; 1 John 4:2) , but almost always the phrase refers to something quite distinct from the physical body.

What then is meant by the term “the flesh” (? ????)? Perhaps most plainly it refers to that part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly and obstinate part of our inner self that is operative all the time. It is that part of us that does not want to be told what to do. It is stubborn, refuses correction, and does not want to have a thing to do with God. It bristles at limits and rules. It recoils at anything that might cause me to be diminished or something less than the center of the universe. The flesh hates to be under authority or to have to yield to anything other than its own wishes and desires. The flesh often desires something simply because it is forbidden. The Protestants often call the flesh our “sin nature” which is not a bad term in summarizing what the flesh is. In Catholic tradition the flesh is where concupiscence sets up shop. Concupiscence refers to the string inclination to sin that is in us as a result of the wound of Original Sin. If you do not think that your flesh is strong, just try to pray for five minutes and watch how quickly your mind wants to think of anything but God. Just try to fast or be less selfish and watch how your flesh goes to war.

The flesh is in direct conflict with the spirit. “The spirit” here refers not to the Holy Spirit but to the human spirit. The (human) spirit is that part of us which is open to God, which desires him and is drawn to him. It is that part of us which is attracted by goodness, beauty and truth, which yearns for completion in God and to see His face. Without the spirit we would be totally turned in on ourselves and consumed by the flesh. Thankfully our spirit, assisted by the Holy Spirit draws us to desire what is best, what is upright, good and helpful.   —Msgr. Charles Pope

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