Nowadays when we talk about ‘sins of the flesh’ we almost always mean sexual sins. ‘Flesh’ to us means ‘skin’; hence the connection. But this is not the way the writers of the New Testament saw it.
When our English Bible translations use the word ‘flesh’ for the Greek word ‘sarx’ (especially in the letters of Paul), they don’t help the situation. Paul had a perfectly good word for ‘body’ (‘soma’), and he tends to use it in a positive sense. But the ‘sarx’ or ‘flesh’ (as it’s translated in the NRSV and the NIV 2011) mean something closer to what Francis Spufford calls our ‘human propensity to f___ things up’ (or ‘HPtFtU’ for short). Earlier versions of the NIV used the translation ‘sinful nature’, and I think this is a lot better. Paul and the other New Testament authors believed that we humans have all been infected by this disease of sin – we have a ‘sinful nature’ – which is why growth in virtue and goodness is often such a struggle for us. But Paul’s list of ‘acts of the flesh’ is a lot less ‘fleshly’ than we might expect today:
‘…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’ (Galatians 5:19-21a NIV 2011).
This list does include sexual sins, to be sure, but it also includes hatred and ambition, anger and jealousy, hatred and discord. Other lists in the writings of Paul have a similar breadth.
But that’s not the end of the story. Paul goes on to say,
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22-25 NIV 2011).
Paul believed that the law of God was good but powerless to transform us, because our HPtFtU makes us unable to keep God’s laws by dint of sheer willpower. The Ten Commandments and the other wise laws of God describe an admirable way of life, but for all the good they do us, we might just as well be people who have just learned their times tables attempting the mysteries of higher mathematics.
Fortunately for us, there’s another principle at work: the coming of God to live in us by his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power and love of God at work in the world and in people. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ gift to us; on the day of Pentecost, he (the Spirit) came and filled the early Christians, and he’s been doing it ever since.
Sometimes people have dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit; sometimes (perhaps most often) they don’t. But the most amazing work he does is to strengthen us to do the ordinary little things Jesus calls us to do day by day. Paul says it’s like a tree growing fruit. As the life flows through the tree, the fruit grows naturally. And as the life of God flows in us by the Spirit, so we grow the fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance and so on. True Christlike character, in other words.
Is there nothing for us to do, then? Most certainly not! If we do nothing, nothing’s going to be the result!
So what should we do? Well, we’ve been given the gift of the Spirit, now Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians to ‘go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’, and here he tells us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’. I take these to be two different ways of attempting to describe the same experience: living our lives in conscious contact with the Holy Spirit, asking him each day to fill us, listening for his guidance, turning to him for help.
This is a different dynamic than law-keeping: it’s more personal, more relational, and certainly more joyful. God is love, John tells us, and ‘God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Romans 5:5 NIV 2011). Only the Spirit of God can give us the power to live out the love of God in our daily lives. And so, Father, please fill us today with the Holy Spirit and help us to keep in step with the Spirit, so that he may grow in us that lovely fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.