Paul’s discourse in Galatians is now turning intensely personal because he is talking about what he calls “The Flesh” and our moral behavior. The Greek word (sarkós) is often translated flesh, but may also refer to “human nature“, or “human instinct” or “creaturely tendency“. It’s often translated as “sinful nature” in part because of the scripture we are going to examine today. Last week I called this the shadow.
To really understand the term we need to consider that humanity is distinct from all other creatures in our ability to observe our own instinct and then override it. A fox may have an instinct to kill just like a human, but it is unable to temper that instinct for a greater good. Thus instincts are important but they are not always reliable gauges for societies of higher consciousness. The flesh is our propensity toward lower functioning human behavior and stands in distinction to the Spirit which calls us toward higher levels of conscious engagement.
Paul’s admonishment to us is two fold: 1. Don’t use your freedom to give full vent to the flesh, and 2. learn the dance of shadow and light, flesh and spirit.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”” (Galatians 5:13-15)
I’ve shown how freedom is our inheritance which we can experience each and every moment. Unlike religion which teaches that we are not free to do certain things because those things are sinful, Paul’s Gospel illuminates that few things are inherently sinful but anything can become sinful when love ceases to be the motivator behind our actions. This means even a good deed such as praying is sinning if we do it from a motivation other than love. (Luke 18:10-11)
The Gospel redraws the line of morality (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). This internal measurement is more free but requires more maturity than an external moral rule. Paul is revealing a convergence of two streams of truth. We are free to do as we want, however if love is NOT motivating the heart then our freedom requires self discipline /tempering or we hurt ourselves and others. That part of us that hurts ourself and others comes from our impulse/instinct to satisfy our flesh or the shadow self.
For example: When hungry we are more likely to pick foods that satisfy our appetite rather than those that build and heal our bodies. We’re free to eat all the junk we want, but if we freely choose poor food, we forfeit the freedom of a healthy mind and body and enter the captivity of sickness and decline. The impulse to be lazy must be tempered lest we destroy our lives.
Paul uses sexuality (Galatians 5:19) as an example to reveal the message of freedom, so I want to weave a few key points together for you. We are free to satisfy our sexual impulses if that can be done in love. However, our flesh prefers to carve sexuality away from the whole person which objectifies the other person and dehumanizes them, violating the law of love. If we lie, cheat, or have no intention or ability of honoring the whole life of the complete person, then sexuality becomes immoral. The Bible’s word for this is “pornéa” (v.19) (sexual immorality).
Religion teaches that our culture shows us too much sexuality, but the Gospel reveals that sexuality shows us too little of our humanity. To live according to the flesh (v.16) is to indulge our creaturely impulse apart from the acts of love which account for the entire life of the other person. Acting from anything but “loving others as ourself” hurts ourselves and others. The bible’s definition of sin is: non-faith. “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). When we speed, overspend, gossip, hold prejudice or seek revenge we are obeying the impulse of the flesh rather than operating from a motivation of love, which hurts all of us. Failing to temper the shadow creates a false self.
This leads us to Pauls second point about learning how to dance with shadow and light.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16–17)
Some bible translations translate “desires of the flesh” as “evil desire.“ This has created a lot of confusion which has led to elaborate theologies and religious practices to exorcise the evil within us. The term here is (epithumia) or “over-desire.” Religion has endeavored to surgically remove our “evil desire” whereas the Gospel Paul is revealing is focused on tempering our “over-desire.”
This might shock some of you, but none of us posses a wrong desire. In my book Getting Better When You Can’t I prove that we have actually never done a bad or wrong thing, instead we have only gone after the best things in bad or wrong ways. The Gospel provides this monumental frame shift once we grasp what Paul is saying. Many people of faith have been relegated to a never ending, exhausting exercise in futility known as killing the flesh because our pastors, priests and imams have not understood this.
Téleo is the term seen above for “gratify” but it really means “reach the end”. A better translation is: “Live by the spirit and you will not reach the end of your over desires found in the flesh.” Paul is teaching us his dance moves. We all have a shadow within us because we all posses such light. The impulse of our humanity may at first create a hunger to do what seems wrong. Rather than eradicate the whole desire, temper it by learning the motivation that is ultimately behind it.
For example: We can flagellate ourself all we want to eradicate our immoral desires but even if we never act out on them, the desires keep returning. There is enough light to keep from acting out, but not enough to eliminate the shadow. Shadow and light are opposed to each other by design. Paul says “the spirit and the flesh are “antikeimai” (hostile) to each other so that whatever you do not want (to do), those things you do”(Galatians 5:17). He is describing how we obey the flesh.
By contrast, the Spirit of God illuminates that our motivation is not the creaturely impulse of our shadow. There is more going on than hunger, horniness, or rage. Our deeper motivation is validation, approval, or acceptance at a soul level (ontology). Once the Gospel message that we are loved and beloved by God penetrates our motivations, we no longer see the obedience to the flesh as the means to satisfy and find our true self. Shadow or flesh is a prison masquerading as freedom. If we trust (faith) our inner freedom, we begin to see the others as ourself and we would never want to harm them (the law of love).
Walking in the spirit or learning to dance or FLOW is the key to higher conscious living. Like light and shadow, the spirit and the flesh work or flow together in tension to create the beauty and thrill of living. If we forsake the dance we forfeit our humanity on both sides. We can succumb to the impulse of the shadow which leads to ruin or we can flee from it in a Platonic piety that makes us hate the gift of life. Both are errors resulting from viewing this as a binary.
We can go further in the enjoyment of our humanity by way of the spirit than we can without it. A life of non-faith or sin is not freedom, its a cage just as much as a religious sin management system. The Spirit of the Gospel frees us from both extremes. We need not be afraid of our propensities, the fact that we notice them at all is evidence of the spirit working within. The spirit allows us to enjoy our humanity as much as possible before it brings harm. The light invites us to go beyond our creaturely impulses and past our temptations into the discovery of our true self found in God.
No where else is the self truly free.