Hindrances to Discipleship: The Flesh - Part I - page 3


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From the Winter 2012 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

PART ONE OF TWO

Hindrances to Discipleship: The Flesh

by Thomas A. Tarrants, III, D.Min.
Director of Ministry, C.S. Lewis Institute

 
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  It now becomes clear how misleading it is to think that the flesh is simply another word for sexual lust—a widespread error among believers. This unfortunate reductionism conceals from view the fact that the word encompasses much more, as we have seen. The flesh is the soil, as it were, in which individual sins grow. These sins take a wide variety of forms, physical and mental. Jesus gave us a sample when he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23 ESV; cf. also Gal. 5:19–21). This is not an exhaustive list by any means.  And we dare not over look the fact that the flesh can take forms that appear very respectable and religious, as with the Pharisees and religious formalism. Lovelace notes that “there is a great deal of active religiosity in the world and in the Christian Church which is energized by the flesh, and sometimes by the devil as well.”8
  Over the centuries the church has gained deep insight into the flesh and the main sins that characterize it. These insights have been organized and refined into a schema now known as the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, and sloth. Like large branches growing from the trunk of a great tree, each is a major sin that produces its own network of branches, twigs, and leaves. The better we understand these major sins and their offshoots, the better able we will be to see the ecosystem of sin in our own lives and where we need to focus our greatest efforts in their eradication.9

How the Flesh Operates

  Let’s move on to consider how the flesh operates in human life. The flesh works chiefly through desire. Unlike Buddhism, biblical faith strongly affirms that desire is a good, God-given capacity that brings blessing and enrichment to life when focused on good and godly ends. The desire to know, love, serve, and glorify God is the summit of all desire, followed by the desire to love and serve one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40) and the desire to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus himself by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). And there are many lesser desires that are also good. Ordering our desires and loves aright is crucial for the abundant life God offers us. However, desire becomes sinful when focused on selfish ends, and it is being constantly influenced in that direction by the devil and the world. It dis-orders our loves and can be highly destructive and produce disastrous results. But though the devil and the world can influence us, they are not the root of our problem. For as James tells us, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully gown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15). Desire in this sense is represented by the Greek word epithymia.

Paul sees epithymia as an expression of the sin which rules man. He sees in it the driving power in man’s flesh (sarx), his sinful being which has turned from God. Epithymia seeks gratification (Gal. 5:16). It urges man to activity. When all is said and done, it expresses the deeply rooted tendency in man to find the focus of his life in himself, to trust himself, and to love himself more than others . . . [T]he desires determine and enslave a man.10

  Arousing selfish desire first to be like God and then to become wise was how the devil deceived Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen. 3:6, italics added). Stirring up sinful desires in human beings has been a basic tactic of the devil ever since. And he knows just how to temp each of us. As one old saint observed, “The devil is a master fisherman; he baits his hook according to the appetite of the fish.” Summing up, in its enmity toward God, the flesh distorts our desires, thereby deceiving people and driving them into gratifying the selfish, sinful impulses, which then dominate and enslave them (Eph. 2:3; 4:22; Col. 3:5; Titus 2:12). The Bible calls this enslavement idolatry; it takes many forms today and is described by the secular word addiction.  

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