What is the difference between spirit and flesh?

Almost since its beginning, Christianity has had a complicated relationship with the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Part of this complication has to do with what I consider a misunderstanding of two Greek words that the apostle Paul uses: pneuma (spirit) and sarx (flesh). Paul describes these two entities as being in perpetual conflict and exhorts us to live according to the spirit rather than the flesh. In Plato’s philosophy, there are two levels of reality: the abstract realm of forms and ideas and the concrete realm in which these forms and ideas are expressed in particular objects. Plato also defines the human soul as consisting in three parts: reason, emotions, and appetites. Many of Christianity’s mistakes have resulted from trying to map what Paul is talking about into these two sets of Platonic categories.

I. What does Paul say about spirit and flesh?
Let’s begin with a passage from Galatians 5:16-25 in which Paul lays out a good summary of the distinction between the spirit and the flesh. Then we can evaluate how this passage squares with different possible meanings of spirit and flesh:

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The basic contrast we are given is between works of the flesh and fruits of the Spirit. Those who live by the spirit and belong to Jesus Christ “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Note that this does not indemnify passion or desire as such; the spirit has its own passions and desires. The other thing Paul says is that people who are “led by the spirit are not subject to the law,” which seems to suggest that spirit-led people have an intuitive sense of holiness rather than needing to be given long lists of do’s and don’ts that are followed mechanistically. So now I want to consider two bad Platonist analogies for spirit and flesh and then try to come up with a more adequate one.

II. Spirit vs. Flesh = Abstract vs. Concrete?
Because we often think of spirit as something invisible while flesh is something visible, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that the spirit is abstract and universal while the flesh is concrete and particular. When you make this analogy in your thinking, then people who think about principles and big-picture questions are being more “spiritual” than people who get muddled up in “fleshly” details. Spiritual people are like Mary sitting around philosophizing with Jesus while fleshly people are like Martha scrubbing the floors around them (since they don’t understand what’s important).

Since I’m a big-picture kind of guy, this is a very self-serving way to contrast spirit and flesh because it means that when I sit down to type something in the abstract medium of cyberspace, it is more important than doing “fleshly” things like washing dishes or putting my clothes away. It also plays into how we categorize occupations in our society. People who deal with abstract, universal concepts are “white-collar” workers whose time is worth more than “blue-collar” workers who deal with concrete particularity. There’s a subtle way in which we actually moralize the superiority of abstraction over concreteness.

But what do these categories have to do with Paul’s works of the flesh and fruit of the spirit? Does it make you less susceptible to anger, quarrels, factions, and envy to be a big-picture person while people who deal with details are less likely to have peace, joy, and patience? When we put them up against that rubric, the ridiculousness is obvious, but I really do think that Western minds, and Christians in particular, give more value to abstract universals than concrete particulars specifically because of our confusion about spirit and flesh. In a church setting, this translates into privileging what we believe over how we live, which of course receives additional support from a simultaneous abuse of the dichotomy between faith and works in our theological understanding.

We live in an era where so many Christian “soldiers” wage ideological warfare in the blogosphere over the “important topics,” completely oblivious to the inroads that Satan is making into their souls because they have so undervalued the very concrete particular means of grace that God provides us to instill our souls with fruits of His spirit (and I’m being autobiographical here!). So let me just say this emphatically: living by the spirit instead of the flesh in no way means that concrete, physical things are “bad” while abstract ideas are “good.”

III. Spirit vs. Flesh = Logic vs. Feeling?A very common stereotype in our theological debates that I tried my best to ridicule thoroughly in my post about Christian mansplanation is that men think logically while women think according to “feelings.” This has been the standard justification given for telling women to submit to male spiritual leadership, often making use of a very unfortunate statement Paul makes in 1 Timothy 2:14: “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman was deceived and became a sinner.”

Underneath this male self-infatuated stereotype, I find a fusing together of the spirit/flesh duality and the three Platonic partitions of the human soul I mentioned earlier. “Spirit” maps onto reason, while “flesh” maps onto “feelings,” in which the emotions and physical appetites are lopped together. But is Plato really right to split us into these three parts? Where in particular do our intuitions fall, those hunches that motivate our behavior when we have to act in real time without the luxury of being able to stop for a personal town meeting where we list the pros and cons and deductively reason our way to a logical decision? Are intuitions really no more than emotions? Because they can’t really be called reason if reason refers to thoughts that I can articulate and explain clearly.

There’s been a backlash in recent years against the Platonist rationalism that lacks an adequate account of intuition. What people like James K.A. Smith are arguing is that it’s very natural and actually not something we should try to escape for our behaviors to be based mostly on habits and intuitions rather than logic. We just need better habits in order to develop better intuitions rather than trying to reason ourselves out of being habitual creatures. And that’s why worship is so important, because the solution is not for our brains to gain control over our hearts and guts, but for us to be actively engaged in loving God with all our brains and hearts and guts, which cannot be segregated into those three neat compartments like Plato wanted.

So someone who has a clear, deductive explanation of their “beliefs” is not more spiritual than someone whose faith is based on intuitions, which should not be dismissed as mere “feelings.” I would argue actually that the more rationalistic we are about our beliefs, the more likely we are treating Christianity as an ideology held at arms length from the actual practices of our life, while people whose faith is intuitive have likely integrated what they have seen and read about Jesus so deeply into their consciousness that they can’t spit out chapter and verse justifications for every decision that they make, even if they are thoroughly Christlike.

IV. Spirit vs. Flesh = (Dead) Matter vs. Life!
These words aren’t perfect, but this is the best I can do. Based on what Paul says in Galatians 5 and other places about spirit and flesh, I think it’s best to think of both of them as thoroughly physical realities. The flesh refers to dead matter, while the spirit is what gives all matter life. Without the spirit, we are all just dead hunks of meat. And the more that we engage in works of the flesh, the more we become dead hunks of meat. But consider what works of the flesh are and aren’t.

Going swimming doesn’t make Paul’s list of works of the flesh even though it’s an activity in which every millimeter of your skin is being caressed by water at the same time. Eating an ice cream cone is not a work of the flesh even though it tastes good. Having sex with my wife when we have no intention of producing a child is not a work of the flesh (even though this was the belief of the Catholic church for most of its existence). Choosing the spirit over the flesh is not about choosing the abstract over the concrete, the invisible over the visible, or the logical over the heartfelt. Works of the flesh are those life-destroying acts which suck the beauty out of our lives and make all of our encounters with the physical world into nervous consumption and restless performance.

Swimming, ice cream, and sex can all be ways in which we love God with all our brain, heart, and gut if we are living under the spirit. It is also true that engaging in any of these things in the wrong way can be part of the means by which we kill the spirit in us. You can’t worship God through having sex if your god is the dopamine that gets released into your brain or the desperate need for companionship through which you compensate one night at a time for your self-hatred and loneliness. But the goal is not to hate the physical world and flee to a world of ideas and principles. The goal is to make everything physical that you do into the pure delight of loving God: that’s worship.

The reason I fast every Monday is not because I’m trying to become a robot who doesn’t enjoy the taste of anything. It’s actually because I experience the beauty of physical reality much more intensely when my hunger injects each of my thoughts with an underlying desire for God. So it’s entirely selfish; I’m not doing anything that should accrue any debt with God or anyone else. I’m doing it for the sake of the joy set before me (I love that phrase from Hebrews 12:2).

In contrast, when I scarf down a bunch of tortilla chips or drink too much wine, I’m acting out of a life-destroying anxiety, not any kind of delight in physical existence. This anxiety turns me into a disgusting sack of fat and snot and meat that becomes less human the more that anxiety owns me. Since I desire to escape my body of death, I want to avail myself of every means that God has provided for me to learn the habits and disciplines that will make my life into worship. Just because they’re disciplines doesn’t mean that they’re sufferings I endure for the sake of gaining some kind of currency with God. The mistake of works-righteousness is to assume that we “earn” something through suffering and thus to suffer in order to “earn” salvation as opposed to disciplining yourself for the selfish cause of gaining a deeper delight.

Discipleship does mean denying myself and taking up a cross. But this does not mean what the miserly Platonists or Puritans or Pharisees have made it mean. It means that I lose myself and forget my dignity because I’m having too much fun loving God. That’s what life in the spirit is, whether it takes place in an arid, antiseptic room with polished white walls or in filthy North Carolina swimming holes where I love to float on my back for hours just chillin’ with my God.

10 thoughts on “What is the difference between spirit and flesh?

  1. Pingback: In defense of the “so-called” Wesleyan quadrilateral and the experiential breath of God | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. Pingback: Worldviewism and the nature of truth | Mercy not Sacrifice

  3. Excellent post. I’m surprised you didn’t bring in any mention of the incarnation, btw, because the incarnation is the #1 thing that blows away Platonism and this ridiculous flesh vs. spirit dichotomy as popularized by Martin Luther.

  4. Fantastic post! I once heard a friend refer to the “flesh” as “the self-seeking self.” I very much appreciate this post and will be sharing it with friends.

    (One typo – you’e accidentally written “Mary…Mary” in the first paragraph instead of “Mary…Martha.”)

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