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The Spirit and the Flesh

GALATIANS, v. 16.

"I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other."

The more we think seriously, my friends, the more we shall see what wonderful and awful things words are, how they mean much more than we fancy,--how we do not make words, but words are given to us by one higher than ourselves. Wise men say that you can tell the character of any nation by its language, by watching the words they use, the names they give to things, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and by our words, our Lord tells us, we shall be justified and condemned.

It is God, and Christ, the Word of God, who gives words to men, who puts it into the hearts of men to call certain things by certain names; and, according to a nation's godliness, and wisdom, and purity of heart, will be its power of using words discreetly and reverently. That miracle of the gift of tongues, of which we read in the New Testament, would have been still most precious and full of meaning if it had had no other use than this--to teach men from whom words come. When men found themselves all of a sudden inspired to talk in foreign languages which they had never learnt, to utter words of which they themselves did not know the meaning, do you not see how it must have made them feel that all language is God's making and God's giving? Do you not see how it must have made them feel what awful, mysterious things words were, like those cloven tongues of fire which fell on the apostles? The tongues of fire signified the difficult foreign languages which they suddenly began to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance. And where did the tongues of fire come from? Not out of themselves, not out of the earth beneath, but down from the heaven above, to signify that it is not from man, from man's flesh or brain, or the earthly part of him, that words are bred, but that they come down from Christ the Word of God, and are breathed into the minds of men by the Spirit of God. Why do I speak of all this? To make you feel what awful, wonderful things words are; how, when you want to understand the meaning of a word, you must set to work with reverence and godly fear--not in self-conceit and prejudice, taking the word to mean just what suits your own notions of things, but trying humbly to find out what the word really does mean of itself, what God meant it to mean when He put it into the hearts of wise men to use that word and bring it into our English language. A man ought to read a newspaper or a story-book in that spirit; how much more, when he takes up the Bible! How reverently he ought to examine every word in the New Testament--this very text, for instance. We ought to be sure that St. Paul, just because he was an inspired apostle, used the very best possible words to express what he meant on so important a matter; and what ARE the best words? The clearest and the simplest words are the best words; else how is the Bible to be the poor man's book? How, unless the wayfaring man, though simple, shall not err therein? Therefore we may be sure the words in Scripture are certain to be used in their simplest, most natural, most everyday meaning, such as the simplest man can understand. And, therefore, we may be sure, that these two words, "flesh" and "spirit," in my text, are used in their very simplest, straightforward sense; and that St. Paul meant by them what working-men mean by them in the affairs of daily life. No doubt St. Peter says that there are many things in St. Paul's writings difficult to be understood, which those who are unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction; and, most true it is, so they do daily. But what does "wresting" a thing mean? It means twisting it, bending it, turning it out of its original straightforward, natural meaning, into some new crooked meaning of their own. This is the way we are all of us too apt, I am afraid, to come to St. Paul's Epistles. We find him difficult because we won't take him at his word, because we tear a text out of its right place in the chapter--the place where St. Paul put it, and make it stand by itself, instead of letting the rest of the chapter explain its meaning. And then, again, people use the words in the text as unfairly and unreasonably as they use the text itself, they won't let the words have their common-sense English meaning--they must stick a new meaning on them of their own. 'Oh,' they say, 'that text must not be taken literally, that word has a spiritual signification here. Flesh does not mean flesh, it means men's corrupt nature;' little thinking all the while that perhaps they understand those words, spiritual, and corrupt, and nature, just as ill as they do the rest of the text.

How much better, my friends, to let the Bible tell its own story; not to be so exceeding wise above what is written, just to believe that St. Paul knew better how to use words than we are likely to do,--just to believe that when he says flesh he means flesh. Everybody agrees that when he says spirit he means spirit, why, in the name of common sense, when he says flesh should he not mean flesh? For my own part I believe that when St. Paul talks of man's flesh, he means by it man's body, man's heart and brain, and all his bodily appetites and powers--what we call a man's constitution; in a word, the ANIMAL part of man, just what a man has in common with the beasts who perish.

To understand what I mean, consider any animal--a dog, for instance-- how much every animal has in it what men have,--a body, and brain, and heart; it hungers and thirsts as we do, it can feel pleasure and pain, anger and loneliness, and fear and madness; it likes freedom, company, and exercise, praise and petting, play and ease; it uses a great deal of cunning, and thought, and courage, to get itself food and shelter, just as human beings do: in short, it has a fleshly nature, just as we have, and yet, after all, it is but an animal, and so, in one sense, we are all animals, only more delicately made than the other animals; but we are something more, we have a spirit as well as a flesh, an immortal soul. If any one asks, what is a man? the true answer is, an animal with an immortal spirit in it; and this spirit can feel more than pleasure and pain, which are mere carnal, that is, fleshly things; it can feel trust, and hope, and peace, and love, and purity, and nobleness, and independence, and, above all, it can feel right and wrong. There is the infinite difference between an animal and a man, between our flesh and our spirit; an animal has no sense of right and wrong; a dog who has done wrong is often terrified, but not because he feels it wrong and wicked, but because he knows from experience that he will be punished for doing it: just so with a man's fleshly nature;--a carnal, fleshly man, a man whose spirit is dead within him, whose spiritual sense of right and wrong, and honour and purity, is gone, when he has done a wrong thing is often enough afraid; but why? Not for any spiritual reason, not because he feels it a wicked and abominable thing, a sin, but because he is afraid of being punished for it, because he is afraid that his body, his flesh will be punished by the laws of the land, or by public opinion, or because he has some dim belief that this same body and flesh of his will be burnt in hell-fire; and fire, he knows by experience, is a painful thing--and so he is AFRAID of it; there is nothing spiritual in all that,--that is all fleshly, carnal; the heathens in all ages have been afraid of hell-fire; but a man's spirit, on the other hand, if it be in hell, is in a very different hell from mere fire,--a spiritual hell, such as torments the evil spirits, at this very moment, although they are going to and fro on this very earth. This earth is hell to them; they carry about hell in them,--they are their own hell. Everlasting shame, discontent, doubt, despair, rage, disgust at themselves, feeling that they are out of favour with God, out of tune with heaven and earth, loving nothing, believing nothing, ever hating, hating each other, hating themselves most of all--THERE is their hell! THERE is the hell in which the soul of every wicked man is,--ay, is now while he is in THIS life, though he will only awake to the perfect misery of it after death, when his body and fleshly nature have mouldered away in the grave, and can no longer pamper and stupify him and make him forget his own misery. Ay, there has been many a man in this life who had every fleshly enjoyment which this world can give, riches and pleasure, banquets and palaces, every sense and every appetite pampered,--his pride and his vanity flattered; who never knew what want, or trouble, or contradiction, was on the smallest point; a man, I say, who had every carnal enjoyment which this earth can give to a man's selfish flesh, and yet whose spirit was in hell all the while, and who knew it; hating and despising himself for a mean selfish villain, while all the world round was bowing down to him and envying him as the luckiest of men. I am trying to make you understand the infinite difference between a man's flesh and his spirit; how a man's flesh can take no pleasure in spiritual things, while man's spirit of itself can take no pleasure in fleshly things. Now, the spirit and the flesh, body and soul, in every man, are at war with each other,--they have quarrelled; that is the corruption of our nature, the fruit of Adam's fall. And as the Article says, and as every man who has ever tried to live godly well knows, from experience, "that infection of nature does remain to the last, even in those who are regenerate." So that as St. Paul says, the spirit lusteth against the flesh, and the flesh against the spirit; and it continually happens that a man cannot do the things which he would; he cannot do what he knows to be right; thus, as St. Paul says again, a man may delight in the law of God in his inward man, that is, in his spirit, and yet all the while he shall find another law in his members, I.E. in his body, in his flesh, in his brain which thinks, and his heart which feels, and his senses which are fond of pleasure; and this law of the flesh, these appetites and passions which he has, like other animals, fight against the law of his mind, and when he wishes to do good, make him do evil. Now how is this? The flesh is not evil; a man's body can be no more wicked than a dumb beast can be wicked. St. Paul calls man's flesh sinful flesh; not because our flesh can sin of itself, but because our sinful souls make our flesh do sinful things; for, he says, Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh, and yet in him was no sin. The pure and spotless Saviour could not have taken man's flesh upon him if there was any sinfulness in it. The body knows nothing of right and wrong; it is not subject to the law of God, neither, indeed, can be, says St. Paul. And why? Because God's law is spiritual; deals with right and wrong. Wickedness, like righteousness, is a spiritual thing. If a man sins, his body is not in fault; it is his spirit; his weak, perverse will, which will sooner listen to what his flesh tells him is pleasant than to what God tells him is right; for this, my friends, is the secret of the battle of life. We stand between heaven and earth. Above is God's Spirit striving with our spirits, speaking to them in the depths of our soul, shewing us what is right, putting into our hearts good desires, making us long to be honest and just, pure and manful, loving and charitable; for who is there who has not at times longed after these things, and felt that it would be a blessed thing for him if he were such a man as Jesus Christ was and is?--Above us, I say, is God's Spirit speaking to our spirits, below us is this world speaking to our flesh, as it spoke to Eve's, saying to us, "This thing is pleasant to the eyes--this thing is good for food--that thing is to be desired to make you wise, and to flatter your vanity and self-conceit." Below us, I say, is THIS world, tempting us to ease, and pleasure, and vanity; and in the middle, betwixt the two, stands up the third part of man-- his SOUL and WILL, set to choose between the voice of God's Spirit and the temptations of this world--to choose between what is right and what is pleasant--to choose whether he will obey the desires of the spirit, or obey the desires of the flesh. He must choose. If he lets his flesh conquer his spirit, he falls; if he lets his spirit conquer his flesh, he rises; if he lets his flesh conquer his spirit, he becomes what he was not meant to be--a slave to fleshly lust; and THEN he will find his flesh set up for itself, and work for itself. And where man's flesh gets the upper hand, and takes possession of him, it can do nothing but evil--not that it is evil in itself, but that it has no rule, no law to go by; it does not know right from wrong; and therefore it does simply what it likes, as a dumb beast or an idiot might; and therefore the works of the flesh are--adulteries, drunkenness, murders, fornications, envyings, backbitings, strife. When a man's body, which God intended to be the servant of his spirit, has become the tyrant of his spirit, it is like an idiot on a king's throne, doing all manner of harm and folly without knowing that it IS harm and folly. That is not ITS fault. Whose fault is it, then? OUR fault--the fault of our wills and our souls. Our souls were intended to be the masters of our flesh, to conquer all the weaknesses, defilements of our constitution--our tempers, our cowardice, our laziness, our hastiness, our nervousness, our vanity, our love of pleasure--to listen to our spirits, because our spirits learn from God's Spirit what is right and noble. But if we let our flesh master us, and obey its own blind lusts, we sin against God; and we sin against God doubly; for we not only sin against God's commandments, but we sin against ourselves, who are the image and glory of God.

Believe this, my friends; believe that, because you are all fallen human creatures, there must go on in you this sore life-long battle between your spirit and your flesh--your spirit trying to be master and guide, as it ought to be, and your flesh rebelling, and trying to conquer your spirit and make you a mere animal, like a fox in cunning, a peacock in vanity, or a hog in greedy sloth. But believe, too, that it is your sin and your shame if your spirit does not conquer your flesh--for God has promised to help your spirits. Ask Him, and His Spirit will teach them--fill them with pure, noble hopes, with calm, clear thoughts, and with deep, unselfish love to God and man. He will strengthen your wills, that they may be able to refuse the evil and choose the good. Ask Him, and He will join them to His own Spirit--to the Spirit of Christ, your Master; for he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit with Him. Ask him, and He will give you the mind of Christ--teach you to see and feel all matters as Christ sees and feels them. Ask Him, and He will give you wisdom to listen to His Spirit when it teaches your spirit, and then you will be able to walk after the spirit, and not obey the lusts of the flesh; and you will be able to crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts, that is, to make it, what it ought to be, a dead thing--a dead tool for your spirit to work with manfully and godly, and not a live tyrant to lead you into brutishness and folly; and then you will find that the fruit of the spirit, of your spirit led by God's Spirit, is really, as St. Paul says, "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, honesty"--"whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honourable and of good report;" and instead of being the miserable slaves of your own passions, and of the opinions of your neighbours, you will find that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, true freedom, not only from your neighbours' sins, but, what is far better, freedom from your own.

These are large words, my friends, and promise mighty things. But I dare speak them to you, for God has spoken to you. These promises God made you at your baptism; these promises I, on the warrant of your baptism, dare make to you again. At your baptism, God gave you the right to call Him your loving Father, to call His Son your Saviour, His Spirit your Sanctifier. And He is not a man, that He should lie; nor the son of man, that He should repent! Try Him, and see whether He will not fulfil His word. Claim His promise, and though you have fallen lower than the brutes, He will make men and women of you. He will be faithful and just to forgive you your sins, and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.


Charles Kingsley