In Gethsemane, after agonizing prayer, Jesus came looking for his friends whose prayerful attentiveness would have been such a comfort to him. But he found them sleeping. What he said to them was gracious but firm: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
We understand what it means to have weak flesh, don’t we?
But we also find our weak flesh to be powerful, opposing our willing spirit’s intentions and resolve to follow Jesus in the obedience of faith (Galatians 5:17; Romans 1:5). Fighting it is a daily struggle. What do we prayerfully watch for to escape the power of our weak flesh?
Our Weak Flesh Is a Powerful Enemy
“Our weak flesh is often powerful, opposing our resolve to follow Jesus.”
It’s a paradox that we often experience the weakness of our flesh in the strength of its sinful cravings and compulsions. It’s maddening because our flesh frequently demands to think or do things other than what we should be thinking or doing at the moment. These range from mildly distracting to disturbingly dark:
- When, like the disciples, we should be watching and praying, our flesh really wants to sleep.
- When we should be sleeping, our flesh finds Facebook browsing fascinating.
- When we should be diligently teaching our children (Deuteronomy 6:7), our flesh would love to watch a relaxing, even family-friendly movie.
- When we should be meditating on Scripture, our flesh becomes a fountain of ideas for reorganizing the room, improving the yard, or critiquing the political candidate.
- When we should be focusing on our work, our flesh brings up that focus-dominating fear.
- When we should be cutting our calories, our flesh demands a sugar-laced snack.
- When we should be eating because we’ve become undernourished due to believing lies about how our weight relates to our value, our flesh screams shame-filled things to stop us.
- When we should be relishing the joy and freedom of sexual purity and fidelity, our flesh desires to imagine or view defiling, lewd images.
- When we should be humbly resisting premature conclusions regarding a potentially offensive concern or comment, our flesh immediately turns defensive and suspicious, proposing fantasy scenarios that will indulge sinful anger with a feeling of righteous indignation.
The exasperation of this experience made Paul cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). And if it weren’t for God’s grace toward us, our flesh would hold us enslaved (Romans 6:20; Ephesians 2:3).
How God Conquers the Power of Our Weakness
But in Christ, God sets us free not only from the penalty of our sin (Colossians 2:14), but also from the power of our sin that remains very active in our flesh (Romans 8:2; Romans 7:23):
For God . . . [by] sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . . condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3–4)
The Word became flesh (John 1:14) in order to be condemned in our place for our sin and in doing so paid the full penalty of our guilt. And then Jesus gives us his Spirit to empower us to walk in “newness of life” (Romans 6:4) so that we no longer are enslaved to cravings and compulsions of our flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Sin-penalty paid, Spirit-power imparted, and the kingdom inherited (Matthew 25:34), all because our King is so gracious and lavishly generous. What a gospel!
Prayerfully Watch for the Spirit
But because our weak, sin-infected flesh still seeks to powerfully influence us away from the gospel, Jesus commands us to watch and pray (Matthew 26:41). Watch and pray for what? We watch and pray for the Holy Spirit.
We are to be led by the Spirit. And the Spirit guides us into truth by speaking to us the word of Christ (John 16:13; Romans 10:17). The flesh leads us by carnal and selfish desires (1 John 2:16). Only Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). That’s why “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63).
“Sin-penalty paid, and Spirit-power imparted, all because our King is so gracious.”
That’s also why Paul tells us, “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).
And that’s also why Paul says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:13–14).
God’s children are those who follow the leading of God’s Spirit by heeding Jesus’s living word (Hebrews 4:12; John 6:68). They “stay awake” (Mark 13:37), remaining alert, praying in the Spirit and watching for the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18). They, like the first disciples, do none of these perfectly yet. But, though stumbling at times, they walk by faith in Jesus’s words and not by the sight of their fleshly cravings (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Choose Life: Die Every Day
When it comes to resisting the powerful demands of our weak flesh, the Bible describes it as a kind of dying (1 Peter 2:24). That’s because our deceived, corrupt flesh believes our life will be happier if we gratify it. Denying it can feel like dying to something life-giving.
We must remember every day that “nothing good dwells in [us], that is, in [our] flesh” (Romans 7:18). When we, in following the Spirit’s direction, die to our flesh, we are dying only to what would destroy us, things like “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5). All we are dying to is death. That kind of dying is worth dying every day (1 Corinthians 15:31). For in such dying we choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19).
When our weak flesh seems to wield great power through its cravings and compulsions, we must watch and pray for the Spirit, for greater is he that is in the new (regenerate) us than he that is in the old us. All our sinful flesh will yield is death. But if by the Spirit we put our flesh to death, we will live (Romans 8:13).
Today, when your unruly flesh makes maddening demands on you, remember: It will not kill you to die to your flesh. You are choosing life.