In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul gives a simple yet profound exhortation to Christians that illuminates our fight with sin:
Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:14)
The exhortation suggests that not only do we sin by gratifying sinful desires, but we can actually create space for such indulgence. What does that mean, and how does it work?
Desires of the Flesh
Let’s begin with the fact that the flesh has ungodly desires. In Galatians 5:17, Paul insists that the desires of the flesh are contrary to the Spirit; literally, “the flesh desires against the Spirit.” To gratify a fleshly desire is to complete, indulge, and fulfill the desire, to go where the desire wants to take you. Such indulgence is called “the works of the flesh,” which Paul lays out in Galatians 5:19–21:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
In Romans 13, Paul calls them “works of darkness,” and provides a similar list of examples:
The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. (Romans 13:12–13)
In these lists, we see sins related to our sexual life (sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality), sins related to our desires for food, drink, and refreshment (drunkenness), and sins related to our social life (enmity, strife, rivalries, jealousy, quarreling, fits of anger, divisions). We’re all familiar with these sins in our lives. But what does it mean to “make provision” for them?
How We Make Provision
“Making provision for the flesh” implies that we can choose to put ourselves in the path of temptation. We can make room and create space for sinful desires to be awakened, pursued, and gratified. Essentially, we can turn the Lord’s Prayer on its head and say, “Lead me into temptation so that I can give myself over to evil.”
At a practical level, we can subtly plan to be in an environment of temptation, knowing (or at least hoping) that temptations will come and will awaken our desires so that we can gratify them. It’s important to stress the subtlety, though. When we make provision for the flesh, our minds operate in such a way that we often rationalize and excuse our behavior, even to ourselves. Our minds are employed to serve fleshly desires, and then our minds are employed to excuse and justify our behavior. That’s what it means to make provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Consider, in particular, how our technology enables us to make provision for the flesh. We might choose to use apps or visit websites where we know that sexually explicit images will likely show up (whether through ads or posts). We weren’t blatantly looking for such images. But we were creating space for them to show up. We were making provision for them to awaken our desires. The flesh leads us there through sinful curiosity, but then our mind attempts to rationalize what happens: “I was just checking social media.”
Lust, Jealousy, Envy, and Anger
While sexual immorality is an obvious temptation in this area, the same dynamic is at work with other passions and desires. How often do we make provision for the flesh by visiting sites and using apps that regularly awaken our jealousy and envy? We create space for covetousness by frequenting sites that display an image of the life we wish we had. “Look at her house/family/clothes.” “Look at his opportunities/successes/blessings.”
Or if not envy, perhaps it’s anger and quarreling. We know that reading that article, or watching that news clip, or listening to that podcast, will awaken frustration, or anxiety, or fear, or fits of anger. And yet we make provision for those sins by putting ourselves in a position to be so awakened. We make provision by subjecting ourselves to knowledge that we will turn over in our minds with malice and bitterness (just as we might fondle a lust). And then we justify and rationalize it, saying, “I’m just keeping up with the news. It’s important to stay informed about what’s going on in the world.”
In each of these cases, we are creating room, giving space, and making provision for the flesh to lead us into temptation and sin.
Wake Up and Take a Walk
Thankfully, Paul doesn’t simply tell us what to avoid. He also tells us what to do.
First, we wake up.
You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. (Romans 13:11–12)
In other words, we become aware of the way that our minds and our flesh work together to lead us into sin. Making provision for the flesh numbs and deadens us. Spiritually, we fall asleep. We follow our passions in a fog of desires, appetites, excuses, and rationalizations, swatting away the voice of our conscience and the Holy Spirit. So we must wake up.
Second, we change clothes. “So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Later, he exhorts us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). Instead of using our minds to create space for the flesh and then rationalize our desires, we use our minds to count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Romans 6:11). We consider who we are in the light of Christ’s work. This is a gracious mental effort to set our mind on things above, where Christ is (Colossians 3:1–4).
“It’s not enough to simply avoid sin and temptation; we must actively seek to kill our sin.”
And notice that changing clothes involves both casting off and putting on. “Casting off the works of darkness” involves putting to death what is earthly in us (Colossians 3:5). This implies that it’s not enough to simply avoid sin and temptation; we must actively seek to kill our sin. In other words, we refuse to allow sinful curiosity to take up residence in our hearts without making intentional efforts to put it to death. We don’t merely play defense; we also go on offense.
Finally, we go for a walk. “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:13). We’re awake and alert; we’re properly clothed in Christ’s righteousness. And now we walk in a manner that fits our union with him.
What We Cannot Hide
Central to walking properly is recognizing that it is daytime. Having been brought from death and sin to life and righteousness, we have been brought from darkness to light. Put another way, we are seen.
“When making provision for the flesh, one of the lies we’re tempted to believe is that we can hide.”
When making provision for the flesh, one of the lies we’re tempted to believe is that we can hide. And while it is possible to hide from other people, we cannot hide from God. We never fool him with our excuses and subtleties. He sees us making space for our sinful appetites to run. Our rationalizations are empty before his omniscience. We are like the child tiptoeing to the kitchen at night to steal a cookie from the cupboard while his mother watches from the living room. Our attempts at stealth are folly before the brightness of his all-seeing gaze. As the book of Hebrews says, “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
So Paul’s call is simple (even if the obedience is hard won). Wake up. Change your clothes. Put on the Lord Jesus and his armor. And then walk in a fitting way before him. Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.