We usually think about the “flesh” in Paul’s letters as a principle focused on sexual or sensual gratification. This reading is not entirely arbitrary, but it is extremely limited. In Romans 8:6, Paul gives us a characterization of the flesh that we would be wrong to ignore: “the attention of the flesh is focused on death, but the attention of the spirit is focused on life and peace.”
We should ask, here, immediately, where our attention is focused. What are you intent on? Paying the bills? Entertainment? Doing your job well? Pleasing people? Fulfilling your desires for food or sexual pleasure?
THAT is the work of your flesh, if it distracts you from God’s work in your life. All these things are, biblically, vitally focused on death. Why do you worry about paying the bills? Because you fear that the “treasures” you have here on earth will be lost to you — because you fear death, or a kind of death. All the objects of fleshly attention carry with them some sort of anxiety about death or meaninglessness, and all of them keep us from the love of God — from life and peace, from the life of the birds of the air, whose needs their heavenly Father attends to.
This insight, I believe, opens up Romans 7-8 in a powerful way to all people — and just as importantly, to people whose struggle with sensual sins might distract them from the core anxieties that constantly fuel the flesh. We ALL tend to be concerned overmuch about the world; we just do it in different ways. When Jesus and Paul challenge THAT attachment, we all sometimes feel perfectly hopeless to change it — how can I stop being concerned with these things that are, literally, my lifeblood? “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
As if Paul didn’t think we were hopeless enough, he piles on the hopelessness in verse 8, one of the simplest and shortest verses of the New Testament: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Except that’s not what it says. Yes, this is one of those times where I show off my knowledge of Greek. (Look, mom! No lexicons!) The verse says this, when properly translated: “While someone is in the flesh, he cannot please God.” The point is not that God is constantly displeased with us because we often worry. The point is that God is not pleased with us when we worry, when we focus on pleasure, when we obsess about our jobs, when we fear for the futures of our families.
The verse is a perpetual instruction. Want to make your Daddy happy with you? Stop with this flesh business! When? Now. Worry about tomorrow tomorrow. “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”
What do we do with the flesh? The same thing they did with Jesus’s flesh: we crucify it. We “remain” in the Spirit, in the vine, by constantly redirecting our attention toward Him who is at every moment redeeming us. The Spirit “lives” in us, and the Father will “make alive our death-prone bodies” just as He raised Christ up from the grave. The futility of the flesh is realized, decisively, upon the cross — the moment of pure hopelessness, for those that lack faith — but the vitality of the Spirit is realized in the Resurrection. Even so, every time we turn from the flesh and heed the Spirit, we reenact the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our bodies, so that “in our bodies the life of Christ may be revealed” (2 Cor. 4).
And every turn brings joy and delight to our heavenly Father!