Know your enemy–the flesh

Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it.”

As much as we would like to blame the devil or the sinful world for our mistakes–our sins–we must confess that each sin is a deliberate act, a result of a choice which we have made. The devil and the world are God’s enemies, and they tempt us to join their rebellion. Sometimes we resist temptation, but often we give in to temptation and do the wrong thing instead of the right thing.

Paul wrestled with this tendency in his letter to the Romans, chapter seven. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” In language that would inspire Sigmund Freud’s depiction of the ego, the superego, and the id, Paul insisted that part of his person was evil, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing. Even though Paul knew God’s commandments and wanted to obey them, his flesh continued making him do the wrong things.

As with the word “world” in the Bible, so the word “flesh” has more than one meaning. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he did not become a sinner. But when Paul speaks of his flesh, he describes a sinful nature. I do not want to debate the origin of that sinful nature. It suffices that the flesh exists. John knew that the flesh is real. He wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Even Christians sin. We sin every day. The devil, the world, and our flesh confront us every day until the day we die or until the Day Jesus appears in glory, whichever comes first.

We do not alternate between being sinners and being saints. At every time each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and is a saint who knows the Savior. The sins we commit show that we are sinners, but our faith is in Christ Jesus. The Bible describes the work he has accomplished as our Savior. The Bible promises that through the work of Jesus we are forgiven all our sins and have victory over all our enemies.

This forgiveness and victory give no one license to sin. Since our flesh was conquered by Jesus on the cross, we do not want to strengthen it or encourage it by following its suggestions. Yet, as Paul and John remind us, we still are under control of the flesh. The flesh that was drowned in Baptism continues to bob to the surface and inhale another gasp. When we look at ourselves, we see the flesh and can find no hope of salvation. Only when we look to Christ do we understand that we are already rescued, that we are already forgiven, and that we are more than conquerors over the devil, over the world, and over our flesh.

Acknowledging the reality of our flesh is called “repentance.” We repent not only of specific sins, but also of a sinful nature that makes us God’s enemies. The Holy Spirit guides our repentance through the commandments of God as he also builds our faith through the promises of God. Therefore, the devil and the world and the flesh battle against the Spirit. They entice us with temptations; and when we sin, they strike us with guilt. Guilt from the Spirit moves us to repent, but guilt from our enemies makes us doubt God’s promises. Like a dog dragging the trash from the curb back into the house, our flesh stirs up memories of past sins and renews our sense of guilt. When that happens, we are free to resist. We remind our flesh that every sin is already forgiven by God and even forgotten by God. God cannot lie. He is so powerful that anything he says becomes true. God says we are forgiven. God says we are saints. God says we are his children. When we remember and repeat what God says, we battle effectively against the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

Know your enemies

Jesus commanded his followers to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Yet the book of Psalms contains many examples of hating enemies, wishing bad things to happen to them, and calling upon God to judge and punish those enemies. Is there a contradiction between the teachings of Jesus and the Psalms?

Viewed in their historic context, the “imprecatory Psalms” at first seem to relate to human enemies. David, the author of many of those Psalms, had many human enemies in his lifetime, including the Philistines, King Saul, and David’s son Absalom. When we read in I & II Samuel about the David’s career, though, he does not seem to glower with hatred against his enemies. Although he exchanged trash talk with Goliath before striking him down with a stone and cutting off his head, on other occasions David was gentle with those who chose to be his enemies. Twice he spared Saul’s life when Saul was vulnerable while pursuing David. He begged his soldiers to be gentle with his rebellious son, Absalom. Before he became king, David even lived among the Philistines and offered to fight with them against Israel. David’s attitude toward those enemies seems more consistent with the teachings of Jesus than with his own poetry.

David seems to have known already what the Apostle Paul would later put into words: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). By tradition, Christians identify our true enemies as an unholy threesome opposed to the will of God: the devil, the world, and our flesh. The devil is Satan, a rebellious angel who tried to take control of the universe away from God and who tempts people to sin, then accuses them of their guilt. The world is the sin that surrounds us during these lifetimes, the many sources of temptation that confront us daily and try to disrupt our Christian walk. The flesh is the sinful nature still within us, ready to cooperate with the devil and with the world by choosing sin over righteousness.

Our problems come from these three enemies. Since they work together, we cannot always say which of them is the source of any particular problem. I know Christians who blame all their troubles on demonic forces. I know others who blame all their troubles on the bad influence of the world. I know still others who blame themselves for every bad thing that happens to them. Most of the time, though, we cannot know the source of our problems. We know only that God has permitted his enemies to bother us, and that he will also never abandon us to their attacks.

Christians need to remember that our enemies have already been defeated. Jesus battled them on the cross and prevailed against them. The devil, the world, and even our sinful natures were beaten when Jesus bore the weight of sin and evil on the cross. When He announced, “It is finished,” one of the things that was finished was the power that our enemies have over us.

Even when we do not feel like winners, we remain more than conquerors through Jesus—more than conquerors because we share a victory we did not fight to achieve. Our enemies are still trying to harm us—not that they care much about us, but because they oppose the God who loves us. During this lifetime we live on a battlefield. We can rejoice with David, though, knowing that our enemies have lost. They are judged and condemned, and God has guaranteed their loss and our victory.

For those other enemies—the members of the other political party, the advocates of social changes of which we cannot approve, the bullies and insensitive neighbors who steal our peace and comfort—we are still expected to pray. We are expected to love them and even to forgive them. Even Muslim terrorists remain missionary opportunities. Our proper prayer for them is that God will show them the error of their ways and lead them to genuine repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice, not in earthly victories over flesh and blood, but in the eternal victory Christ won over the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.