Life in the flesh or life in the Spirit?

Occasion: Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Epistle, Romans 8:9, 11-13.


Brothers and sisters:
You are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Consequently, brothers and sisters,
we are not debtors to the flesh,
to live according to the flesh.
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.

Stand-out words

flesh, Spirit, dwells, debtors


This excerpt comes from St. Paul’s exposition in Romans of the relationship between law, sin, and grace. These include the passages where St. Paul points out that sin was at work in the world before God gave Moses the Law; that we were dead because of sin; that sin is only accounted in the presence of Law; that the Law cannot give life, only grace can; that the flesh is hostile to God and concerns itself with death; that those who life in the flesh cannot please God. It would be a mistake to think too deeply of it without keeping that context in mind.

So, how do we live? Do we live according to the flesh, or according to the spirit? Do we seek out rules to follow, identifying a metric of “acceptability” by barely meeting the minimum standards for some distant, lawyerly judge? or do we offer our bodies as a spiritual sacrifice, looking for opportunities to receive and share God’s grace, to please the one with whose complete self-giving we have fallen desperately in love?

And how could we discern this, anyway? While St. Paul does not provide precise guidelines here, he offers a few in the Epistle to the Galatians. Inasmuch as the two treat of similar themes, it seems reasonable to reproduce that here:

The works of the flesh are… immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. [emphasis added]

At the university where I work, street preachers come from time to time and recite that bit from Galatians. They sometimes recite the works of the flesh, and as they go through the list, a crowd cheers as each work is read out, with some even adding that they enjoy learning new ways to offend God. I strongly suspect that the preachers themselves half-enjoy the crowd’s reaction; it certainly seems that a good time is had by all.

But perhaps, just perhaps, St. Paul hoped his list would be used as something other than a threat?

Remember again that, according to St. Paul, sin is at work in us even against our will. Many of the works of the flesh he lists are of course voluntary, but many are not. Take envy, for example: it is a very natural thing to feel envy, another thing entirely to nurse envy in oneself, and still a third to stoke envy in others. Sin is at work in each case, but not all are reckoned as sins, and of the ones that are, they are clearly of different degree.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit — which, St. Paul implies, come from putting the deeds of the body to death (!) — are not so natural. It is one thing to leave a generous tip, another thing entirely to give generously of one’s time, and still a third to sell everything you has, give it to the poor, and follow Christ. Grace is at work in each case, but which are the fruit of the Spirit? It’s entirely possible that none are, and it’s entirely possible that all are.

Christian spirituality has long encouraged the faithful to take some time every evening, such as at bedtime, to perform an examination of conscience, to review whether one has lived according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. For the former, we must repent in confidence that God is willing to pour out his grace on us. For the latter, we can rejoice in gratitude for the graces God has given. Over time, the gardener to whom we turn will both water our roots and prune our dead branches, so that grace will bear fruit in our lives.

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