Romans 8:5&13 (KJV)
For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.
Richard Rohr points out that the Apostle Paul was not intending to set up a conflict between our physical bodies and our spirits. That was Platonist thinking and not consistent with Hebrew or Christian thought. The idea is that Paul creates these binary oppositions not to have us choose one side or the other but to wrestle with the tension between them.
Metaphors and poetic terminology can be very powerful if they are explored, examined, and chewed over. The flesh is one such term that I’d like us to really chew on and explore from different angles. The aspect of the flesh that I want to focus on this week is that of its hidden or unseen qualities.
When Paul talks about his struggle with the flesh he describes it in a way that I think can really resonate with all of us:
Romans 7:21-23 (MSG) The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
Several aspects of Paul’s struggle stand out to me:
Paul talks about a part of ourselves that often operates without our awareness
The way in which Paul personifies sin, as a force acting independent of his will
The battle between the parts of ourselves
The resignation that the flesh is a part of us
These aspects stuck out to me because of my background in psychology, my work with my clients, and my own struggles with issues of the “flesh.” This week I’m going to focus on the covert aspect of the flesh.
Flesh: The Covert Rebel
In the Phillips translation of the above passage, it is stated, “My conscious mind whole-heartedly endorses the Law, yet I observe an entirely different principle at work in my nature. This is in continual conflict with my conscious attitude…” Psychology has explored the idea of the unconscious quite a bit. Currently, in the neuroscience world, “implicit” is the term that is often used when referring to those influences that are beyond our conscious awareness. But this concept is important, because what Paul is describing are parts of ourselves that can operate without us knowing about them and sabotage what we really want to do. No amount of willpower or “rebuking” will help the situation if we are not aware of the problem.
Michael Ruth, in his book Shadow Work, does an excellent job of integrating Christianity and Jungian psychology. Some of Jung’s contributions might be familiar to you- the concept of introvert and extrovert, as well as the Myers-Brigs personality test (that’s the four letter personality designation that people periodically talk about). What I find helpful about Jung is that he focused on integrating parts of the self and one of those parts he labeled the “shadow.”
Jung viewed the shadow part of ourselves as those qualities that we want to disown. We try and distance ourselves and conceal this part of who we are. These are the parts of the self that are considered undesirable and unacceptable and we try very hard to rid ourselves of these aspects.
Jung describes the Shadow as “the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide…” Further descriptions by other therapists and psychologists seem to echo Paul’s description of his own struggle with the flesh. Ruth states, “The shadow has a kind of autonomy, operating independent from, and in opposition to, the conscious ego. It is the unconscious opposite of what we are willing to embrace about ourselves in our conscious mind.”
Ruth actually paints a very interesting “Jungian” interpretation of what happened in the Garden of Eden. He proposes that Adam and Even lost the unity or unification of self when they sinned. Adam and Eve responded to sin by hiding- this is the essence of the shame process whereby we deny and hide parts of ourselves. We are now fractured people who experience a war within ourselves.
Ruth describes the struggle between flesh and spirit as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of experience. If you remember the old story, Dr. Jekyll begins taking a formula that is supposed to suppress or destroy his dark side, but what ends up happening is that his dark side would take over at night and he would become Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, this is always the case when we try and bury and deny our dark or shadow side.
Flesh causes us to: (Each of these to be discussed in upcoming blogs)
Gravitate toward theologies, churches, & doctrine
Highlight areas of our bibles
Interpret tone and expression
See God and others in certain ways
See ourselves in certain ways
Act out in addictions
Deny certain emotions, thoughts & impulses
Engage in unloving acts