In our previous lesson, we pointed out that when the sources of temptation are named as the world, the flesh, and the devil, the term "flesh" has a very broad meaning, spanning all the promptings to sin that come from within ourselves, from our soul and spirit as well as from our body. The flesh in this sense is simply our sinful nature. The source of fleshly sin is therefore self.
Let us look now at some of the principal sins of the flesh. If any is your besetting sin, you dare not justify it lest you fall into the worse sin of spiritual pride. Rather, consider and apply our counsel on how to overcome it.
A bad temper perhaps escalating into full-blown rage is one of the most common vices among Christians. The underlying weakness is an excitable temperament. The four-step strategy that is useful against any vice is especially effective against anger.
- The first step is to face your problem. But anger is one of the hardest vices for people to admit. A Christian man may take shelter under the excuse that his anger is righteous anger, directed against those who deserve it. He may also cite the text which condemns wrath only when it goes too far (Eph. 4:26). But in justifying himself, he is forgetting other texts. "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (Jas 1:19-20). James here is teaching us how we should conduct ourselves in our normal everyday encounters with other people. Getting mad at them never advances the work of God in this world.
In all realms of life, restraint is generally the best choice. There are times when a parent must show displeasure with a child and administer discipline, but he should not discipline with an anger-driven severity that provokes the child to anger (Eph. 6:4). There are times when we fall victim to the clever schemes of wicked men, but the Lord says, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay" (Rom. 12:19), and He commands us to return good for evil (Rom. 12:21).
So then, is anger ever righteous? Certainly. When I left the Holocaust Museum, the monstrous evil remembered there left me angry, and rightly so. How then can we distinguish righteous from unrighteous anger? Righteous anger meets two requirements.
- The trigger is a need to defend innocent people or worthy ideals under attack. Anger then is useful because it energizes a more effective defense. Scripture authorizes defense in the form of violence under two circumstances: (1) when serving as an officer of the law (Rom. 13:1–4) or as a soldier in a just war (Josh. 6:16–17 and many others); (2) when protecting oneself or one's family or one's community from marauders (Neh. 4:7–21; see also Luke 22:35–36, where, speaking to future ambassadors of the gospel, who would travel to remote places along dangerous roads, Jesus advises them to defend themselves from brigands rather than allow their witness to be quenched). But we must emphasize that violence in a good cause ceases to be legitimate if it strays outside the law or if it denies mercy and compassion to those who bear the effects.
- Righteous anger is always under control. It is never a blind rage. Its intensity is no more than necessary to stop or limit real evil. When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the Temple (John 2:13-7), His enemies immediately challenged His bold action, doubtless assailing Him with heated voices. But instead of responding in like fashion, as He would have done if His anger were out of control, He replied calmly with one short cryptic saying. That was enough to silence them, because they could not understand it. He refused to be drawn into an emotional debate.
Yet we dare not stretch the definition of righteous anger too far. We must check anger when the only provocation is a minor attack upon self, as when others insult us or take advantage of us without breaking the law. Then it is better not to resist, but to leave justice with God (Matt. 5:38-42).
- The second step is to recognize the trigger for an angry response. The trigger is usually a sense of being wronged. Being mad is a defense against a perceived attack. You feel that someone has hurt you, or insulted you, or deprived you of your rights, or failed to satisfy your demands, or resisted your will, or merely caused you inconvenience, and your instantaneous reaction is to fight back. The probability of an angry reaction depends on the general level of stress. The more stressed you are, the more likely you will explode in wrath.
- The third step is to recognize the fuel for staying mad. Once aroused, the emotion of anger affects the situation so that the situation provokes more of the same emotion. This can happen in either of two ways. Some people are sadistic bullies whose anger feeds on vulnerability. When they see others react with fear and weakness, they get madder and more violent. They pull back only if they meet stiff resistance. Other people cannot stay mad unless they can see their provoker as an enemy—that is, they have to devalue and dehumanize and, in effect, hate the person they are angry with. It is easier to hate someone who fights back.
- The fourth step is to cultivate the Christian alternative to getting mad. What is that? It is forgiveness. The Bible exhorts us to forgive those we perceive as wrongdoers against us (Matt. 18:21-2). Forgive; don't get mad. If someone calls you a bad name, forgive him. If your wife burns the bacon, forgive her. Under provocation to anger, you may need to remind yourself why you should forgive. Forgive because you are a sinner too, a wrongdoer against others. You are no better than the person you are angry with. One of the larger components of anger is generally pride and self-righteousness. Forgive also because God has forgiven you. If you refuse to forgive, you may lose God's forgiveness (Matt. 6:14-5; 18:35; Mark 11:25-6).
Overcoming the vice of anger is basically learning how to think properly. Once the afflicted person learns the trigger and the fuel, he must train himself to react not by losing his temper, but by going through a sequence of thoughts that will keep his temper under control. The first thought should be, this is a temptation to get mad. Second, to please God I need to restrain wrath. Third, I need to practice forgiveness instead.
The people he knows can help by responding correctly to his anger. If he is a bully, they must resist him—firmly but without getting angry themselves. If his anger requires an antagonist, they must learn the technique of a soft answer. A soft answer turns away the kind of wrath that requires hate (Prov. 15:1).
Another vice is depression. Depression strikes people whose weakness is a gloomy disposition, or a disposition that vacillates between gloom and giddy agitation. The triggering cause may be a sense of loss or failure. A common sustaining cause or fuel is separation from other people. After falling into feelings of depression, the victim must not run away and hide. The natural tendency is to crawl under the covers. It is much better to stay around people, especially those with an encouraging outlook. But to prevent depression is easier than to stop it once it has begun. It is important to cultivate Biblical responses to failure and loss.
Failure in all its forms (whether in work or in personal relationships or in any other arena of life) engenders self-hatred, which is really an anger directed inward. The remedy is the same as for any other kind of anger. It is forgiveness. If your failure involves sin, you start the healing process by repenting of your sin and obtaining God’s forgiveness as grounds for forgiving yourself. Yet some people sink into depression over failures that are not really their fault, such as the disabled person who hates himself because he is different. And there are other people who wallow in misery over sinful mistakes even after they have sought and received God’s forgiveness. In both cases, the victim of self-reproach must look to God's love (1 John 3:18-20). John here is exhorting us to live in obedience to God, so that we can be confident of His approval. Then through faith that God is the only judge whose opinion counts, we will escape self-condemnation.
Grief at a disappointment or loss is normal, and it is not sinful so long as it is not excessive. The remedy is faith. Only by the discipline of praising God in the midst of apparent loss—praising Him in particular for the promise that all things work together for good in the life of His child (Rom. 8:28)—can a grieving person avoid sinking into despair.
The depression that some people suffer seems divorced somewhat from the circumstances of life. It swings to an extreme totally out of proportion to any real trouble. Depression or manic-depression (now known as bipolar disorder) is generally regarded as a mental illness with a possible physical or chemical basis. But we must be careful. There has been a tendency in recent years to medicalize every undesirable emotion and behavior. The result has been an explosion of drug therapies that generate profit both for doctors, who are treating conditions they once considered outside their realm, and drug manufacturers. But what is most profitable for drug suppliers is not necessarily what is most beneficial for drug users.
Here we need not take a position on what depression really is. It is enough to say that depression is not God's will. Nor is it inevitable for people of a certain make-up. God has ordained that every believer possess the fruit of the Spirit, including joy and peace (Gal. 5:22-3), neither of which can coexist with severe depression. Therefore, whatever factors may contribute to depression, we can be confident that God will take it away from any victim who submits to the requirements for healing. These are repentance and faith (Jas 5:13-6).
Here is a problem easy to understand. We all know what triggers and sustains lust. Therefore, we all know what to avoid. What we may not understand, however, is the Christian alternative. Lust has two forms: the kind that masquerades as love, and the kind that has no pretensions of love but actually prefers to depersonalize or idealize the object. The remedy for both kinds is the same—true love.
You say, "Aren’t lust and love almost the same thing?" If you think that is true, your outlook on love has been twisted by the modern world. No, love and lust are dead opposites. Lust is self-centered. Love is other-centered. Lust seeks to please self. Love seeks the welfare of another. If you love someone with real love, the last thing you want is to entangle them in a relationship that will bring them under divine judgment.
So, we must learn to look at people with the right kind of love—a love modeled after the love of God. Then we will see them with His eyes as beings with eternal souls and infinite potential rather than with eyes of lust attuned only to their outer shell. We will have concern for their spiritual welfare.
A good strategy for a Christian man when he encounters a flirtatious or immodest woman is to remind himself that she is somebody’s wayward daughter, because to perceive her in this way effectively shuts down lust and stirs up pity and compassion instead. Such compassion comes easier to an older man who has daughters or granddaughters of his own. But even a younger man can care more for the soul of an immoral woman than for her body. Let him see her as a lost sister headed for hell. Let him focus on her foolishness instead of her face, her sad choice of self-destruction rather than her arts of self-advertisement.
A disinclination to work seems especially common on the male side of the human race, especially among men with a lethargic temperament. The comic figure called the sluggard who appears frequently in the Book of Proverbs is a man or a boy (Prov. 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 20:4; 26:16). A boy's laziness may be a sign that he lacks strong fatherly direction, for a boy’s achievement motivation depends in part on what his father expects from him.
We are not accustomed to viewing laziness as a sinful response to triggering circumstances, but it is. The trigger is any sort of demand to work. The response is one of noncompliance, which may run the gamut from mild resentment to surly rebellion. A lazy person is basically a rebel. In the beginning, he is a rebel against his parents and teachers and other adults who try to impose work on him. In the end, he finds work distasteful not just because it is work, but also because of its past connections with authority.
A Christian who tends to be lazy must come to terms with his fundamental sin, which is rebellion and disobedience. When confronted with a demand to work, whether coming from another person or from his own sense of duty, he must substitute submissive action for uncooperative inaction.
Worry is a sort of chronic fear. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave several compelling reasons not to worry.
- Worry is wasteful. Why? Because life is short (Matt. 6:25). It is a shame to throw away the precious moments of life on negative thoughts. As Jesus said, there is more to life than the acquisition of food and clothing. Life even in a sinful world is full of moment-by-moment possibilities for contentment and gladness. Anyone who is a slave to worry will miss the important things in life, such as love and laughter, good fellowship and good deeds. Moreover, as Jesus said, the body is more than raiment. In other words, let us enjoy the exercise of our bodies for the good purposes God made them to fulfill, giving only secondary attention to how we dress them.
- Worry is needless. Why? Because we can depend on God to take care of us (Matt. 6:26, 28-30). After all, He feeds the birds, who merely gather what He has provided. They have no organized economies with industrial means of production. They do not even sow or reap. Jesus did not mean that we should shun labor of this kind. He meant that we need not be in bondage to labor. Many have known little else in life except back-breaking work from dawn to dusk. Jesus’ primary intent here is to show that incessant all-consuming labor driven by fear of want is contrary to God’s will.
Not only does God feed the birds, but He clothes the grass of the field with beautiful lilies. The lilies do no work to attain their excellence even beyond the finery of Solomon.
Then Jesus posed a question. He asked us to compare our own value with the value of birds and flowers. These things are not worthless, so we should not wantonly destroy them. But they are worth far less than a man (Matt. 10:31). If God provides for lesser creatures, will He not provide for us?
- Worry is useless. Jesus offered one of His inimitable arguments here, blended of poetry and logic (Matt. 6:27). He astutely observed that by mere thinking, we cannot achieve even so slight a benefit as to make ourselves a little taller. Every short person self-conscious about his height must feel the force of this argument. Just as thought cannot alter stature, so it cannot determine anything else under the ultimate control of God. God designed our physical make-up. Likewise, He is the source of our food and raiment. Therefore, let us trust our Heavenly Father to show Himself a good provider.
- Worry is premature. The closing verse of the section advises us that if we really want to worry, we should wait until there is something to worry about (Matt. 6:34). The evil that is bound to come will come regardless, and it will be enough of a burden to think about it after it has come. Do not add to the burden by thinking about it today. Maybe the evil we are worrying about today will bypass our lives. When I am honest with myself, I realize that most of the distress I have suffered in my life has not been in response to real adversities, but in anticipation of adversities that never happened.
What is the remedy for worry? In a word, faith. From this faith comes believing prayer concerning all the evil possibilities fanning our worry. When we trust God with our future, He replaces the gnawing fears with untroubled peace (Phil. 4:6-7).
The Secret to Victory
Any strategy for defeating the flesh is doomed to failure if it depends on a man's power of self-management. Victory requires a stronger power, and the only power that can tame the flesh is the Holy Spirit. Walking after the Spirit puts an end to walking after the flesh (Rom. 8:1-14). How is it possible to walk after the Spirit? In the lesson on finding God's will we defined this as living in obedience to God, motivated by love for God, all proceeding from a conscious dependence on the Spirit of God, all leading to a constant hunger for the will of God.