Sometimes the Christian life feels like an interminable war against the cravings of the flesh. There’s a sense in which we pit our desire for heaven against the demands of our bodies, holding out hope for a reward at the end of a long and difficult road. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mk 14:38), and “the desires of the spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17).
At the same time, we know that this isn’t how we’re supposed to be. Our bodies really are a part of who we are, so to be at war with our bodies is to be at war with ourselves. We desire unity within ourselves, peace between body and soul. But how can we find it?
It can be tempting to think that the way to peace is to just give our bodies what they want. After all, if we choose to obtain what our bodies desire, this creates a certain unity between body and soul. While there does seem to be a certain wisdom to this, Scripture warns us against allowing the desires of the flesh to prevail over our right reason. The things the body wants are good, but our bodies don’t know how to distinguish when and how things are good. To put it another way, our bodies can recognize good things, but they can’t tell us how to use those good things to make us happy. This is the root of the conflict we experience: we desire true happiness for our whole selves, but our bodies tend not to be able to see past simple pleasures.
We don’t just have to take Scripture’s word for this, either. A few months ago, I came across an article about a college’s vending machine for contraceptives and morning-after pills. The basic idea seems to be an assumption that students will relax the fight, as it were, and gratify one of the body’s many desires. Again, this seems to be a path to peace, since they’re working with the body rather than against it. But how do those who use and support the vending machine understand it? In their own words, contraception and abortion are for the purpose of finding “agency over one’s body,” which sounds remarkably like St. Paul’s “the desires of the spirit are against the flesh.” In this case, the desires of the spirit, of the mind and will, have become so disordered as to wholly pursue the desires of the flesh. But even here, the body is not satisfied, and there is no peace between body and soul.
The wisdom of Scripture stands vindicated: letting the desires of our flesh take charge doesn’t lead to peace. But how can we find peace between body and soul?
Pope Benedict XVI analyzes this struggle in his encyclical Deus caritas est. He writes that society presents unfettered sexual love as “man’s great ‘yes’ to the body,” but this “contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive.” When we choose an excessive desire for bodily pleasure, we don’t liberate our bodies from their yearnings; rather, we turn them into “mere objects” that we try “to make both enjoyable and harmless.” This, the pope argues, actually limits our freedom, for then the body is no longer “an arena for the exercise of [our] freedom” but just another piece of matter that we try to control. Paradoxically, then, “the apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.”
Even when we try to satiate our bodies’ desires, they still turn against us, and we remain turned against them. It can seem that there is no way out—whether we pursue the fullness of sanctity or of pleasure, “the desires of the spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17).
Such a conclusion would be too dark, however, as we can see especially clearly in the light of Christmas. For it is precisely in Jesus Christ, God made man, that we find the way toward peace. In Jesus, spirit and flesh are perfectly united, and He offers to us the very same. By His grace, we truly can direct the desires of the body according to the reason and faith of our soul: and not only according to our own spirit, but according to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, the perfect man, we are made to be peaceful unions of body and soul, in whom spirit and flesh desire together, not in conflict.
The flesh lusteth against the spirit, but also against the flesh, for its lusts lead not to peace but to more and stronger desires. The true lust of the flesh is for the peace of unity with the spirit, for soul and body united in the pursuit of God, Who satisfies even as we desire Him.
Image: Thomas Cole, The Garden of Eden