The Voice of the Flesh
In Paul’s lament, “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” we all recognize our own struggle. No one is deaf to the voice of the flesh! Its sinful cravings are limitless, but most of us hear the voice of the flesh in one of three “dialects.” Leaders are especially vulnerable to one…
This is part three of our series on the four voices in your head that are competing to shape what you do, say, and feel.
By Patrick Morley
MIM Founder & Executive Chairman
Winter Park, Florida
For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.
In a moment of stunning personal vulnerability, the apostle Paul confessed his own ongoing battle with the flesh in his letter to the Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).
Paul goes on to help us see that the believer’s struggle with sin is part of the normal Christian experience. For example, he wrote, “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21).
But the larger question is: Why do we keep sinning?
How the Voice of the Flesh Speaks
The prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9a). We all feel the incurability of this deceit, don’t we? Our ability to sin or to not sin—free will—is what creates the spiritual battle within us all.
Yes, we are a “new creation” in Christ, and His Spirit gives us power to defeat the flesh. But in this life, the cravings of the flesh remain deeply embedded in our hearts.
These sinful cravings are limitless, but most of us hear the voice of the flesh in these three “dialects”—
- the lust of the flesh,
- the lust of the eyes, and
- the pride of life (1 John 2:16).
For today, let’s focus on the third dialect—the pride of life. As leaders and disciple-makers, our minds can be particularly vulnerable to the voice of the flesh in this form.
The Pride of Life
What is the pride of life? The pride of life looks down on others with judgment or up at others with jealously. It is arrogant and independent, rejecting the advice of others and insisting on its own way. It assigns worth based on achievements, possessions, and abilities. It is the critical spirit that holds others to a standard we ourselves can’t or won’t keep.
The pride of life is no respecter of persons. The poor are just as susceptible as the rich, and the righteous are as vulnerable as the unrighteous. In fact, the more righteous you become in your own eyes, the more likely you are to fall into the pride of life.
Jesus was deeply concerned about the pride of life producing religious hypocrites.
We see evidence of this in a story he told about a Pharisee and a tax collector who both went to the temple to pray. It’s best savored in Jesus’ own words:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Jesus cares about the motives and posture of our hearts. We may think our right thinking, right theology, and right behaviors are justifying us before God, but if it’s leading us to exalt ourselves instead of Him, we’re deceived.
When the flesh speaks in the dialect of the pride of life, it can be very subtle. When disguised as righteousness and wisdom, it can deceive us and lead us away from God.We may think our right thinking, right theology, and right behaviors are justifying us before God, but if it’s leading us to exalt ourselves instead of Him, we’re deceived.Click To Tweet
Roger, a longtime pastor, shared:
I’ve always been a competitive person. Some of that serves the kingdom well as healthy motivation, but way too much boils inside as anger that does not come from the King. I’m sneaky in that I tend to hide my anger behind a calm, quiet, evangelical niceness. I don’t let it boil over, but I keep the pot simmering on a back corner of the stove, just in case.
One of my outlets has been running. On some of my long runs, I have had imaginary, scathing, courtroom cross-examinations that leave my adversaries simpering for mercy. I expose their obvious contradictions and dismantle every one of their false premises. I win every time!
But in the real world, this simmering pot of anger can so easily dominate my thoughts and my perspective, draining my energy like an app running in the background on my computer.
Recently, I confessed to a men’s group I lead that I had been carrying a low-grade fever of crabbiness, frustration, and inner argumentativeness. I was talking back to the radio and TV and people on social media. I was amassing evidence for my view of things, and wishing I had someone to yell at to convince the world to align itself with my brilliant solutions.
Finally, I had to admit to God that in my pride, I had forgotten that I am not here to solve all the world’s problems. I realized that my pride, worry, and fear—once named and outed—lose their power under the strong hand of the Lord, who alone is our Savior.
Where are you susceptible to letting your own feelings, judgment, purpose, and will deceive you—especially when they seem good?
In the book The Four Voices, I share seven practical habits and virtues that will help you manage against the voice of the flesh. One you can start using immediately is to nurture a spirit of humility.
The Antidote: Nurture Humility
If we study the arc of Paul’s life and ministry, we notice a remarkable change in how he sees himself.
Around 55 AD, on his third missionary journey, Paul wrote:
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:9, emphasis added)
Paul already sounds humble, doesn’t he? But notice how much he changed over the next seven years. In approximately 62 AD, he wrote while imprisoned in Rome:
Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ.” (Ephesians 3:8, emphasis added)
Notice Paul doesn’t think more of himself, but less. But he’s not done. Sometime in the mid-60s AD, when he had been set free for a time, he wrote:
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:15, emphasis added)
Look at his progression in humility:
- from the least of the apostles to
- the least of the Lord’s people to
- the worst of sinners.
It’s a striking biblical portrait of how we, too, can adjust how we see ourselves over time and become more humble.
How does that happen? After decades of walking with Jesus, my sins are a small fraction of what they once were. Discipleship has changed me. I truly am a different person now. That should be an encouragement if you are young in your faith!
However, most of those changes didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still growing in two directions. First, each year my understanding of the goodness and greatness of God grows bigger, like the rings on an old tree.
But the second direction of my growth has been to see myself in the mirror and realize I’m not as big of a deal as I once thought. Like Paul, the more we grow in Christ, the more humble we will become.
THE BIG IDEA: The more we grow in Christ, the more humble we should become.
How have you progressed in humility because of Jesus, and where do you still want to see more growth?