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Understanding the Flesh

By​​ Rick Moffett​​ 


If you read your​​ Bible​​ regularly, chances are you have come across the word​​ flesh.​​ And if you paid attention, you have likely noticed the word​​ is​​ used in several different ways. Of course, context is always the best indicator of what a word means, but even then, it can​​ sometimes​​ be hard to get a grasp on the meaning of some words. The word​​ flesh​​ is​​ one such word because it is​​ used in multiple different ways in the​​ Scriptures.​​ Let’s look at​​ some of the ways it is used in the New Testament.


The word​​ flesh​​ comes from​​ the​​ Greek​​ word​​ transliterated as​​ sarx. ​​​​ The word​​ sarx​​ is translated into the following English words – flesh, carnal, carnal minded, fleshly. As stated, the word​​ flesh​​ is used in many different ways; some​​ are​​ completely different than others.​​ 


Consider the following examples -​​ 

1.​​ the humanity of Jesus Christ –​​ Rom. 1:3​​ 

2.​​ the physical body –​​ Rom. 2:28; Matt. 26:41; John 1:14; Rom. 7:18; Gal. 2:20

3.​​ mankind, i.e., any living person –​​ Luke 3:6; Acts 2:17; Rom. 3:20

4.​​ man’s attitude or mindset and the resulting​​ behavior –​​ Gal. 5:16-17; 19-21; Eph. 2:3;​​ Phil. 3:3.​​ 

It is this last example (#4) on which I​​ will​​ focus the rest of this article.


Here is a working description​​ of the flesh​​ ​​ 


Flesh​​ may be described​​ as one’s​​ mindset of selfish thinking and the resulting​​ *patterns of behavior. These patterns of behavior are activated when I choose to believe Satan’s lies and act out of my own resources in order to cope with life, solve my problems, or meet my needs. The flesh is always focused primarily on self. My resources include things such as my – heritage, education, IQ, personality, sense of humor, looks, talents, abilities, money, self-discipline, strength,​​ relationships,​​ etc. In other words,​​ it is me living my life​​ and attempting to get my needs met​​ independently​​ of Christ.​​ 

*patterns of behavior​​ aka flesh patterns​​ can be described​​ simply​​ as​​ habitual patterns of thinking/behaving that are used to​​ meet a God-given inner need. We are often unaware of these destructive patterns of behavior, thus,​​ they become one’s “default” mode.​​ 



About the Flesh


1.​​ Flesh is a condition that exists in all men,​​ even those who have been spiritually reborn.​​ 

2.​​ ​​ Flesh​​ is not​​ man’s​​ sinful​​ nature, Adamic nature, human nature,​​ or old man​​ (aka​​ old self).​​ Note -​​ Christians no longer have a sinful​​ nature.​​ As a result of our​​ union with Christ, our​​ old man​​ was​​ crucified​​ and buried​​ (Rom 6:3-6).​​ 

3. You​​ cannot improve the flesh.​​ 

4. The flesh is driven by man’s​​ attempt to​​ get​​ his God-given desires/needs​​ met.​​ 

5.​​ The flesh cannot produce life -​​ whenever you function according to the flesh, you will​​ always experience death!​​ (John 6:63; Rom. 8:6,13)

6.​​ The flesh can look good,​​ e.g.,​​ religious flesh,​​ or​​ it can look bad,​​ e.g.,​​ immorality.

7.​​ Each person’s​​ flesh​​ is expressed​​ differently​​ because we all have a unique personality​​ and​​ different belief systems.​​ We each develop distinct flesh patterns that tend to stay with us our entire life. These patterns may be thought of as repeated behaviors to which we resort to meet a particular need.


How Did We Get the Flesh?


The flesh is the​​ by-product​​ of being born spiritually dead to God (in Adam).​​ Since all men are born separated from the life of God, they are left to get their inner needs met in their own strength (flesh). This results in each person developing unique patterns of behavior fueled by Satan working through the power of sin. These patterns of behavior,​​ aka​​ flesh patterns,​​ are the manifestation of man’s attempt to meet his God-given​​ inner​​ desires/needs such as love, acceptance, security, significance, purpose,​​ adequacy,​​ etc.​​ 


The apostle Paul explained it like this​​ ​​ 


1​​ And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,​​ 2​​ in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.​​ 3​​ Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.​​ Ephesians 2.1-3 (NASB)​​ 



James Fowler explains it like this​​ 


“Our desires are the behavioral conduits that God designed in order to provide the yearning and urging for the fulfillment of human life. God intended the yearnings and urgings of our desires to be pleasurably fulfilled by the fullness of His character. Satan,​​ on the other hand, tempts us to satisfy these yearnings and urgings of our desires in God-forbidden ways of selfishness and sinfulness.”​​ Spirit-union Allows for Soul-rest




Most people do not realize how attempts to meet these​​ God-given inner​​ needs drive their behavior. They know something is missing in their life, but they are not sure what it is or how to get it.


Sadly, even most Christians are deceived into believing they are still missing something; and that they can get that something by their performance. Does that sound familiar? It should if you’ve read the third chapter in the book of Genesis. That is​​ the​​ lie that Satan implied in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had everything they needed, but Satan deceived them into believing they were missing something; and that they could get that something (be like God) by doing something (eat from the forbidden tree). He is still using that same lie today! He is good at getting man to step onto the performance treadmill to​​ meet​​ some perceived need. But all you get​​ on that treadmill​​ is​​ tired,​​ very tired!


Jesus said​​ ​​ 


28​​ “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.​​ 29​​ “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.​​ Matthew 11.28-29 (NASB)



These​​ inner​​ needs and desires that we all have are ultimately designed to lead us to Christ.​​ But often times a person must exhaust every possible means in attempting to meet these needs before he gives up and turns to Christ. This is often referred to as, “coming to the end of​​ oneself” or simply, “brokenness”.​​ 


Know this -​​ These inner needs are fully met in the person of Jesus Christ, i.e., in​​ Him,​​ we are complete​​ (Philippians 4:19;​​ Col. 2:10; 2 Pet. 1:3).​​ 


Different Flesh “Flavors”


What kind of lifestyle do you think of when you hear someone say a person is living in/according to the flesh?


Does a list like this come to mind?​​ -

  • sexual immorality

  • impurity

  • sensuality

  • idolatry

  • sorcery

  • enmity

  • strife

  • jealousy

  • fits of anger

  • rivalries

  • dissensions

  • divisions

  • envy

  • drunkenness

  • orgies

Note​​ – this list comes​​ directly from​​ Gal. 5:19-21.​​ 


The above list certainly does characterize fleshly living, but there is a different kind of fleshly living that is more difficult to spot.​​ 


Consider the following list​​ ​​ 


  • circumcised on the eighth day

  • of the nation of Israel

  • of the tribe of Benjamin

  • a Hebrew of Hebrews

  • as to the law, a Pharisee

  • zealous for God

  • as to righteousness under the law, blameless


You may recognize this list as coming from the apostle Paul in​​ Phil 3:5-6.​​ ​​ This was Paul’s “flesh list”​​ before he received Christ. Just before he gave this list, this is what he said –​​ 


3​​ for we are the​​ true​​ circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,​​ 4​​ although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh.​​ Philippians​​ 3.3-4



Paul said that he could put confidence in his flesh; and as a matter of fact, he had far more reason to put confidence in his flesh than anyone else. Paul was saying, “Hey, I’ll put my flesh resume up against anyone!”​​ 


In his day, Paul’s list of accomplishments would have been considered great by most of​​ the​​ nation of Israel.​​ Now look at what Paul said immediately after he recited his flesh list- ​​​​ 


7​​ I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done.​​ 8​​ Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ​​ 9​​ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.​​ Philippians 3.7-9 (NLT)


All he had accomplished was worthless compared to knowing Christ!

What I want you to see is that the flesh can be manifest in many different ways. It can look good or it can look bad! Paul had​​ good-looking​​ flesh​​ (to men)!​​ As I said, everyone’s flesh is a little different because we all have unique personalities.




Before I go any further let me clear up some terminology that appears in scripture.​​ The​​ Bible speaks of functioning​​ or walking​​ “according to the flesh”​​ or, in some translations,​​ “after the flesh”​​ (means the same​​ as “according to”) and it also speaks of being​​ “in the flesh”. These phrases have different meanings,​​ and it is important to know the difference.


“According​​ to​​ is​​ defined​​ as -​​ in agreement with; accordance with; in conformity with.​​ 


When the​​ Bible speaks of functioning​​ “according to”​​ or​​ “after the flesh”, it is talking about​​ behavior. Remember, the flesh is a mindset that leads to behaving independently​​ of God. ​​ 


When​​ the bible​​ talks about being​​ “in the flesh”​​ or​​ “in the Spirit”​​ it is talking about our​​ spiritual identity. Being​​ “in the flesh”​​ is the same as being​​ “in Adam”. All men separated from God are​​ “in the flesh”; and​​ they​​ HAVE​​ NO CHOICE​​ but to function (behavior)​​ “according to”​​ or​​ “after the flesh”.​​ 


Our identity as Christians is always,​​ “in the Spirit”, which is​​ the same as being​​ “in Christ”​​ (in union with).​​ The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.​​ 


However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.​​ Romans 8.9 (NASB)


Christians​​ DO HAVE A CHOICE,​​ we can function/walk​​ (behave)​​ “according​​ to the​​ flesh”​​ or​​ “according​​ to the​​ Spirit”.​​ 


It should not be hard to imagine a Christian functioning according to the flesh. We need only to examine our own lives for about​​ two​​ seconds and it becomes easy to see.​​ 


Paul called the Christians in Corinth “carnal”. The word “carnal” means flesh​​ or fleshly. It is​​ from​​ the same Greek word,​​ sarx,​​ which​​ is also translated​​ flesh.​​ 


1​​ And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal,​​ even​​ as unto babes​​ in Christ.​​ 2​​ I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able​​ to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.​​ 3​​ For ye are yet carnal: for whereas​​ there is​​ among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?​​ 4​​ For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I​​ am​​ of Apollos; are ye not carnal?​​ 1 Corinthians 3.1-4 (KJV)


Here Paul acknowledges that​​ these Corinthians​​ are “in Christ” (their identity) although immature, as evidenced by their behavior – envy, strife,​​ and​​ divisions.​​ 


Here are some scriptures that include these phrases​​ ​​ 


For while we were​​ in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were​​ aroused​​ by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.​​ 
Romans 7:5 (NASB)​​ 

and those who are​​ in the flesh​​ cannot please God.​​ Romans 8:8 (NASB)​​ 

However,​​ you are not in the flesh​​ but​​ in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.​​ 
Romans 8.9 (NASB)​​ 

12​​ So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live​​ according to the flesh.​​ 
13​​ 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.​​ 14​​ For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.​​ Romans 8.12-14 (ESV)​​ 



Practical Truths​​ About the Flesh

Note –​​ The following list is adapted from​​ Principles of Exchanged Life Counseling​​ by Carol Laird.


All flesh is​​ -

1.​​ All flesh is​​ -​​ Controlling

All​​ flesh patterns​​ are used to control one of four things:​​ 

A.​​ God​​ ​​ to keep him at a distance or to get Him to bless me.

1.​​ Keep God at a distance​​ –​​ Example​​ -​​ failure to acknowledge God (atheist; agnostic) – may occur after being hurt, e.g.,​​ blaming God​​ for the​​ death of​​ a​​ loved one.

2.​​ Get​​ God​​ to bless me -​​ Example​​ –​​ religious performance.


B.​​ Circumstances​​ – to keep from being​​ overwhelmed by life’s situations.

Example​​ -​​ attempt to​​ control every aspect​​ of one’s life, i.e., micromanaging.


C.​​ People​​ – to​​ protect myself from others or to get what I want from them.

Example​​ –​​ either​​ become​​ a​​ people pleaser;​​ or one who​​ manipulates​​ others.


D.​​ Self​​ – to keep my​​ emotions suppressed.​​ Example​​ -​​ ignore or suppress​​ my true feelings.​​ 


2.​​ All flesh is​​ ​​ Deceptive


Serves to keep the “real me” disguised or hidden from others so they don’t see my weaknesses. I pretend to be someone I’m not to fit in with those​​ with​​ which I associate. These disguises can change with whatever I think best meets my need, depending on where I​​ am or whom​​ I​​ am with.​​ However, whenever my behavior does not match my identity, there will be conflict within me.


3. All flesh is​​ ​​ Legalistic


The flesh learns to perform in order to establish an identity. It focuses on doing (behavior) rather than on being (identity). However, in truth, it is my identity that determines my behavior rather than my behavior determining my identity.​​ 


4. All flesh is​​ ​​ Proud


Whenever someone is functioning according to the flesh, they will exalt​​ themselves, demand their rights, and have difficulty admitting their weaknesses and failures. They will be easily offended and overly concerned with what others think of them.​​ 


5. All flesh is​​ ​​ Addictive



I become dependent on whatever I believe is working for me, i.e., whatever seems to be getting my needs met. Over time, these behaviors and attitudes become​​ *strongholds​​ in my life. These patterns of living will eventually become my default mode of behaving.​​ 


*Stronghold​​ – literally means a fortified place, i.e., a fortress. Used in the​​ Bible metaphorically as habitual destructive patterns of behavior that result from believing a lie(s) of the enemy. These lies and the behavior that results are always opposed to the wisdom and the ways of God. A stronghold begins as faulty thinking (often attacking our identity), which leads to painful emotions, that result in destructive behavior patterns.​​ Consider​​ 2 Cor. 10:2-5.


6. All flesh is - Self-Absorbed (self-centered)


I view everything through the grid of “self”. My focus is on me and my needs!


7. All flesh is - Self-Protective


My image and reputation are of great importance. I will do whatever I need to do to protect them, including​​ -​​ lie, rationalize, blame others, become defensive, deny, and justify my actions.​​ 


I am easily deceived and have difficulty being objective about myself. What I see as a fault in others, I defend in myself.​​ 


Examples​​ -

  • In you it’s​​ prejudice, in me it’s​​ conviction

  • In you it’s​​ conceit, in me it’s a​​ healthy self-respect

  • In you it’s​​ worry, in me it’s​​ concern

  • In you it’s being​​ touchy, in me it’s being​​ sensitive

  • In you it’s being​​ defensive, in me it’s just​​ explaining my position


8. All flesh is​​ ​​ Sin


The most basic description of sin is​​ “independence from God”. When we function independently​​ of God we are functioning according to the flesh.​​ This was Adam/Eve’s first sin; they chose to act independently​​ of God. Some would say​​ their​​ sin was that of disobedience. Yes, they did disobey God.​​ All disobedience is acting independently​​ of God, which as stated, is walking according to the flesh.​​ 


Why Do Those in Christ Continue to Walk According to the Flesh?​​ 


Good question!​​ We function according to the flesh when we cease to believe the truth that we are complete in Christ and instead, believe we must get our needs met in/by our own strength. That is why we must renew our minds​​ with the truth – continually!


For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,​​ Romans 8.6 (NASB)

“set your mind”​​ – to entertain or have an attitude; set your affection on; to be controlled by; to focus on;​​ 


So, we choose where to set our affections and that determines whether we experience life or death.​​ We don’t overcome the flesh by trying harder, self-discipline, or willpower.​​ 


How Do We Cease to Walk According to the Flesh?​​ 


We simply choose to walk by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a moment-by-moment choice. Let me share a frequently used analogy to help you understand this truth.​​ 

Gravity is always pulling you back toward the earth - it never ceases – this is what we refer to as the​​ law of gravity.​​ However, there is another law that can overcome​​ the law of gravity. It is the​​ law of aerodynamics. The​​ law of aerodynamics​​ doesn’t cause​​ the law of gravity​​ to cease, it just overcomes it.​​ 


The same thing happens with the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t cause the flesh to cease to exist, it just overcomes it.​​ 


16​​ But I say,​​ walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the​​ desire of the flesh.​​ 17​​ For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.​​ Galatians 5.16-17 (NASB)​​ 


The new man in Christ has a choice to make every moment of every day – walk according to the Spirit or walk according to the flesh. The flesh produces death, the Spirit produces life.​​ So,​​ WHY NOT CHOOSE LIFE?


Return to​​ Topical​​ Index



1.​​ Principles of Exchanged Life Counseling;​​ Laird, Carol

2.​​ Vine’s Expository Dictionary

3.​​ Spirit-union Allows for Soul-rest; Fowler, James