Which Wolf Are You Feeding? Reflections on Romans 8:1-11
July 13, 2014
A superficial reading of this week's text might see it as a battle between the spirit of a person (good) and the body (evil). Paul doesn't work out the exact relationship of the Spirit to God and Christ. But when he refers to life in the Spirit, he is not referring to the human spirit as part of a mind/body/spirit trio, but to the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ (8:9), elsewhere called the Holy Spirit (9:1; 1:4). Everyone has a human spirit according to Paul, but here he is referring to the Spirit of God active in believers and forming their outlook (8:5-6). (Best, 91)
When Paul uses the term "flesh" (sarx), he is not referring to the body as evil in and of itself. Our contemporary age tends to encourage dualistic thinking that leads to the conclusion that our bodies are somehow sinful or inherently evil and therefore something that we need to escape. New Testament scholar Dr. John Byron points out that sarx is a notoriously difficult term to define and translate. It has often been translated literally as "flesh," but this does not always get at what Paul (or other New Testament authors) meant. In Romans alone the term can take on connotations meaning humanness (3:20), weakness (6:20) the sphere in which sin operates (7:5, 18, 25) and a source of corruption and hostility against God (8:7). None of these connotations equate the flesh with the physical body. The physical body is a neutral medium that can be manipulated for evil or harnessed for good.
The problem, as Paul points out in 7:17, 20, is not with sarx, but with sin. The struggle that the "I" has with doing what is right is because sin takes advantage of the weakness of the sarx. As flesh (sarx), humans are susceptible to sin, but they are not sinful simply because they are sarx (flesh).
Paul's understanding of sin that takes advantage of the flesh is very similar to the Hebrew concept of the evil inclination. The yetzer herah, or evil inclination (Genesis 6:5; 8:21), was the wrongful use of the imagination to go against the will of God. In Hebrew thought, the yetzer (framing or purpose) is a neutral faculty, the creative energy of the human imagination. Some rabbinic interpretations of the Genesis account of Eden interpret the yetzer as a grain of wheat situated between the two valves of the heart. It can produce good or destructive fruit, for it is potentially both an idol maker and the creative energy that fuels all constructive human pursuits" (Kearney, 43). There is also a yetzer tov (inclination to good), which the rabbis believed emerged in the early teens.
When the yetzer herah is in charge, it leads to idolatry, which reduces God to the graven images of our own arbitrary imaginings. (Kearney, 46) The human being loses all sense of direction, living according to his own way rather than according to God's way. The Hebrew term Torah means literally "the direction of God." (Kearney, 43) The rabbis taught that immersing oneself in Torah, prayer and contemplation during the limited time one has on earth will help one withstand the pull of the evil inclination.
Paul assures the Romans that to say that we are susceptible to sin is not the same as saying we must inevitably allow it to master the human spirit and the physical body. Because of God's victory over death in raising Jesus, because of the Presence of God's Spirit in the midst of our lives, we are empowered to choose. We can choose what to focus on.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.