In the early years of my faith I was warned to avoid two dangers to my spiritual life and ministry. Those two dangers were being fleshly and being worldly. I could not agree more and I completely disagree. Let me explain.
In those formative years of my faith, when I was encouraged to avoid these dangers, they were defined something like this. Being fleshly: participating in sins like drinking alcohol, having sex outside of marriage and using drugs. Being worldly: having a wild hair style, wearing the current youthful fashion (a suit and tie was OK), using the current slang and other such “worldly” behavior. Some of these things are dangerous to our spiritual life. Others are totally superfluous to our relationship with God. My issue isn’t whether such things are dangerous to our spiritual life but rather if this is what the Bible is talking about at all. To investigate that we need to actually go to what the Bible says about such things. In this post I’m going to investigate what being fleshly really is. In the next post I’m going to investigate what being worldly really is.
The definition of “being fleshly” I was raised with is partially right. There are deeds of the flesh, and we are told to avoid them by living in the Spirit. We can see this argument in Gal. 5:19-23. And, the deeds of the flesh mentioned Galatians 5 are in part about participating in sexual immorality and wild living among other things (although fashion isn’t mentioned). So the definition is partially right.
What isn’t mentioned in “being fleshly” is something else Paul mentioned in Philippians.
Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ (Phil. 3:2-7).
In the context Paul is talking first about circumcision, then about being proud of religious position and finally about religious accomplishment done through human effort. These issues, religious position, religious accomplishment and human effort oddly weren’t mentioned all that much. In fact, at least in my context, that was encouraged. Titled leaders were held in high regard, actually almost worshiped. And, by example and verbal encouragement we were expected to go out and “do might deeds for Christ.” Here’s the problem. We can’t do mighty deeds for Christ. Without his power and direction we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). And being proud of religious positions as well as being impressed or “idolizing” such leaders clearly is fleshly behavior.
Whether our pride is in being of the tribe of Benjamin, how much zeal we have, how good we are at keeping the rules, or whether it is in being the pastor or vice president, having ministry success or being enamored with some famous Christian leader, writer, or TV personality, they are all fleshly behavior.
What was Paul’s solution to fleshly living? But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14). It was pretty simple. The answer to fleshly living is to keep focused on Jesus and what He has asked us to do. Forget the titles and positions. Forget our human accomplishments and the admiration that comes with it. Forget about what our favorite Christian celebrity is doing. In fact, quit idolizing other Christians. Focus on Jesus. Obey Jesus. Walk in His power and Spirit. To do so allows us to ignore the foolish distractions.
- Why do we tend to focus on what we have accomplished?
- Why do we tend to stress our positions and titles? Why do we tend to become awed by the positions and titles of others?
- Why do we seek success? What is success anyway?
- Why do we tend to focus on Christian celebrities and be enamored with them?