1 Peter 2:11 (ESV)
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
There is a war going on within each of us, and many people are unaware of how intense the battle really is. Some are even completely unaware of the battle and go on living their lives each day as helpless victims of the onslaught that rages inside them. They don’t realize that they are losing the war because they are oblivious to the fact that it is happening at all. The Apostle Peter’s exhortation was for us to recognize the battle that is being waged inside us and to not sit idly by and lose the fight without even engaging the enemy.
Peter identifies the aggressor in this battle as “the passions of the flesh.” He says that these “passions” wage war against a person and that we are to “abstain” or refrain from indulging in them. The passions of the flesh he is talking about are the desires, urges, impulses, and drives that come from deep within us and are self-satisfying and self-centered in nature. Their sole objective is to be gratified (whether in the mind or in the body). These desires draw us toward pursuing all our fleshly appetites regardless of whether they are right and good for us or not. The passions of the flesh care nothing for abiding by moral boundaries or showing kindness or consideration; they have no conscience and will never think twice about the consequences involved in satisfying their “itch”—all they care about is being “scratched.”
The problem Peter is addressing is that if our passions are left unopposed, they will rule us, causing us to serve them and do what they want us to do; for as Peter declares, whatever overcomes or has mastery over a person, to that they are enslaved (2 Pet. 2:19). Thus, if our passions are left unchallenged, they will be the dominant force in our lives and will cause us to act in whatever way they choose. We will simply become slaves to our desires and live according to the pleasures of our flesh, satisfying our bodily urges and every inclination of our minds.
It is interesting that Peter identifies the “soul” as being the target upon which our passions launch their invasion. But what does it mean for our desires to be at war with our soul? Peter is using the term “soul” here to refer to the entirety of a person—dispositions, attitudes, emotions, thoughts, reasoning, and everything else involved in one’s being. These things are under attack by the passions of our flesh. Our desires want to be the commanding power within us, compelling us to think, feel, speak, and act in certain ways. They want to bring our very being into subjection to their cravings. And if nothing is done to oppose our desires, they will govern our being and enslave us to do their bidding.
Fight Like You Mean It
This war inside us is no small skirmish or temporary feud. It is a continual struggle that is being levied against us each and every day. In fact, we are caught in the crossfire every waking moment of our lives whether we like it or not. We are living in an active combat zone and there is no way out. The only option is to fight back.
Therefore, we must fight like our life depends on it. Because it surely does. Each spiritual battle we face inside ourselves is a battle for our hearts and will affect every aspect of our lives.
Regarding the battle being waged inside us, the Apostle Paul writes,
If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his spirit who dwells in you. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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. (Rom. 8:11-13)
Each day our life hangs in the balance between doing what the spirit leads us to do, or what the passions of our flesh lead us to do. We will either choose to do what is good, honorable, and edifying, or we will choose what is bad, dishonorable, and destructive. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” What we feel like doing (the passions of our flesh) might seem good because it feels good, but the end of that road is “death.” It is the opposite to what Jesus offers—Jesus offers life! And not just a bland sort of life, he offers life to the fullest (John 10:10).
If we live according to our desires (i.e., our flesh), we will lead a life filled with unrest, dissatisfaction, and confusion, always trying to get what we want, and never having enough. However, Paul says, the alternative is to “put to death the deeds of the body.” If we defeat the passions of our flesh, we will find joy, contentment, and peace—LIFE.
Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” The intensity of our fleshly passions might seem daunting and we might feel like we can never conquer them, thinking “they are just too strong.” But the success or failure in the battle against our desires is not determined by the strength of our willpower. Willpower alone can never completely and definitively overthrow our passions. Thankfully, as Paul explains, we don’t have to rely on our own strength to defeat our flesh. By the spirit of God, we can win the battle.
But I say, walk by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal. 5:16-17)
Because of the passions of the flesh, Paul says we do not always do the things that we “want to do,” meaning “what we know we should do” according to the will of God. The flesh will always seek to sit upon the throne in your heart, dictating what you should do, and its ambitions will never align with the will of God for your life. Nonetheless, Paul is saying we don’t have to succumb to what our flesh wants us to do. If we live by the power of the spirit, then we will not “gratify the desires of the flesh.” This is good news—Paul is saying that there is a way to win the battle!
Through the strength and power of God’s spirit within, each of us has the ability to live according to a different course of life. We can serve a different master other than our flesh. But this alternate way of living is not automatic and the war will always rage inside us. The difference is that we can be the aggressor and assailant against our passions rather than just the recipient of their attacks. We can launch our invasion against them to take back the ground they want. And by standing against our passions through the power of the spirit, we can yield our thoughts, words, feelings, and actions to the desires of a different “King.”
Your Life is the Proof
Each person’s life can be thought of as a tree representing their personal character and deeds. Whatever is dwelling inside a person determines what kind of tree they are, whether a good tree or a bad tree. Thus, to teach his disciples about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who did not speak what was good because their hearts were evil, Jesus said,
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (Matt. 12:33-35)
Martin Luther once said, “This life therefore is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not what we shall be but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet finished but it is going on; this is not the end but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.”
None of us are immune to the passions of the flesh, and none of us have yet reached perfection where our desires are no longer at war within us against our soul. Even the Apostle Paul proclaimed, “Not that I have already obtained this [to know Christ and the power of his resurrection] or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12).
Our life is like a tree, and the fruit that we bear in our lives testifies to whether we are winning the battle with our flesh or losing it. If we will “walk by the spirit” (Gal. 5:16), then our life will produce good fruit and we will not succumb to our evil desires. But we must prepare ourselves for battle, we must expect the ambush of our flesh, and we must be ready to counter-attack. This is a war over our very being, and we must fight for it or else we will continue to fail at doing the things we “want to do.” We can be certain that our flesh will be on the battlefield, but are we going to show up? Will we fight for our lives?