The desires of the flesh wage war on our souls, leaving us hollow-shelled and hopeless. We learn to abstain from them not because it’s a law, but because God has already made us his people. When we connect to his love, we find strength to abstain from the flesh, and that brings glory to God, which is the best thing for us, and for the whole world.
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As always, we need to keep in mind the context of our verses. This time, context is especially important, otherwise we might get the wrong idea. Remember, Peter has been writing about what God has done for us. We are God’s specially selected people; a holy nation; a royal priesthood; a people obtained by, and for, God. Once we were not God’s people, but now we are; once we had not received his mercy, but now we have. God’s purpose in making us his own includes showing the universe that he is a good, holy and loving God.
Therefore – with God’s grace showered on us, with new identities as God’s people –
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.(1 Peter 2:11-12, ESV)
So we can see right away that we abstain from sinful desires not in order to become God’s people, but rather, because he has already made us his people. Avoiding sin is about living according to our true nature as God’s children.
I have used the marriage analogy many times in the past, and, of course, the Bible itself portrays our relationship with Jesus as a marriage. I live like a married man because I am a married man. I don’t avoid adultery in order to become married to Kari, or in order to get Kari to love me. Instead, I abstain from adultery because I love Kari, because I know Kari loves me, and because we are (already) married.
If I want to be married, is it necessary to avoid adultery? I would say so. Does that mean Kari loves me only for the things I do, or don’t do: i.e., she loves me primarily because I have avoided adultery? No. Simply abstaining from adultery is not the main basis for a marriage, but it is the natural result of a loving relationship between husband and wife. It’s about love, not law, but love affects behavior.
So, should we abstain from sin if we belong to Jesus? I would say so. Does Jesus only love and save us if we don’t sin? Is abstaining from sin the main basis for our relationship with Jesus? No – it is the natural result of first, connecting with how much God loves us, and second, our own awakening love for God. I’ll say it again, because it is so important: It’s about love, not law, but love affects behavior.
With that understanding, let’s talk about what Peter means when he tells us we should “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” First the word “abstaining,” is, in Greek, the opposite of “complete fullness.” In other words, the point is, we abstain completely. We don’t just limit ourselves to a “little bit” of the passions of the flesh. The goal is to have nothing to do with them whatsoever. Certainly, less indulgence of the flesh is better than more, but the goal is none.
That naturally raises the question: what are these “passions of the flesh?” Flesh is a term used by Paul and Peter to describe the source of sinful desires in someone who belongs to Jesus. Maybe one way to say it is this: My flesh = my body, corrupted by sin. Our sinful desires don’t originate in the spirit, or even the soul. They come from the flesh. Paul explains to the Galatians that the desires of the flesh lead to the works (actions) of the flesh:
17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.(Galatians 5:17-21, ESV)
The list above is not exhaustive, unfortunately, but I’m sure you get the idea. If we keep in mind what I’ve been saying about love, we won’t need an exhaustive list. Instead, what we need is to cultivate our receiving of God’s love, and cultivate our own love for him.
There are three reasons to abstain from the desires of the flesh: First, because God has made us his people. That’s mostly what we’ve been talking about so far – it means our behavior arises out of God’s love for us, and our loving response to him. There’s another piece, also, about being God’s people. Peter comments that being the people of God means we are strangers and temporary residents in this sinful world. This world is not our home. We are not citizens here, and so we live differently. In fact, we are to live on this earth as though we are already citizens of heaven – because, in fact, that is what we are!
Though your present body will have to die, your spirit, and your soul, will not. In some mysterious way, your spirit-life is already with Christ in heaven.
1 Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.(Colossians 3:1-3, NLT)
So, your spirit is alive with Christ. Your body is corrupted by sin, and is dying slowly. Your soul is the interface between spirit and body. It can be influenced by the spirit, or by the sin-corrupted body – that is, the flesh. The Lord wants us to remember that we belong in heaven, and in fact, one part of us is already “there” in some way (our spirit). The fact that we belong to God makes us strangers and non-citizens of the world. So we live like God’s people, not worldly people.
Peter writes that the passions of the flesh “wage war against your soul.” This is the second reason to abstain from them. The term translated “wage war” is an interesting one, in Greek. Another way to say it is that the passions of the flesh are waging a long and strategic campaign against your soul.
The Lord wants to influence your soul through the spirit. The devil wants to influence your soul through your sin-corrupted body – that is, your flesh. The soul is the battle ground. We need to remember that we are in a spiritual war.
The flesh will offer you immediate gratification, but somehow, the gratification part doesn’t last very long. As David Wilcox wrote: “You can get what’s second best…but it’s hard to get enough.” Your soul is built for God and his New Creation, but the passions of the flesh dull our spiritual senses. They take away our taste for God. They encourage us to not be thankful, always reminding us instead, of what we don’t have. When we indulge the passions of the flesh, it begins to steal our hope. We live for whatever shallow pleasure we can get, so we never get the chance to experience deep joy, which often only comes after a kind of emptiness. The flesh is insistent, and demanding, and ultimately it wears us out, and leaves us with a few tarnished cheap thrills, and nothing of lasting value. It brings us into strife with others, and even strife within our own hearts. If we let it, the flesh will leave us bored, angry, dull, frustrated, friendless, hopeless, heartless and hapless. It will blast the architecture of your soul into rubble.
God is not trying to spoil our fun. He wants us to recognize our enemies, and not be seduced by them. He wants our souls to thrive, and so, through Peter, the Holy Spirit warns us that the passions of the flesh will seek to destroy us.
The third reason to abstain from the passions of the flesh is because it brings glory to God, and whenever God is glorified, the best things in the universe happen. This is when the architecture of your soul gets built, and rebuilt. When you have one of those sublime moments of joy that somehow fill you and lift you up and make you long for even more, it is a result of the glory of God. When God is glorified, all is well within us also.
I wish it wasn’t true sometimes, but our behavior is one way that God is glorified. When we don’t meet hurt with hurt, when we say “no,” to mindless indulgence, when we live in love, others notice.
I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. In Allahabad in northwest India, Hindu and Buddhist people have been present for millennia. Many of them have been powerful, wise and intelligent. A few hundred years ago, the area was conquered by Muslim rulers. They ruled the region for centuries, and they too were often powerful, wise and intelligent. No Hindu rulers, and no commoner, taught the people to read their own language. No Muslim or Buddhist did, either. Neither Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus started schools, or provided widespread medical care to common people. But when Christians came to the area, they built hospitals, and brought medical care to even the most poor. They developed a written form of the languages spoken by the common people, and taught them to read and write. Then they built schools and universities. Christians living in the love of God do things that other people don’t normally do. It’s noticeable.
Make sure you understand here. I’m not saying that no one who calls themselves a Christian will do terrible things. I’m not saying that only Christians do good things, or that, for instance, Buddhists cannot be wonderful, loving, selfless people. I’m saying that the overwhelming testimony of history is that Christians who follow Jesus faithfully have had a noticeable impact on the world, in a way that is historically different from the impact of other world views.
Now, that’s a wide snapshot of history in a certain place of the world. I’m not suggesting that all of you reading this need to go overseas and teach literacy, or build schools or hospitals. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t either – listen to the Holy Spirit on that. But I am saying, based on this text, that we Christians are called to live like citizens of someplace that cannot yet be found on earth. When we do so, it protects our very souls, and it brings glory to God and blessing to this world.
When I hear something like that, I’m tempted to feel bad. I haven’t started a school for the poorest of the poor. I haven’t given up my house, and lived with the downtrodden. In other words, I start evaluating my performance. In fact, I bet I could find some Buddhists who have been better, more loving people than I have been. But I think that’s the wrong approach, especially if we actually want to live lives that glorify God.
I believe the right approach is to immerse ourselves in the love of God. That might seem selfish, but I promise you, it is not. God himself is not selfish. If we really connect deeply to his love, we will find ourselves naturally abstaining from the flesh, and living according to the spirit. When we fully receive God’s love for us, when we truly understand that we are his people, citizens of heaven, we will want to do the things that glorify him, because, after all, that’s what he made us for.
One thing I suggest is to ask God to let you receive more of his love. Just pray for it with a simple prayer. Ask him to help you love him, and to live through you, the life he wants you to live. After you ask, start paying attention. It’s not complicated. The hard part is surrendering to his love when he takes you (or one of your loved ones) in a direction that you aren’t sure about. So then, ask him to give you the trust in Him that you need for that, too.