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The World and the Flesh

In the scrip­tures and in the spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion of the Church, the expres­sion “the world” has two dif­fer­ent mean­ings. In the first, “the world” is the expres­sion of all of God’s cre­ation. As such it is the prod­uct of God’s good­ness and the object of His love.

Accord­ing to the scrip­tures, God cre­ates the world and all that is in it. He cre­ates the heav­ens and the earth as the dec­la­ra­tion of His glo­ry (Ps 19:1). He cre­ates an liv­ing things, crowned by the for­ma­tion of man in His own image and like­ness. Accord­ing to the scrip­tur­al record, God called His cre­ation good… very good” (Gen 1:12, 18, 25, 31). And accord­ing to the Gospel, Christ has come as the “sav­ior of the world” (Lk 2:11, Jn 4:42).

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that who­ev­er believes in Him should not per­ish but have eter­nal life. For God sent His Son info the world, not to con­demn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (Jn 3:16–17).

In addi­tion to this pos­i­tive scrip­tur­al under­stand­ing of “the world,” there is also a neg­a­tive use of the expres­sion which has caused con­fu­sion about the prop­er under­stand­ing of Chris­t­ian faith and life. This neg­a­tive use of the term “the world” is pre­sent­ed not as God’s object of love, but as cre­ation in rebel­lion against God. Thus Christ spoke:

If the world hates you, know that it has hat­ed me before it hat­ed you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, there­fore the world hates you (Jn 15:18–19; Cf. Jas 4:4).

Saint John con­tin­ues to speak of the enmi­ty between Christ and “the world” in his first let­ter where he gives the fol­low­ing com­mand­ment to Chris­tians.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any­one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world pass­es away and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for­ev­er (1 Jn 2:15–17).

The same ambi­gu­i­ty as that con­cern­ing “the world” exists with the expres­sion “the flesh.” In some instances, the term flesh is used in a pos­i­tive sense mean­ing the ful­ness of human exis­tence, man him­self. Thus it is writ­ten about the incar­na­tion of Christ that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). It is also writ­ten that on the day of Pen­te­cost, God poured out His Holy Spir­it “on all flesh” (Acts 2:17, Joel 2:28). The word “flesh” in this sense car­ries no neg­a­tive mean­ing at all. Rather it is the affir­ma­tion of the pos­i­tive char­ac­ter of cre­at­ed mate­r­i­al and phys­i­cal being, exem­pli­fied by Christ who “became flesh” and com­mands men to “eat of my flesh” (John 6:53–56).

In the scrip­tures again, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the writ­ings of Saint Paul, the expres­sion “the flesh” is used in the same neg­a­tive way as “the world.” It is employed as the catch­word for god­less and unspir­i­tu­al exis­tence.

For those who live accord­ing to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live accord­ing to the Spir­it set their minds on the things of the Spir­it. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spir­it is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hos­tile to God; it does not sub­mit to God’s Law, indeed it can­not please God (Rom 8:5–8).

Here, for Saint Paul, the term “flesh” is not a syn­onym for man’s body which is good, and the apos­tle makes this per­fect­ly clear in his writ­ings.

The body is not meant for immoral­i­ty, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. […] Do you not know that your bod­ies are mem­bers of Christ? […] Do you not know that your body is a tem­ple of the Holy. Spir­it with­in you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glo­ri­fy God in your body (1 Cor 6:13.20).

In the spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion of the Church the ambi­gu­i­ty about “the world” and “the flesh” is treat­ed care­ful­ly. It has been explained with­out con­fu­sion by the spir­i­tu­al teach­ers and pro­claimed clear­ly in the Church’s sacra­ments. God’s good cre­ation is not evil. Mate­r­i­al exis­tence is not evil. Man’s flesh­ly body is not evil. Only sin­ful pas­sions and lusts are evil. They are evil because they treat the cre­at­ed world and the flesh­ly body of man as ends in them­selves, as objects of idol­a­trous ado­ra­tion and god­less desire. They are evil because, as St Augus­tine puts it, they. express the “wor­ship of the crea­ture rather than the Cre­ator.”

By nature the soul is with­out sin­ful pas­sion. Pas­sions are some­thing added to the soul by its fault… The nat­ur­al state of the soul is lumi­nous and pure through absorb­ing the divine light…

The state con­trary to nature… is found in pas­sion­ate men who serve pas­sions.

When you hear that it is nec­es­sary to with­draw from the world… to puri­fy your­self from what is of the world, you must under­stand the term world. “World” is a col­lec­tive name embrac­ing what are called pas­sions. When we speak of pas­sions col­lec­tive­ly, we call them the world. …the world is car­nal life and mind­ing of the flesh (St Isaac of Syr­ia, 6th c., Spir­i­tu­al Train­ing).