Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Religious Flesh

“It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.’ ”

Fruit is often used both in the Bible and elsewhere as a metaphor for children, and with good reason. You don’t need to be a geneticist to observe that the fruit of a tree carries in it the nature of the tree on which it grows, and expresses that nature to the world in the next generation. Or at least it should. Real-world results with human beings vary, as we have all observed.

Turnabout being fair play, perhaps you will excuse me using children as a metaphor for fruit. Well, metaphorical fruit at least.

Children of the Flesh and Children of the Promise

The apostle Paul is quoting one of several passages in Genesis in which God promises Abraham a child. Most of us know the story: the child of the promise was Isaac, and certain of the purposes of God were realized in the children of Isaac, and in their children’s children.

Abraham is said to have had other sons by Hagar and Keturah, but these are referred to by the apostle as “children of the flesh”. That is not to say that these men were personally wicked — though that may have been true of some — but to point out that they were the result of nothing more noble than the human ability to reproduce. Whether Abraham was mistaken in taking another wife/concubine after Sarah’s death is something we can leave to the critics to comment on, but we can be sure neither Ishmael nor his half-brothers Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah came into the world miraculously; they came into it in the perfectly ordinary way you and I did. There was no especially active Divine agency at work in producing them, and no greater Divine purpose for the world in their continued existence. To the extent that God blessed them (and he did), it was because of Abraham.

They were not so much evil as they were ordinary.

An Impediment to the Divine Purpose

All the same, notwithstanding that they were his own, Abraham viewed the children of the flesh as a potential impediment to the Divine purpose. Aware that Canaan had been promised to the descendants of Isaac, he gave gifts to his other seven sons and sent them “to the east country”, which probably means in the direction of Haran, from which Abraham himself had come. The account almost reads as if these gifts were intended as bribes, in hope that Isaac’s family would not have to contend with the proliferating descendants of Abraham’s concubines.

The sons of Midian in particular became a problem of Isaac’s descendants after their exodus from slavery in Egypt. Midian had traveled east, all right, but not too far east, ending up around the Gulf of Aqaba. His numerous descendants pestered, obstructed and corrupted Israel until God ordered Moses to “Harass the Midianites and strike them down,” which raises the question of whether Abraham sent the children of the flesh away as much for their own sake as for Isaac’s.

When the children of the promise and the children of the flesh come into conflict, God is not indecisive about what needs to happen.

It’s Only Natural

Like the Midianite children of the flesh, our old natures produce fruit that is not always obviously evil in itself, but which needs to be soundly beaten back when it clashes with the purposes of God. Here are seven things produced by our natural instincts rather than by the Holy Spirit:
  • Willfulness. John speaks of the “will of the flesh”. A will is a great thing to be able to wield in the service of God. It is definitely necessary for self-control. But human will may easily become an enemy to the purposes of God in the Christian’s life. I knew a believer once who insisted Christians should always make sure to finish what they have started. But the mere determination to see a project through to completion does not make the project itself good or bad; that has to be judged by other criteria. If the thing you are doing is not worthwhile, then mustering the will to finish it is simply a deliberate waste of the Lord’s time.
  • Indecisiveness. “Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh?” At one extreme is the fleshly exercise of will; at the other is the double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. The spiritual man is at peace because he has committed his way to the Lord. He does not have to fret about how best to get his righteousness to shine forth as the light, or his justice as the noonday. That is God’s job. “Trust in him, and he will act.”
  • Unprofitable Energy. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” The flesh generates all kinds of activity, not all of it sinful in character, but it cannot produce anything pleasing to God in and of itself. Even bringing fleshly energy into a spiritual work is dangerous. Many modern ideas about how the church or the family should operate have ended up proving unhelpful in the long run, including a few which appeared prudent when first promoted. But when we are more concerned about expediency, appearances or keeping the peace than we are about truth, obedience and faith, our solutions are bound to be less than ideal.
  • Legalistic Judgment.You judge according to the flesh.” The Pharisees were caught up in legal technicalities, rejecting the testimony of Jesus because their law demanded matters be established by two or three witnesses. Their problem was that they couldn’t see the other witnesses. Fleshly Christians can fall prey to this tendency too, depending on their knowledge of syllogisms, systems and theological formulas rather than the living Word. The study of scripture is a great thing, but the perception of spiritual truth does not depend on one’s ability to talk intelligibly about the Pauline or Petrine use of a particular Greek verb. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Obviously not.
  • Limitations in Grasping Truth. Paul says, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations” (literally, “the infirmity of your flesh”). The flesh is limited. It cannot make spirit-led intuitive leaps. It plods. By default, it views every issue as binary. It is incapable of making important distinctions. It is more than a bit thick. Slavery must serve as the best available metaphor for our new relationship with Christ, but only because we are not yet able to express or comprehend the real thing in all its glory. Language fails us. By way of contrast, the Spirit interprets spiritual realities to those who are spiritual. It falls to us to choose how we approach scripture: in the flesh, or in the spirit.
  • Weakness. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is naturally weak. The weak flesh misses opportunities to encourage, pray or enjoy fellowship. It falls asleep in church meetings. It generates lame excuses for sub-par spiritual performance. It puts comfort ahead of sacrifice almost without noticing it is doing so, because that’s what the rest of the world is doing most of the time anyway. Rest and refreshment are great things, but I note neither the Lord nor the apostles took excessive amounts of either.
  • Rulemaking and Ritual. “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous [fleshly] mind.” The flesh loves the appearance of religiosity. It loves to virtue-signal its compliance with systems of man-made regulations and its ability to keep up with religious trends, but these are almost always without anything but the most evanescent scriptural warrant. They are the work of the flesh, and therefore without profit.
Not Instantly Obvious

The difference between Isaac and Ishmael was probably not instantly obvious to the eye. If Abraham’s eight sons stood in a police lineup, it’s unlikely the average person would say, “That’s the heir holding number six,” or “That one to the left has the indisputable look of a product of concubinage.”

However, a few carefully chosen questions would quickly help us distinguish the seven children of the flesh from the child of promise. Things like “How did you get your wife?” or “Why have you chosen to live in a tent rather than a city?” or “Why are you so far from the home country of your fathers?” or “What is it you hope for?” or even “What do you tell your children is most important in life?”

If you don’t look too closely at the religious flesh, it can often pass muster for a little while. But watch what it produces down the road.

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