The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak...
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
That pretty much sums up my relationship with Cheetos. And chocolate. And Instagram. You get the idea.
You could probably make your own list of things that your flesh craves even when your spirit says no. Or maybe we could make a list of things that our spirit is willing to do, but our fleshly fears keep us from even trying. The point is that we all face an inner battle that defines the human experience. The battle between the spirit and the flesh.
Even Jesus, fully God and fully man, fought this battle. In fact, he’s the one who said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” It’s right there in Mark 14:38.
The context of the verse is the night of Jesus’ betrayal. The beginning of the end, in a sense. Jesus and the disciples walk to a garden called Gethsemane and Jesus invites Peter, James and John to come along with him while he prays. I’ll let Mark tell the story:
“He began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Simon,’ he said to Peter, ‘are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:33-38).
I’ve always read Jesus’ comments regarding the spirit and the flesh as purely a rebuke for Peter sleeping through prayer time, but recently I saw his comments within their full context. The context of Jesus fighting his own battle between the spirit and flesh.
Jesus asked for the cup (of suffering) to be taken from him. He knew what was ahead and he was anxious, to say the least. Luke 22:44 says that he sweat drops of blood. Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross. He was about to be beaten and whipped and nailed to a cross, and everything in his flesh said, I’d rather not. But his spirit was willing. “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” he told his father. (v. 36).
When Jesus told Peter, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” he said it as someone who knows. Someone who has fought that battle with the flesh. Someone who knows how to WIN that battle. What is Jesus’ winning strategy? For one thing, prayer. Jesus falls to the ground and prays, and praying is exactly what he tells Peter to do.
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).
The apostle Paul has a few things to say about winning battles too. In Ephesians 6, he describes the armor of God that we should wear into battle against the devil’s schemes. If you were ever in Sunday school, you probably have a mental picture of the shield of faith, the belt of truth, and so on. Let me remind you how that passage ends:
“Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:17-18).
You will never win a battle that you don’t fight. And a key way that you fight is prayer.
It’s the season of Lent, and for centuries the church has practiced fasting from something for the weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. There are countless benefits to this practice of fasting, but chief among them is what it can do for our prayer life. Fasting is a battle between the spirit and the flesh, and one way we win that battle is through prayer.
Maybe you gave up Cheetos for Lent. Or maybe chocolate. Or maybe you never fast for Lent because your church doesn’t practiced that tradition. Either way, you are in a battle. And Jesus understands. He has fought that battle too. And he wants you to pray.
Call out to God when you are struggling against a temptation. Call out to God when you are afraid. Call out to God when you are overwhelmed.
Lent may be about less dessert, or less social media, or less of something else, but no matter what you choose to have less of it should lead to more of prayer.
Praying for you,