The Strange Case of the Spirit and the Flesh

In 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.  The story is about a respectable doctor who experiments with the idea that people have both a good and evil self. He hopes to isolate them in hope of ridding himself of his evil side. The experiment is partially successful, but he is unable to rid himself of his evil side, the villainous Mr. Hyde, who in fact grows stronger and stronger finally becoming the dominant personality. It was known as a "shilling shocker", the Victorian equivalent of a Stephen King novel. The story was born in Stevenson's own nightmares in which he dreamed that by day he worked as a respectable doctor but by night roamed the back alleys of Edinburgh. The book was an instant success, read even by Queen Victoria. Stevenson's wife found the manuscript and was so offended by it she burned it in the fireplace. But the story was so burned into his mind that Stevenson quickly rewrote it in a matter of days We are broken but God has mended us.

I suppose knowing that it was the product of the Victorian era, we might be tempted to offer our armchair psychoanalysis. After all, everyone knows how repressed those Victorians were, right?
But Victorians had no monopoly on living a double life, which is what Mr. Stevenson was writing about. There are plenty of modern examples of people we thought were upstanding who later turn out to be very flawed and living a secret life.

A poem from about the same era by Studdert Kennedy has a soldier saying
I'm a man and a man's a mixture
right down from his very birth;
for part of him comes from heaven
and part of him come from earth.1

The apostle Paul wrote about the same phenomena two millennia earlier. He notes that we each have a part of our nature that he calls, "the spirit", and another side to us that he calls "the flesh".  Just like Robert Louis Stevenson, he says  these are at war.
Our one side follows the law of the flesh and produces a shopping list of moral and character flaws: sexual immorality, impurity, envy, hate, rage and so on. Our other side follows the law of the Spirit and produces what we call the fruit of the Spirit: love, faith, patience, kindness, self control among others.

It is by God's great gift of love that our nature is reintegrated. We are not left a fractured self, even though we still have the pull to sin as a part of us. Our whole being, flesh and spirit is mended and is complete by God's work. God loves and values our mortal flesh self as much as our spirit. We know that is true because what we are ultimately promised is not a disembodied spirit, but a new body. Nethertheless we still have to cooperate with God in working out God's purpose in our lives here and now.

Any gardener knows about the never ending battle with nature. It's not against nature, but with it. Simply put, any garden left unattended will eventually fill up with weeds and not with all the wonderful fresh edibles we prize for our salads and dinner table.

Nature has an inbuilt bias toward the weed it seems.

The unpruned apple tree will not produce better and better fruit year by year.
Cats who go feral rarely have better temperaments than the constantly pampered house kitty.
Children not taught and shown consistent love and limits, rarely grow up to be all they can be...in a productive sense.
As any plumber knows, water runs downhill. The same seems to be true with human nature. Left totally to our own devices, untaught and unrestrained, we don't get better and better.

Jo M. Guerrero says "My five-year-old daughter, Barbara, had disobeyed me and had been sent to her room. After a few minutes, I went in to talk with her about what she had done. Teary-eyed, she asked, "Why do we do wrong things, Mommy?"

"Sometimes the devil tells us to do something wrong," I replied, "and we listen to him. We need to listen to God instead." To which she sobbed, "But God doesn't talk loud enough!"2

Now I don't know about you, but I have a complaint filed with God on that matter.
I have often wondered why God gave us the human natures we have. We all have an inbuilt bias toward succumbing to temptation. While I think I understand some of it, I still wonder why God holds up such a high standard if our natures guarantee that we will fail to keep it?

In the natural world, a "weed" is only a weed because we say it is. The ecological system always moves toward a balance of all the forces acting on it and the plants we call weeds are the most stable and successful plants for their location.
OK, fair enough. 
But it seems that to obtain the fruits we prize, whether its cherries and mangos or spiritual fruit like patience and self control, we have to do more than just let nature take its course.

But the fruit is worth the weeding.

Paul reminds us in Galatians that our salvation does not come through maintaining a thoroughly sin free life. That is impossible. Our salvation comes through faith in what Jesus has done for us.
But the question that arises is if that is so, then why bother trying to live a sin free life?
He says our freedom from the law does not mean lawlessness. It means freedom to seek a higher standard, the law of the Spirit.
And that is plainly hard work.

Henri Nouwen, a great christian writer and godly person has written,

I cannot continuously say no to this or no to that, unless there is something ten times more attractive to choose. Saying no to my lust, my greed, my needs, and the world's powers takes an enormous amount of energy. The only hope is to find something so obviously real and attractive that I can devote all my energies to saying yes?. One such thing I can say yes to is when I come in touch with the fact that I am loved. Once I have found that in my total brokenness I am still loved, I become free from the compulsion of doing successful things. 3

The young monk, Martin Luther found that when he tried to obey God out of compulsion, he ended up hating God.
It was only once he knew he was free from God's judgment because of Jesus' gift that he was able to love God and really live a Godly life.

And the fruit is worth it.
Why do we put in the energy weeding our gardens? Weeds are natural.
The only reason is because we prize the fruit.
Garden fresh beans and carrots with a dab of hot butter are just so much nicer than what you get out of a can.

There is always a paradox with the freedom God gives us. We are free from the weight of guilt that comes from knowing we cannot live up to God's standard. What God wants from us is not cringing obedience. And cringing obedience is not obedience at all. It is usually a show to cover up our true feelings and desires.

What has happened is that God has cut the ropes that hold us prisoner to our guilt and says, "you are free to choose".

At the same time there is the responsibility to use our freedom responsibly. Freedom isn't anarchy or license.
And there will be temptations.
On another occasion Jesus spoke about how you use your freedom when you don't feel free.
He said, suppose a Roman soldier compels you to carry his pack for a mile, which was a legal order. You could seethe with anger, or you could do it as a gift and to make the point, you take it a second mile. Now you are no longer under someone's heel, you are acting freely and in a way that may change the heart of the other person.

So we are told, yes you are free from the guilt of sin.
You can use your freedom to revel in self indulgence. But if you do, how free are you?
Or you can use your freedom to build something better into your life with the help of the Spirit.
It's not easy, but it is possible. There are plenty of people around us as examples.

This attempt is never perfect. Yes God has re-integrated us so that our Spirit and flesh are not ultimately incompatible, but its a battle with our nature. Water flows downhill and its easier to give in than resist.
But there are ways you can give yourself some advantages.

Six ways you can tip the balance in favor of success
  1. Spend your time with people who you admire and are farther along in the struggle than you are. Learn from them.
  2. Spend your time with those same people and you will avoid some temptations.
  3. Give thanks on a regular basis that God is at work in your life.
  4. Remind yourself that you are not under guilt anymore. There is a spiral that comes from guilt and shame which leads into the same old behavior. Remember you are free. You are not under judgment.
  5. When you fall down, get back up and get started again. There is a saying that when a train is derailed it is put back on the tracks where it went off. It doesn't have to start the same trip back at the station again. You have made the progress you have made. God isn't taking it away from you.
  6. Have faith in God at work in you. You have God's promise that He will not abandon you and that eventually you will succeed. Have courage.
I still have my question for God, but as one of our members said once when I see God it will all be clear and I won't even want to ask the question anyway. But for now I occasionally register my official protest. But you know I think the answer is partly that this is the only way I can grow and mature. An athlete never gets stronger without pushing against resistance. And we only get stronger spiritually when we go against the temptations that Paul calls the flesh.
And remember those wonderful fruits. They are worth the effort.

Prayer: Lord we often wonder why life has to be the way it is. It is often difficult and it doesn't always seem fair as to who carries more burdens. But help us to see that beyond this we all will inherit something more wonderful that this all will seem like nothing in comparison. And in the meantime, thank you for not giving up on us when we fail and for cheering for us in our successes. Above all, don't give up on us, we need your help. Amen

Preached June 27, 2004
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia

1. Quoted by William Barclay, The Letter to the Galatians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Westminster, 1976. p.46
2.  The Christian Reader, September/October 1976. quoted in PreachingToday.com
3.  Terry Muck, "Hearing God's Voice and Obeying His Word," Leadership Journal (Winter 1982), p. 16

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