Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and read it together. We already studied verses 1-3 last week, but I want to read them again to remind us of the context:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”
If you remember last week, I said that the first verses of chapter 3 are a summary of what Paul has been talking about generally for the past couple chapters, and a transition into some more specific language about God has shown him are some major challenges in this church.
On the broad stroke he tells them that there are two types of people in this world – the “spiritual people” and the “natural” (or “fleshly”) people, which he calls “merely human”. His main concern is that this church, supposedly full of Christians who believe in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord, are not acting like “spiritual people” – knowing right from wrong, good from evil, holy from unholy, helpful from dangerous – but are instead, being driven by their carnal, animalistic, desires.
The majority of the rest of the letter is Paul contrasting the way of the Spirit of God with the way of the flesh – and trying to convince the church to turn away from the natural desires which are destroying their souls and allowing the Spirit of God to guide their conscience and choices so they can be liberated from of the effects of sin and embrace their freedom in Christ.
These out of control drives are seen all through the letter. Listen to the list Paul gives:
- In chapters 3, 8, and 10 we see them getting jealous of one another, fighting amongst themselves. There is no gentleness, patience, or humility, but are instead are acting like wolves fighting over a piece of meat – each one wanting what the other has, refusing to share, growling and barking at the rest, and then sitting in victory over those who are starving. This causes them to divide into packs and, without their consent, set up their pastors as de facto leaders of their factions.
- In chapter 4 we see them acting like foolish sheep or strutting peacocks, prideful to the point of believing they know more than the apostles.
- In chapter 5 and 6 we them acting like animals in heat, their sexual appetites out of control to the point where they engaging in prostitution and becoming more perverse than even the pagans around them.
- In chapter 6 we see them cockfighting for public amusement as they sue each other in public court.
- In chapter 11 we read about them strutting and preening like cats or birds, showing off for all to see. We also read of them turning into drunken monkeys, humiliating themselves and others during their sacred events.
- In chapter 14 they are screeching crows making much noise but having little of value to say.
This church was more barnyard or zoo than a collection of spiritually enlightened followers of Jesus, and it grieved God and their Pastor, the Apostle Paul. Why? Because they had been told the truth, but were now living the lie. They had been shown what life was really like, seeing behind the spiritual curtain that the world doesn’t even recognize is there, and had turned away from it. Because they had been called to so much more than merely pleasing their fleshly desires. This church, full of people who wanted to know God, who believed in Jesus, who wanted wisdom and knowledge – which were all good things – had gone feral. They were being, as verse 3 and 4 say, “merely human” – and that’s not enough.
Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength
Humans are created as multi-faceted beings. The great commandment says we are to love God with our “Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength” (Mark 12:30), and without getting too dogmatic about it, this gives us a good place to talk about the different facets, or different sides, or aspects, of being human.
- Our strength is our physical body.
- The mind is our capacity for our conscious thought.
- Our heart is the seat of our emotions. The soul is that part of us that goes beyond the physical and allows us to connect to God.
- The soul is that part of us that goes beyond the physical and allows us to connect to God.
God says that we are to worship him with every part of our being – our bodies, thoughts, emotions, and spirit – not just part of it. We cannot merely give God our thoughts – thinking of Him, believing in Him, studying Him, memorizing things about Him, learning and teaching about Him – but keep our bodies to ourselves to use however we would like.
We cannot give God our physical side – denying our fleshly desires, beating our bodies into obedience, waking early and working hard – but not give to Him our spiritual selves by refusing to pray and denying Him worship as we work.
We cannot connect to God with our soul and mind and strength, but then keep our emotions to ourselves, allowing our feelings to drive us wherever they will.
This was the main problem with Corinth. They had given their minds over to God, believing Paul’s words and putting their faith in Jesus as their Saviour – and they had given their souls over to God, admitting that they were sinners, wanting to meet and worship the One, True, God – but they had not done it fully, and they had not turned over their Heart and Strength – their emotions and their bodies. They wanted to keep those to themselves.
Their feelings and their physical desires were still big influences in how they made decisions. They lived by their feelings, lusts, cravings, and desires.
I really want to park on this concept of being driven by our emotional and physical desires because it’s so key to understanding our world and the Christian life. We are driven by our desires – and that’s not always a bad thing.
When our physical bodies are hungry or tired, they send a signal to our brains to tell us that we need to sleep or eat. That’s a good thing. That desire is helpful. When something happens to us – whether it’s something good like meeting a friend or something bad like getting into a fight with that friend – we have been given emotions that kick in to allow us to process the situation. That’s a good thing.
God has given us internal signals that tell us to pay attention – a gut instinct that says you should do something, an internal lie detector when dealing with a shifty salesman, a feeling of foreboding when walking in the dark, or a sense of excitement before a big event – and they are good things.
We have the capacity to think through things, remember details, mull over problems, imagine solutions, invent entire worlds and conversations and possibilities, all in our minds – and that’s a good thing.
Many of the thoughts, feelings, sensations and longings we have inside of us are God-given and good. We should desire to be loved and cared for. We should want to be safe from pain and danger. We should be creative. We should be attracted to other people. We should want to get away from repulsive things.
Before the fall, when Adam and Eve were in the garden, they had natural desires in all four areas of their being – and they were good. They loved each other. They felt hunger and thirst and physical attraction. They used their minds to name creatures and make conversation. They had a desire for meaningful work. They wanted to walk and talk with God.
So, what I’m not saying is that desires are all bad. But what I am saying is that all our desires need to be evaluated for their truthfulness and turned over to the Holy Spirit. Why? Because of sin.
Sin has caused us our desires to get out of whack. All four facets of our being have been affected.
- Our bodies are now attracted to things that are dangerous.
- Our biochemistry and environment are out of whack and create some big problems with our bodies, feelings, and thoughts.
- Our souls are bent away from God and want nothing more than to usurp Him, place ourselves on the throne of the universe, and declare ourselves gods in His place.
- Our bodies are prone to give us false information, get addicted to any number of things, and cause us to crave activities and things that cause harm to us and others.
- All manner of influences, from social media to the demonic forces, are working hard to play with our emotions so we can be manipulated for their benefit.
- We are surrounded by lies, innuendo, gossip, and misinformation, and therefore have a hard time knowing what we think about certain topics – that is, if we haven’t already burnt our brains with either chemicals or dulled them through entertainment.
- Our souls are either dried out, or are in a constant state of “drying out”, which drives us to find the waters of purpose, joy, hope, love, and meaning somewhere; the desperation often causing us to take in the polluted waters the world offers, rather than seek out the pure waters of the Gospel.
The world uses their desires as an excuse as to why they do what they do. Whether it’s making a case for addiction, anger problems, sexual sin, or greed, you’ve heard the arguments before:
- I was born this way, so therefore I must live this way.
- My feelings are so strong in this area that they cannot be denied.
- Anyone can do whatever they want, so long as there is consent and there is no harm done.
- I am free to say whatever I want because I have the right to express my feelings.
- No one should stop anyone else from pursuing their dreams.
- How can something be wrong if so many people agree that it’s good?
- The greatest way of living is if everyone is free to do whatever makes them happy.
In other words: if I believe it, feel it, or think it, then it must be true, and therefore must be good, and therefore must be done.
That’s simply not true. Morality does not change based on our feelings or opinion. Morality has been given to us as a gift from God. He is the One who wrote it on our consciences and in His Book, and it is for us to line up to His standards – not for us to create our own.
Not that this is a new way of thinking. This is a quintessential human problem, not only prevalent in the ancient Corinthian church, but well before it and continues to be popular today – even in churches.
The War Within
All through scripture we read about the war within us, the battle between our flesh and our spirit. And one important lesson we get from these passages is that it is a battle, and we are meant to engage in combat. God gives us hundreds of reasons not to believe our fleshly desires when they are steering us towards sin: they will destroy our bodies, harden our hearts, soften our abilities, corrupt our mission, dull our senses, and create barriers between us and God and us and the ones we love. God also gives us hundreds of ways to avoid being driven by these desires. He gives us personal help by the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also teaching about how to arrange our lives wisely and carefully and get our priorities straight. He tells us in no uncertain terms where the boundary is between right and wrong, and then gives us ways and means to evaluate everything in between.
But we must engage in that battle. We must realize that what we think and feel isn’t always good, right or best. We must admit that we are sinful creatures with sinful natures, with flesh that desires the things we shouldn’t want and makes it harder to pursue the things we should want. We must admit that our souls have been corrupted, and that we are not yet perfected in Christ, and therefore we cannot trust all our gut feelings and personal interpretations of what we think God has said. And once we have admitted that – which is essentially admitting that we need God’s help – we must commit our lives to God, ask for His help every day, and enter into the battle.
God, in 1st Corinthians, is telling us that our natural selves will lead us to danger – and then gives evidence of the consequences of what they’ve already done. But, it says, when we listen to God’s Word and God’s Spirit, as it is given to us in the Bible, in prayer, and through the church, we will have the capacity to enter into the battle and be victories.
Later, in chapter 9, Paul will say,
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize. Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable. Therefore I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight like I am beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul has an incredibly important reason to win the battle of the flesh vs the spirit. He knows that his ministry, his connection to Jesus, and the reputation of the Gospel for most of the believing world, rests on his personal holiness and character. If he looses touch with God, gets prideful, or gets caught sinning, then all that he has worked for would be sorely damaged. So he works hard to make sure his desires are turned over to God.
The Wolf You Feed
Let me close with an old, but apt illustration. It is a Cherokee legend, but it is loaded with truth:
Once, and old man and his grandson were walking through the woods when the grandfather turned to the young man and said, “Young one, inside all of us there is a battle raging between two wolves. You have felt it even in your young years, and I have felt it all my life. One of the wolves is evil – he is anger, envy, greed, regret, arrogance, resentment, lies, hatred, and ego. The other is good – he is love, joy peace, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, compassion, truth and faith. Everyone has this battle going on inside them.”
They walked a little further in silence, until the young boy stopped and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The wise, old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Now, you and I may not have the weight of the missionary work for an entire generation on our shoulders – but nonetheless, we have some important incentives to evaluate our desires and engage in the battle against our natural selves – to feed the right wolf.
- Your spiritual life and connection with God depends on this. The more sin we have in our lives, the less connection we have to God, the less we will hear Him; the less wisdom, love, and peace we will have.
- Your family depends on it. The more we allow ourselves to be driven by our human nature, the more we mess up our marriages and children. They are watching us – and if we don’t care about what we see, hear, say, do, and think – then neither will they.
- Our church depends on it. We need maturing, passionate, faithful believers in this church. We need people who are listening to God, obeying His Word, and living out their spiritual gifts. The teachers should be teaching, the leaders leading, the encouragers encouraging, the prophets preaching, the administrators administrating, the healers healing, the wise governing, the merciful helping. But if you are being driven by your natural desires for wealth, fame, power, lust, or comfort, then you won’t have the time, energy, ability or desire to live out what God has called you to do in this church.
- Your community depends on it. They don’t need more nice, busy, shallow, disengaged, mindless consumers. They need godly people who are working hard to listen to and obey Jesus.
So my final question is this: Are you engaged in the battle? When was the last time you questioned why you do what you do, go where you go, post what you post, buy what you buy, watch what you watch, think what you think, feel what you feel, pray what you pray? Are you constantly evaluating the desires of your heart, soul, mind and strength – or are you merely human? Which wolf are you feeding?