But I say walk by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires [that which is] contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit [that which is] contrary to the flesh, for they are in conflict with one another, in order that you may not do what you want to do.
Galatians 5:16-17 (my translation)
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Matthew 5:29-30 (NIV)
Discipleship is more than a full-contact sport. It is brutal, bloody combat. And in the process, many of us feel as though we are being torn apart.
Jesus urges us to radical commitment in our pursuit of holiness. That is what it takes to gauge out one’s own eye or cut off one’s own hand. But ridding ourselves of sin is actually much more difficult—and much more painful—than simply removing a body part.
For one thing, the human imagination is a powerful tool. It can be used to accomplish much good, but it can just as easily betray its (supposed) master into evil. For example, it is quite possible for a blind man to yearn for the embrace of a woman who is not his own even if he has no eyesight with which he might feed that desire. Likewise, a woman who lacks the capacity to wield a gun or a sword can still will evil for her enemies.
For another thing, we are actually in the midst of a war—the conflict between the Spirit of God and the flesh. We tend to think of this conflict as a competition between different aspects of our psyche, but Walter Bo Russell has argued that “flesh” in Paul has a distinctively social aspect. Thus, “flesh” and “spirit” are not just mental faculties, or even spiritual powers. They are realms of authority, and their battleground is the human heart (and, likely, the congregations in which Christian hearts are embedded).
It is no wonder, then, that the process of following Jesus seems so hard. It is no wonder that it feels like we are being pulled this way and that. We are. And I am coming to the conclusion, after many years of struggling to maintain some kind of personal integrity, that this is how it is supposed to be. I am supposed to be torn apart by my interactions with Jesus, and it is supposed to be this way precisely because the Spirit that Jesus promised us is at war with the genetic encoding, social conditioning, and personal trauma that predisposes us to sin.
And maybe this also means that my job is not to run out and castrate myself like that early Christian philosopher Origen. Perhaps it means that my job is to simply let the war happen. It is to let God prune me, in the language of John 15, until He has removed all of those parts of my character that reflect the influence of the flesh rather than the influence of the Spirit. Perhaps my job is to willingly endure the pain of deprivation when God removes those maladaptive coping mechanisms from my life.
And perhaps that is your job, too. But you, and I, will not succeed if we do not believe that there is life on the other side of the radical surgery we endure. Being drawn and quartered (even in the metaphorical sense) is excruciating. There has to be a payoff on the other side of the pain. There has to be a new life—one that we can hardly imagine but that we desperately need.
Fortunately, that is precisely what Jesus (John 10:10; 14:1-4) and the Father (Revelation 21:1-8) promises to us… And because the love of the Father and of the Son is unshakable (cf. Romans 8:28-39), we can be sure that God will keep this precious promise.