Lusting Against the Flesh

Lust is an ugly thing.

The “works of the flesh,” which “lusts against the spirit,” include such miserable misbehaviors as “fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury, idolatry, witchcraft, enmities, contentions, emulations, quarrels, dissensions, sects, envies, murders, drunkenness, reveling,” and others of a like nature (Gal. 5:17-21).

All of which, we might note, have been exceptionally popular from time immemorial, and continue to gain ground with each passing generation.

Still, despite the protests of a thousand flatterers, echoed by our own compromised consciences, when we stop and take a deep (spiritual) breath, it is not hard to grasp what St. Paul means when he teaches that “they who do such things shall not obtain the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21).

What, then, is the alternative?

Interestingly, St. Paul’s list of sinful deeds is offset, not by a list of virtuous practices per se, but rather by a manifold description of the (singular) “fruit of the Spirit”: “charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity” (Gal. 5:22-23).

How do we acquire fruit like this? Paradoxically, the Apostle traces the fruit of the Spirit to another kind of lust: that of “the spirit against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17).

Lust (concupiscentia), it turns out, is not an inherently wicked thing. As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, for example, one of the joys of heaven will be the attainment by our desiring power (potentia concupiscibilis) of “what is truly desirable.”

From all too common experience, we may wrongly deduce that it is the presence, or the intensity of desire that leads us into temptation. In fact, the goodness or badness of a given passion is determined by its origins, and ends.

When our “lust” is from the Spirit, and directed toward the genuine happiness of ourselves and others, then the more intensely we feel and follow it, the better!

It may sound odd that we are to lust after modesty, and contend for continency. But given the violence with which the misguided longings of the flesh rage within us, it requires nothing less than a mightier force in the opposite direction to enable us to enjoy genuine peace.

Thankfully for us, Christ’s sacrifice of the human flesh he took upon himself has made the conquest of our own a reality, if we agree to let him enter our hearts, where he can give us the spirit to crucify our flesh with its “vices and concupiscences” (Gal. 5:24).

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