“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.”
In our religious world, it’s difficult for us to grasp what it means to set our minds on things of the spirit. Paul speaks against living according to “flesh”; it’s all too easy to imagine that Paul might have meant for us to become detached from our material, bodily existence. It’s a short leap for us to assume he meant a sort of ethereal disregard for the physical, that he intends us to live with contempt for the created order and our place in it. And yet, when Paul turns to describing what life in the spirit actually looks like, it includes things like showing hospitality to strangers, befriending the lowly, feeding your enemies, celebrating with those who have cause to be happy, shedding tears with the sad, and paying your taxes (Romans 12-13). These are physical matters, matters of skin and bone that take place in the created world. For Paul, living by the spirit is not a denial of life, but a certain way of living it. It wasn’t a pining for the afterlife, but a claiming of the present one for the God who created it.
The flesh for Paul is a way living that is enslaved by appetites beyond our control. It is a distortion of physical life that craves and is never satisfies, that seeks after strength only to be confronted by death and decay. It is a force that hollows physicality, leading to a way of being in the world separated from the creator’s will. It is existence totally turned in on itself, in which relationships to the creator and other creatures are sacrificed to the appetite and fear of the individual.
For Paul, life by the spirit of God represents a different way of living in the world, a way filled by God’s own life. “Spirit” is one way of talking about God’s own person, but it can also be alternative orienting force. By attending to the spirit, we allow God to turn back our lives to a trajectory that includes attending to God’s will and presence. God’s own being defends against the pullings and pushings of our own appetites and other fallen powers which, left to themselves, corrupt life and dislodge it from its divine direction. “Setting our minds on the spirit” means orienting ourselves to that way of life which was the creator’s gift to us in the beginning, a way of living that allows us to experience communion with God and each other, and to live in peace with the rest of creation. It is a way of living not in spite of creation, but fully honoring the gift or creation and our place in it.
God desperately wants to give us this life.
The creation itself longs to share it with us.
The question that remains is: do we desire this sort of life? Is it the sort of life that we are ready to accept, or have we become so accustomed to the way of the flesh that we are unwilling to be pried from it? Can we be persuaded that the way of the flesh is a sham, a poisoned apple drugging us and dragging us to the grave?
Can we be persuaded that there is a life that is truly life, and a peace that is truly peace?
May God’s own spirit make it so!