If we say that the flesh is the “old way”, we may find ourselves much closer to the truth. The flesh is the modus operandi—the mode of operation—of the unbeliever. It is the way of thinking and coping that was developed prior to salvation.
How do we know that? It comes from the way Scripture refers to flesh. The same Greek words are used when Paul tells us that we are not “in the flesh” (Romans 8:9) and when he says that we are “in the flesh” (Galatians 2:20). There is a contrast here that must be reconciled. How is it possible that we are in the flesh and not in the flesh? The answer is in 2 Corinthians 10:3: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh”.
We walk in the flesh every day of our earthly lives, whether we have been saved or not. We live in the realm of the flesh. Our eyes see the realm of the flesh, our ears hear the realm of the flesh and our hands touch the realm of the flesh. Our bodies and our souls operate in the realm of the flesh. That will be true until we experience physical (fleshly) death. However, we are no longer part of this fleshly world. This world, as Jesus explained, is not our home. Hebrews 11:13-16 reminds us that those who have trusted in the Lord have found that they were strangers in this world, seeking a home that God has prepared. Strangers, but stuck . . . until the day.
Thus it is true that we are in the flesh and not in the flesh. We live in this world, but we are no longer citizens of this world. This is not our world. But it is the world we are used to. It is the world in which we grew up and lived a serious portion of our lives. This world taught us about life and showed us ways to handle life’s challenges and pleasures. As we grew up in this world we learned coping methods that we used almost instinctively. We hid or attacked; we ran or froze. We became perfectionists or gave up trying to do well. We held our emotions in or we acted them out. We became what we would be because of what this world taught us.
Then Jesus came into our lives. Suddenly everything was different. We died and rose with Him. He became the very life within us. Our sins were gone and everything was new. There was hope and promise and joy after so much pain. In a sense, it was like winning the lottery.
But all of our training remained. Yes, we became different people, re-created by the life of Jesus in us, but our thinking was the same. The patterns in our lives continued. And, just like the lottery winners mentioned earlier, we were ill-prepared to handle our new life. In fact, there was no way our former patterns, our flesh, could fulfill the expectations of our new life.
When we try to live the Christian life in the flesh, we will fail. We will find that the joy we expected turns into sorrow, the freedom turns into bondage, and the forgiveness somehow opens the door to greater guilt. The Christian life is not a fleshly life. The Christian life is a life in the Spirit. When the Spirit of God leads us, rather than our old flesh, we find the joy and peace we need.