October 25, 2021
Brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:12-17)
The following homily, referencing the same reading from Romans we have today, was originally delivered in July 2014:
Did God set us up to fail?
I certainly don’t want to second-guess God, but at times what He asks of us, and the position He puts us in, do not seem to be in alignment.
I am sure you have heard the expression, “Put yourself in a position to succeed.” The implication is that we should do things that accentuate our gifts and talents, that allow us to use our strengths while diminishing our weaknesses.
We follow that logic at school. We schedule students into classes based on their academic abilities and strengths. We put teachers in front of them who are licensed and competent in the subject matter, in the hope that the students experience success. We wouldn’t put a student who struggles in Math into the highest level Calculus class, or assign a teacher to the class who is trained to teach Social Studies. We would be setting that student up to fail.
Which brings me back to my original question: Did God set us up to fail?
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he distinguishes between being “in the flesh” and “in the spirit,” saying: “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit…if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit…you will live.”
What does Paul mean when he says, “in the spirit”? He means that God created us in His own image and breathed life into us, giving us the gift of the spirit, and confidence that God is present in our lives. Thus, we are “in the spirit.”
Yet we also have a sinful nature. We are imperfect creatures who are easily tempted and prone to poor judgment. Then God takes us – His “in the spirit,” sinful creations who are prone to exercise poor judgment – and drops us into a temporal world…a world very much “in the flesh.”
What does Paul mean when he says, “in the flesh”? He means we live in a world that is “of the world”:
- A world in which people are consumed by what makes them feel good, with little regard for consequences
- A world focused on acquiring “things” – chasing after material possessions that go far beyond basic human need
- A world in which people are objectified for the personal pleasure of others
- A world in which beauty is defined by appearances rather than value
- A world in which the needs of others are someone else’s problem
This “in the flesh” world is a shortsighted world, concerned only with the here and now, with no regard for eternal life. It is empty and shallow and unfulfilling.
Paul tells us that this world comes with a warning: “…if you live according to the flesh, you will die.” If you live by the rules of the world, you die by those same rules. You die empty and unfulfilled.
This is the world into which God has placed us.
Ironically, the “in the spirit” human beings into whom God breathed life are the ones who created the “in the flesh” world. He had to have seen that coming.
Did He set us up to fail?
I could answer that question by saying, “Yes, God set us up to fail” and send you all home depressed and hopeless. I won’t do that.
If we really thought God wanted us to fail, we would need to believe two things:
- That He gave us none of the gifts, talents, or skills needed in order to take on the world and overcome its negative effects
- That He offers us no additional resources…nothing that we can rely on for assistance when times are tough.
Clearly, neither of these things are true. God not only gave us the aforementioned spirit breathed into us at creation, but He also endowed us with the gift of free will.
It is free will that allows you to say, “I have a choice.” You do not have to accept the world as it is. You do not have to surrender to its fleshiness, or fall into the hopelessness that so many people allow to control their lives. You can choose not only to avoid the pitfalls of this world, but also to be an agent of change. You can choose to make a difference.
There are others just like you who do not want to be swallowed up by an “in the flesh” world. You are not alone.
As for the idea that God offers us no additional resources – there is nothing further from the truth. There are at least two undeniable resources always at our disposal.
First and foremost, God Himself serves as a resource. He offers Himself to us on an as needed basis, and He is always open for business.
In our uphill battle against an “in the flesh” world, we will likely grow tired and weak. We may also feel alone. It is comforting to know that we can turn to God when we are burdened, and He will give us rest. He will allow us to rest and recuperate before heading back into battle.
The second resource extended to us is forgiveness. In every battle there are casualties. Remember, we are imperfect, sinful creatures. We will stumble at times and fall victim to the fleshiness of this world. When we do stumble, that does not have to be the end. We do not need to be permanent victims.
With rest and forgiveness, we are strengthened and reconciled to the spirit. And when we live “in the spirit” we have the hope of eternal life.
In 33 AD, Jesus commissioned His apostles – a small group of fisherman, farmers, and tax collectors – to take the Gospel message out to the world. The world at that time was “in the flesh” just as it is today. These men were untrained and unqualified. They were sinful, and stumbled countless times along the way, even denying that they knew Jesus.
Despite all of this, there are nearly 2.2 billion Christians in the world today. So were the apostles set up to fail?
God gives us life “in the spirit” and the gift of free will. God offers us rest and forgiveness.
He has put us in a position to succeed.