The World and the Flesh
In the scriptures and in the spiritual tradition of the Church, the expression “the world” has two different meanings. In the first, “the world” is the expression of all of God’s creation. As such it is the product of God’s goodness and the object of His love.
According to the scriptures, God creates the world and all that is in it. He creates the heavens and the earth as the declaration of His glory (Ps 19.1). He creates all living things, crowned by the formation of man in His own image and likeness. According to the scriptural record, God called His creation “good . . . very good” (Gen 1.12, 18, 25, 31). And according to the Gospel, Christ has come as the “savior of the world” (Lk 2.11, Jn 4.42).
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (Jn 3.16–17).
In addition to this positive scriptural understanding of “the world,” there is also a negative use of the expression which has caused confusion about the proper understanding of Christian faith and life. This negative use of the term “the world” is presented not as God’s object of love, but as creation in rebellion against God. Thus Christ spoke:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn 15.18–19; cf. Jas 4.4).
Saint John continues to speak of the enmity between Christ and “the world” in his first letter where he gives the following commandment to Christians.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 Jn 2.15–17).
The same ambiguity as that concerning “the world” exists with the expression “the flesh.” In some instances, the term flesh is used in a positive sense meaning the fullness of human existence, man himself. Thus it is written about the incarnation of Christ that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1.14). It is also written that on the day of Pentecost, God poured out His Holy Spirit “on all flesh” (Acts 2.17, Joel 2.28). The word “flesh” in this sense carries no negative meaning at all. Rather it is the affirmation of the positive character of created material and physical being, exemplified by Christ who “became flesh” and commands men to “eat of my flesh” (Jn 6.53–56).
In the scriptures again, particularly in the writings of Saint Paul, the expression “the flesh” is used in the same negative way as “the world.” It is employed as the catchword for godless and unspiritual existence.
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. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s Law, indeed it cannot please God (Rom 8.5–8).
Here, for Saint Paul, the term “flesh” is not a synonym for man’s body which is good, and the apostle makes this perfectly clear in his writings.
The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. … Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy. Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6.13–20).
In the spiritual tradition of the Church the ambiguity about “the world” and “the flesh” is treated carefully. It has been explained without confusion by the spiritual teachers and proclaimed clearly in the Church’s sacraments. God’s good creation is not evil. Material existence is not evil. Man’s fleshly body is not evil. Only sinful passions and lusts are evil. They are evil because they treat the created world and the fleshly body of man as ends in themselves, as objects of idolatrous adoration and godless desire. They are evil because, as Saint Augustine puts it, they express the “worship of the creature rather than the Creator.”
By nature the soul is without sinful passion. Passions are something added to the soul by its fault . . . The natural state of the soul is luminous and pure through absorbing the divine light . . .
The state contrary to nature . . . is found in passionate men who serve passions.
When you hear that it is necessary to withdraw from the world . . . to purify yourself from what is of the world, you must understand the term world. “World” is a collective name embracing what are called passions. When we speak of passions collectively, we call them the world. . . . the world is carnal life and minding of the flesh (Saint Isaac of Syria, 6th c., Spiritual Training).