When the Flesh is Weak

“Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

DURING THE DIFFICULT HOURS OF GETHSEMANE, JESUS NOT ONLY HAD A SPIRIT WILLING TO DO THE RIGHT THING, BUT HE HAD, BY VIRTUE OF LIFELONG EXERCISE, A FLESH THAT SUPPORTED AND CARRIED OUT THE DICTATES OF HIS SPIRIT. In contrast, the disciples’ spirit was willing, but their flesh was too weak to put into action the things their spirit wanted to do. And so it often is in our own experience. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The weakness of the flesh is a problem, it’s true. But it’s also true that there are some things we can do to diminish this problem. We struggle with the flesh’s weakness, but we’re not the victims of a problem we can do nothing about. If it’s weak, the flesh can be strengthened. It can be disciplined. It can be trained.

The example of Daniel is helpful here. In the “lion’s den” episode, he demonstrated a remarkably strong will. Faced with a royal edict that ordered the death of anyone who prayed to God, Daniel simply went home and . . . prayed to God. But this was not a man who suddenly steeled his will to do the right thing. He was an old man who “knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days” (Daniel 6:10). Since childhood, Daniel had been training his flesh to carry out his spirit’s will in regard to daily prayer.

In the case of Jesus, it would be hard for us to imagine what His needs were in the Garden of Gethsemane. Neither can we imagine the resources of both spirit and flesh that were available to Him in that hour of greatest need. But whatever those resources were, they were not suddenly built up in that hour. Every single day of His life, Jesus had been engaging in regular activities and disciplines that took care of and trained His flesh to be the ally of His spirit. There was more than a coincidental connection between Jesus’ daily lifestyle and the fact that His flesh was strong enough in a crisis to implement the intentions of His spirit.

“The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. This is the feature of human character that explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it a reality” (Dallas Willard).