How Do Passions Wage War Against the Soul? - Ask Pastor John
Video from Desiring God
Good Monday morning, and thank you for joining us again on the Ask Pastor John podcast. We start this new week with a great Bible question here today from a listener named Bill. It’s the kind of question that drops us right into a discussion over how our hearts work. Here’s Bill’s question: “Pastor John, hello! Can you explain to me 1 Peter 2:11, and how these ‘passions of the flesh’ actually ‘wage war against’ the soul? How do these passions threaten the soul? Can you explain how this works? Thank you!”
Let’s start by clarifying a few words in this verse. For example, the word passions. “I urge you . . . to abstain from the passions of the flesh.” The word is simply “desires,” epithymiōn. They can be good desires in some contexts, or they can be bad desires. The word itself doesn’t decide whether they’re good or bad. What decides that in this verse is the added phrase “of the flesh”: “Abstain from the [desires] of the flesh.” But even that is not a full explanation of why the desires would be so destructive and make war on the soul. So, what does flesh mean? How does the term flesh make its desires bad and dangerous, destructive to the soul?
Two Meanings of ‘Flesh’
The word flesh can mean simply the human body, as it does, for example, in 1 Peter 4:1, where it says that “Christ suffered in the flesh.” There’s nothing evil about Christ’s flesh, his body. And so, not all desires of the body or the flesh would necessarily be evil, right? Jesus had the desire for food when he was hungry. He had the desire for water when he was thirsty. He had the desire for rest when he was tired. These desires of the body, or the flesh, are not evil.
But the word flesh in the New Testament has other meanings as well. For example, Paul uses it to define the rebellious mind of the fallen human nature in Romans 8:7, where he says, “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8).
The flesh is seen as that part of human nature that is without the Holy Spirit, and is in the sway of sin, and cannot submit to God. Flesh is man in rebellion, without God, without the Spirit. So, what makes the desires of the flesh evil and dangerous is when they cross over from being innocent wishes for food and drink and rest, or any legitimate pleasure, into the service of the rebellious human self.
“The desires of the flesh become evil when they are disconnected from the will of God and become sovereign.”
Another way to say it would be like this: the desires of the flesh become evil when they are disconnected from the will of God and become sovereign or independent with their own will, their own desires, that don’t have any reference to God’s desires or God’s will. “I will be satisfied, and I don’t care what God says about the guidance or the limits of my desires. I will have my satisfaction of my desires — my way, my time, my degree, without any submission to God’s will.” Those are the “desires of the flesh.”
War for Satisfaction
So, when the desires of the body, which themselves may be innocent, become sovereign and independent of God, now the soul is enveloped in a sea of desires that are communicating to the soul continually that it should join them in the pursuit not of God, but of this world as the source of satisfaction. That is idolatry, and that is deadly and destructive. That is war on the soul.
Now, you can see this understanding of fallen, sinful human desires a little way later in 1 Peter 4:2, where it says we are “to live for the rest of the time in the flesh [that is, the body] no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” The desires, therefore, become destructive when they are disconnected from the will of God. They become sovereign, not subject to God, not subject to anybody. They are their own law. They will decide for themselves who their god will be, and where their satisfaction will be found, and they do not want God to have anything to do with it, especially as the source of their satisfaction.
“The life of the soul is found in being satisfied with God.”
And this is what Peter is warning against in 1 Peter 2:11. The reason such renegade, untethered, insubordinate, sovereign desires wage war against the soul is that the life of the soul is found in being satisfied with God. But when desires are cut loose from God and go after every other kind of idol, the soul is starved of what gives it life — namely, dependence on God, satisfaction in God, delight in God, feeding on God for its life, and joy in God.
Counterattack for Joy
We get an even clearer picture of what this warfare is like when we consider how Peter describes the rescue of the soul from such warfare or destruction. Here’s what he says in 1 Peter 1:14: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” That’s an amazing phrase. Notice that what we need to be set free from are desires that flow from ignorance — that is, ignorance of the superior worth and beauty and greatness of God, and all that he is for us in Christ.
When we don’t know the infinite desirability of God and how he’s for us in Christ, our desires will inevitably latch on to lesser things and drag the soul down away from Christ. So, the way out of soul-destroying into soul-saving truth is to see Christ and have a true knowledge of him — and his beauty and his worth — so that the soul embraces him, and with him a whole new constellation of desires.
Peter describes this in 1 Peter 1:8–9: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” This is counter-warfare, right? This is the opposite of the destruction of the soul: finding Jesus infinitely worthy of love, finding Jesus infinitely worthy of believing. And so, you rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.
This is the salvation, not the destruction, of the soul, because faith sees Christ for who he is, loves him, rejoices with inexpressible, glorious joy, and so attaches the soul to its life, the source of all its true and everlasting pleasures. In other words, we’re not in the grip of the desires of ignorance anymore. We are in the freedom of the desires rooted in true knowledge of Christ’s glory.
So, our counterattack on the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul, our souls, is to pursue a true knowledge of the infinitely desirable Christ, and then to obey this truth by embracing it as our treasure — embracing him as our treasure — and rejoicing with inexpressible and glorified joy. That’s the battle that we fight. The desires of the flesh draw us away from the all-satisfying Christ, but God opens our eyes and draws us to the true glory. The one warfare leads to destruction; the counterattack of truth leads to salvation.