Why Your Spirit is Willing, But Your Flesh is Weak

I once had the opportunity to preach on Mark 14:32-36. I specifically honed in on Jesus’ statement to the disciples: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” If you decide to listen, you’ll have to forgive the flub at about 11 minutes in. I got lost in my manuscript and had to find my place. Happens to all of us from time to time.

This sermon was especially difficult to prepare because there were so many angles that I could’ve taken. I think I could’ve developed three good sermons out of this passage.

I could’ve honed in on Jesus’ prescription to the disciples to pray so that they wouldn’t fall into temptation. Jesus’ own emotional state as described in this event is remarkable to observe. The God-man is resolute and calm as He institutes the Lord’s Supper and then leads the disciples to Gethsemane. He is then reduced to a fearful, trembling, blood-sweating beggar who pleads with God to remove the cup of His wrath from Him. But after much prayer, Jesus returns and faces the army that comes to arrest Him with a calm, non-anxious, and confident demeanor. When He speaks, He does so with power, knocking a legion of soldiers off their feet. And when He stands before His executioners, He is silent and poised, determined to carry out His mission and complete His work. The work of prayer strengthened and prepared Jesus for the work set before Him. And He was able to march headfirst into the wrath of God and the fury of Satan boldly and confidently. How much better would we fare when faced with temptation if we devoted ourselves to prayer like Christ did?

Or I could’ve focused on another aspect of the disciples’ weakness than what I touched on in the sermon. I’ve been reading through David Takle’s book The Truth About Lies and Lies About Truth, which is a fascinating look at how we form our beliefs and in turn how our beliefs form us. He contends that evil is cunning enough to wrap a lie in a little bit of truth in order to make it easier to swallow, which causes us to adopt polluted beliefs that we think are true, but are actually lies. I’m not finished with the book, but he discusses different levels of belief and how strongly those beliefs are held. A “value” is a first level belief that is easily swayed by popular opinion or even an obviously fake conspiracy theory. An “assumption about how things work” is a more deeply held belief than a value, because since it’s an assumption, it’s hardly voiced by a person, yet it influences what a person does and thinks. These types of beliefs can be changed through sympathy and experience, which are both able to challenge the assumptions a person has. Then there is “doctrine.” Doctrines are a form of belief that are somewhat of a mixture between the first two kinds of belief with a smattering of Bible truth thrown in there. Many people form their doctrines by reading the Bible through the lenses of their values and assumptions about how things work. When this is done, this allows doctrines to be articulated statements of belief rather than assumptions or personal values. Doctrines are typically held pretty tightly, but again, they can be changed fairly easily if the other two components, the values and the assumptions, are affected and changed by any new evidence or experience. And then Takle goes on to discuss other types of belief, but none that necessarily pertain to our discussion here.

Interestingly, something that Takle didn’t mention, and one that I wish he would have, is the level of belief that are typically called “convictions.” Values, assumptions, and doctrines are all interdependent and have something in common: they can all be mentally assented to without actually living them out. Not so with convictions. Convictions are deeply held beliefs that derive their strength from a source outside of ourselves, namely, the Bible. Dallas Willard defined belief as “the degree to which one is ready to act as if something were true.” The more you are willing to act in accordance with what you think is true, the deeper the belief. A conviction is, in my estimation and in the sense that I’m using it here, a belief in something which you will almost always act in any given situation as if it were true. Although convictions are developed from a source outside of ourselves, our convictions are strengthened by influences and processes that take place inside ourselves: the Holy Spirit speaking to our spirit (Romans 8:16), the Word of God’s influence on our heart (Hebrews 4:12), and downstream from those two influences are our desires that naturally spring forth from a changed heart (Psalm 37:4). In other words, our convictions are not swayed by peer pressure, cultural norms, or shared experience, they remain steadfast despite what direction the rest of the world is going in.

All that leads me to make another point that could have been a whole other sermon by itself. All these difference levels of belief are present within each of us at the same time. What I believe about the inerrancy of Scripture is a conviction that, Lord willing, I will always act as if it were true no matter the situation I’m in. My belief that Apple products are far superior to Android products is more of a doctrine that is influenced by my values and my experiences with both kinds of devices that lead me to be a vocal advocate for Apple’s superiority. But my doctrine of Appleology doesn’t rise to the level of a conviction. I am open to the (almost nigh) possibility that there may be a better set of products out there. And if a gun was held to my head, I would readily and happily denounce my iPhone’s master craftsmanship, but I would never (again, Lord willing) budge from my conviction that faith in Christ is the only means by which man can be reconciled to God.

Because these levels of belief all exists within our worldviews simultaneously, it can lead to the possibility of us holding to contrary or contradicting ideas, values, assumptions, doctrines, and convictions. Typically, I’ve seen this manifest itself in the “head/heart” split, where many Christians know what they ought to do, but find themselves unable to do it. Their level of belief—whether a value, assumption, or doctrine—has not risen to the level of a conviction that they will always submit their will to. It’s those conflicts that lead many Christians to experience frustration in their Christian life because, like Paul, they know the good they ought to do but find themselves unable to do it (Romans 7). In other words—or rather, in Jesus’ words—their spirit is willing, but their flesh is weak.

I think the disciples experienced a clash of beliefs in this episode in the garden that led to their inability to be obedient to Jesus. Just moments before this, they had professed Jesus as the Christ and pledged their loyalty to Him even to the point of death (Mark 14:26-31), but here in the Garden, their professed doctrine fell victim to their assumptions about how things worked. They assumed that sleep would be a better source of strength for them than the prayer that Jesus prescribed. I think the disciples believed Jesus, but their belief in Him had not risen to the level of a conviction, yet. That would happen after the resurrection. In this moment, their spirits were willing to do what Jesus asked, but their flesh was weak. They had given mental assent to Jesus’ lordship and had, in some cases “yes” but in others “no”, acted in accordance with that belief. This moment was one of the “no’s.” A rather big “no” if you ask me.

So why am I spending all this time and typing all these words (on my MacBook) to try and explain and understand all this spiritual/psychological/emotional gibberish? Because I think that if we were all serious about taking stock of our beliefs and categorizing them into values, assumptions, doctrines, and convictions, we may be better able to understand why our spirit often gives way to our flesh. We may be better able to understand why we often fail in ways we never thought ourselves capable. We may find that we are harboring different levels of beliefs that all conflict with one another causing us to stumble. If we are able to sort all that out then we may find ourselves more at peace, less anxious, and with a more firm faith. At this moment, I’m not sure how to actually direct you to do this other than to offer you Jesus’ advice to the disciples that you should watch and pray so that you may not enter into temptation. But I feel that the more firm we become in our convictions, then the more consistently we will behave in accordance with what we believe to be true, no matter our circumstances. The biggest problem in the Western church is nominal, hypocritical Christianity. But firm convictions that lead to consistent behavior will, in my opinion, go a long way in alleviating that problem.

So the astute reader will notice that I said I believe I could have gotten three other good sermons out of this text, and here I’ve only provided two of them. The third has to do with identity, and it’s actually something that I feel I sufficiently referred to in the sermon, so you’ll have to listen/watch to find out 🙂


Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash