As Catholics we are taught not to impose on the Scriptures our own personal way of understanding certain things. For example, a casual reader might think that Saint Paul today is referring to body and soul when he speaks of flesh and spirit. In actual fact any notion of a soul as distinct from the body would have been foreign to the outlook of a Jew like Saint Paul. By the word ‘flesh’ Saint Paul meant human nature as weakened by sin. His point was that anyone who follows all the inclinations of his humanity – a humanity wounded by sin – will be led to such things as lewd conduct, bad temper, quarrels, bickering, jealousy and the rest.
In contrast to the flesh he uses the word ‘spirit’. Ultimately this word includes the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity; but in this context it refers more immediately to the grace which comes to us from the Holy Spirit. And the first effect of this grace is the forgiveness of sins. The words of absolution spoken by the priest in the Sacrament of Penance reflects this truth: ‘God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.’ We enjoy this forgiveness first through Baptism, which is then renewed for us in the Sacrament of Penance.
And yet forgiveness isn’t a negative thing, a mere destruction of sin. Forgiveness is also a strengthening grace to live our lives according to God’s will. This is what Saint Paul has in mind when he says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control. God doesn’t expect us to be good people by our own unaided efforts; he is present with his grace, his strength. We are not alone in our quest for holiness, and yet a great deal is expected of us because of this grace. But we can also expect a great deal from God. And so it’s right for us to call upon him in prayer, to beg him to make his grace effective within us so that we can lead lives in accordance, not with the flesh, but the Spirit.