The Strivings of the Fleshј(Galatians 5,17)

J. J. Kilgallen

Long-standing is the problem of the relationship between the four syntactical members of Galatians 5,17: the flesh against the spirit; the spirit against the flesh; antithetical to each other, so that (with the result that) "you do not do what you want"1. The problem of this verse can be briefly put: are we to understand that the struggle of flesh against spirit (17a) and spirit against flesh (17b), for they truly oppose each other (17c), ends in our not doing what we want to do? Are we to conclude that the two elements, at war with each other, leave us unable to do good? Has not the Christian gained a position through union with Christ and the Holy Spirit which would enable him to do good? Or should we simply admit that the flesh checks the spirit, and the Christian is left, according to 17d, powerless to do good?2. What good then is accomplished by faith in Christ?

Solutions abound which are exegetical-theological in nature. I would like to approach the problem from a narrower perspective, that of syntax.

The problem of the relationship of the four elements which make up v. 17 can be resolved by reading the interrelationships differently from the usual manner. These four elements in Greek are as divided as follows:

a h( ga_r sa_rc e)piqumei= kata_ tou= pneu/matoj
b to_ de_ pneu=ma kata_ th=j sarko/j
c tau=ta ga_r a)llh/loij a)nti/keitai
d i#na mh_ a$ e)a_n qe/lhte tau=ta poih=te.

Ordinarily, 17d is read as the conclusion of at least 17a and 17b, if not also of 17c. The problem we are concerned with is created by reading that both the flesh and the spirit are so antagonistic to each other that (purpose or result) the Christian cannot do what he wants.

Another way of reading this verse is to consider 17d to be the result or purpose only of 17a; thus: "For the flesh struggles against the spiritјso that (with the result that) what you wish to do, these things you do not". That is to say, 17b is to be considered a parenthetical comment3 which affirms again the struggle by noting that the spirit struggles against the flesh. Verse 17c, with its ga/r, goes along with 17b, to explain that 17b is true because the two elements, flesh and spirit, are indeed opposed to each other; 17c belongs, then, within the parenthesis I propose to insert into this verse.

The benefit from this reading is clear: Paul affirms that the not doing what you want to do is a result or purpose of the flesh"s influence on you. It is not a characteristic of the reciprocal struggle of flesh and spirit.

Moreover, v. 17 can be seen now to clearly enlighten Paul"s encouragement (v. 16) to walk in the spirit and not complete the strivings of the flesh; v. 17, with its "for", explains the danger that the flesh poses: to follow it is to not do the things you want to do. The spirit, then, no longer need be considered one of the elements which together in strife leave the Christian powerless to do good. Thus v. 17 should be read:

"For the flesh strives against the spirit –
(but the spirit strives against the flesh,
for these [two] are opposed to each other)
in order that (with the result that) the things you want to do,
these you do not do."

This reading of v. 17 also helps one understand why Paul continues, in vv. 18-214, to speak of the evils which take the place of "those things you want to do". Of course the evils described in vv. 18-21 and the goods of v. 22 can be read in chiastic relationship with v. 16. But v. 17, with its emphasis on the danger of the strivings of the flesh (again, the matter of the spirit is in parentheses), offers the opportunity to continue the discussion with mention first of the evils of the flesh, then of the goods of the spirit. Paul (v. 16) ends with the negative command: "јand certainly do not complete the urging of the flesh"; it is upon this order that v. 17a and 17d follow.

From a syntactical re-reading of v. 17 the uncomfortableness associated with a Christian"s supposed state as one of powerlessness to do good (v. 17d) is removed. Perhaps all that is needed, therefore, is to read v. 17 with a parenthesis within it. Thus, 17d follows directly on 17a, with the other two elements of the verse (17b and 17c) only a parenthetical statement by Paul.


Galatians 5,17 can be read in such wise that 17d is related directly, not to 17c, but to 17a; in this scheme 17b and 17c are a parenthesis. By this syntactical adjustment, what was often a puzzling reading, that the struggle between flesh and spirit leaves a Christian unable to do the good he desires, is resolved. The Pauline warning is not to let the flesh have its way (16), for the flesh strives (17a) so that what you do want to do, these things you do not do.


1 Cf. J. LAMBRECHT, "The Right Things You Want to Do: a Note on Galatians 5,17d", Bib 79 (1998) 515-524, for pertinent bibliography and a very good summary of exegetical opinion meant to resolve the problem Gal 5,17d poses. "The Right Things" is the best solution to the thorny problem from an exegetical perspective.

2 Cf. LAMBRECHT, "The Right Things", 517: "The reader asks: does the Spirit, after all, not prevail?".

3 "The NT, especially the Epistles of Paul, contain a variety of harsher parentheses, harsher than a careful stylist would allow. Since Paul"s train of thought in general includes many and long digressions..., it is not surprising that his sentence structure even in narrower contexts is not uninterrupted...", F.W. BLASS – A. DEBRUNNER – R.W. FUNK, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Chicago 1961) 243.

4 "As is well known, within Gal 5,16-18 verse 17 defies any easy interpretation", LAMBRECHT, "Right Things", 515.