Some thoughts as the Orthodox Christian Church finishes the second week of Lent.
As a youth I was heavily influenced by the parachurch organization, The Navigators. For the Navs, the solution (the very good solution, I will add) to most spiritual problems was to pray, memorize scripture, and get together with your trusted group of like-minded people to tell them what was going on. (The sensibility of small, trusted groups and how they are supposed to function is a de-clericalized Protestant version of Orthodox confession, so they were certainly on to something in their disciplines.)
I don’t know the precise theology of why it is they recommended prayer and scripture to counter temptation and various spiritual problems; I don’t even know if there was a singular theology behind the practice, but the way I came to understand it was that scripture and prayer were a sort of inoculation against temptation. The basic framework with which I approached the whole problem was war or battle. There was a good side and an evil side. Prayer and scripture strengthened the good side in order that the evil side could be defeated.
As I was reminded by Michael Gillis this week, St. Isaac the Syrian offers much the same advice but his reasoning is a bit different. We are, in Isaac’s world-view, primarily spiritual creatures who are hungry for spiritual things, although in our sinful state we may not recognize this underlying reality. When we are not feeding our true inner being with true spiritual things that satisfy, we become spiritually ravenous, and anything will do. We attempt to feed that deep spiritual hunger with worldly things rather than spiritual things: money, sex, power, recognition, etc.
Whenever temptations arise and we find ourselves in a cycle of temptation, yielding to temptation, and then increasingly stronger temptation, it is evidence that we are spiritually hungry and we need to be more mindful of our proper spiritual disciplines that provide spiritual nourishment. Doing these things will feed our hungry soul and the temptations will retreat and not be so bothersome.
I like St. Isaac’s imagery because it puts the world and its temptations into the proper perspective. To think of this struggle as a war is to give the world system and its temptations far too much significance. They are defeated. One of my favorite Karl Barth arguments is that sin and evil have no actual reality because they are non-being: they don’t do battle with God’s reality, they merely negate it. When handled properly the passions are simply a nuisance … a nuisance we must be mindful of and guard against, but still, a nuisance, and not an undefeatable enemy.
Conversely, it would be unwise to underestimate the power of temptation. Such things can ensnare us, addict us, and drag us down so far that we cannot even imagine loving God and honoring God’s good creation any longer. Nuisances can become very powerful and very dangerous when not attended to. But that being said, the solution is not to give them more reality than they have by battling them, the solution is simply to feed our soul with what it is truly hungry for. Over time this diet of true food, of Living Water and Life-giving Bread, will satiate our soul and the passions will slowly dissipate.
Scripture is not a talisman and prayer is not an incantation protecting us from evil. Rather they are food and through them we can be led to the true source of true satisfaction.