16 August 2011

Spiritual Warfare: Battling the Passions

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (9)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

Last time, I provided a brief resumé of the passions, with a view to discussing the battle against them. Now I want to discuss entering the arena of spiritual warfare. As I said last time, most people in evangelicalism, or at least the most visible stream, are inclined to think of spiritual warfare as taking on the devil, and his minions, personally. In point of fact, however, for the longest time, and certainly for the desert fathers, spiritual warfare meant taking on one's self, taking on one's passions.

Battling the passions is a matter of fundamentals. In terms of what we must do, it's very simple. But in terms of the strength required even to do the simple, it's quite difficult. But it is still about basics.

When I played basketball, the bulk of our practice consisted in dribbling the ball up and down the court, running back and forth, stopping and turning, passing, lay-ups. No fancy stuff. One of our drills was to practice dribbling the ball up and down the court, passing, and doing layups with our non-dominant hand.

As a musician, most of my practice sessions consisted of playing scales and arpeggios, over and over and over again.

Most of our success at the difficult depends very much on mastery and maintenance of basics.

A focus on the basics is, likewise, essential if we are serious about the spiritual life. Without hard work, we simply cannot get very far in our relationship with God and others. This is the hard work of holiness, or sanctification, in which, according to, the Confession of Faith, Chapter 13 the "several lusts...are more and more weakened and mortified." Contrary to those who think they are resisting "legalism", God calls us out of our comfort zone of casual obedience to his explicit commandments and into the work of radical obedience to all those other duties which are implicit in those commandments.

The term employed by the monks in referring to this work is asceticism, which comes from a Greek word meaning "to train." The ascetic life is a life of training for warfare. The monks believed it was impossible to get closer to God without some form of asceticism; one cannot grow in grace without it because even in our sanctification the flesh struggles against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. The Confession (chapter 13, again) refers to this mutual struggle as "a continual and irreconcilable war...in which...although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." The ascetic life is all about preparing and keeping fit for this war. The ascetic life is all about death to self.

And this is where we as Reformed people have to agree with the monks about the relation between asceticism and a closer walk with God. "If any man," says the Lord Jesus Christ, "would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16.24). St. Paul "beat" his body, making it his servant (I Corinthians 9.27). The ascetic life is all about death--death to self. This is an important fact; if we don't understand it, then we won't understand much about desert theology. If we don't understand asceticism as death to self, as beating one's body to make it one's servant, then we won't understand, for example, what St. Anthony was doing up on top of a pole. It looks like nonsense, but it isn't. It is an extreme denial of creature comforts. It is a radical demonstration of death to self, radical because the problems which concerned them were radical.

Many of the ascetics earned the title "Soldier for Christ". This isn't too difficult to explain: soldiers must die to their comforts. "Soldiers for Christ" train and discipline themselves in order to reach a goal, specifically, love for God and others. When (with "the continual supply of strength" from Christ) we fight against our sins -- fasting, praying, meditating, engaging in works of mercy and so forth -- these practices clear the ground in our souls so that God's grace can take root and grow. These spiritual practices clear away the stone and rubble in the soil of our hearts so that God's grace can water them and we can grow closer to him. This is the goal of asceticism: to clear the ground so we can grow in grace and in knowledge of the Lord (see 2 Peter 3.18).

The question arises, is there a right way and a wrong way to engage in these spiritual practices? The simple answer is that there is indeed a right way and a wrong way to engage in these practices which have been handed down to us. I'll treat the wrong way in my next post.

The right way involves acknowledgment of two very important truths regarding our attitude toward discomfort and our understanding of Christian perfection. The first thing we must do is to make friends with discomfort. In fact, we should actively seek it out; if we don't we'll really be running from it. All the important things we do, even getting a university degree, involve discomfort. For that matter, holding a job isn't exactly a day at an amusement park. But if we are serious about growing in love for God and others, then the discomfort we experience in acquiring education or holding jobs, is nothing compared to that in acquiring greater love for God and others. Many people have acquired Ph.D. degrees and hold lucrative jobs, despite the discomfort involved in both; and they also have little love for anyone but themselves.

Instead of running from the disciplines of praying, fasting or meditating (dismissing them as Romish and legalistic), we should embrace them. It is not as easy to cultivate devotion to prayer as it may seem. Fasting and meditating don't come much easier. The fact is, there is no way to grow without discomfort. We could not have become adults without going through the difficult, uncomfortable adolescent years. We should, therefore, learn to expect discomfort, even physical discomfort, in spiritual growth. Asceticism teaches us not only to expect it, but how to handle it when it comes. And it will come, especially if, motivated by a desire to grow, we seek it out.

The monks were not unaware of the difficulties associated with spiritual growth. They spoke or wrote often of the struggles that life with God demands. Life in the desert is a continual combat requiring constant effort. Mother Syncletica said: "Those who go to God have many struggles and hardships, but afterward the joy is unspeakable. Just as those who wish to light a fire are first bothered by the smoke and have to cry, but in this way reach their desired goal...so we too must kindle the divine fire in us with tears and troubles."

Clearly, the monks believed that with hard work, empowered by God's grace (it is, after all, by grace that we are saved) human nature can be changed. Let me emphasize: only by the working of God's grace can human nature be changed. God must change us; we cannot change ourselves, only some of our behaviors, which isn't good enough. For those of us who need great changes, that it good news indeed.

The second thing to take note of in discussing spiritual practices is the precise nature of Christian perfection. Jesus said, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5.48). This isn't to say, as we now understand the word perfect, that the Lord demands that we be flawless. We should not look forward to a time, in this life, when we have achieved such spiritual growth that we have no room for more. That is how the Greek philosophers understood perfection, and is the sort of perfection Plato thought worthy and possible. Perfection, for the Greeks, implied the absence of any need or room for growth, a state of flawlessness. But if we were seriously to pursue this sort of perfection, we'd end up as Pharisees. This understanding of perfection will lead to obsession with rules.

St. Gregory of Nissa understood Christian perfection as dynamic, not static. To live in the temporal--to be human--is to experience change and to be changed. Just getting old will put us through changes; and we must grow and mature spiritually as these changes take place. Spiritually, we are always in motion, moving towards God or, possibly, away from God.

Therefore when we talk about the disciplines; when we talk about engaging in prayer, meditation, silence, fasting; when we talk about perfection--we should understand that we are on a journey. We should understand ourselves as being in motion. At this very moment you are moving towards God or away from Him. The disciplines do not get you to a place at which you have arrived. They keep you toward a goal.

What does this mean for the way we practice spiritual disciplines? Isn't asceticism legalism? In a word, no. Legalism is an attempt to earn something from God. We aren't trying to earn anything. We are trying to grow in love, for each other and for God. The key to this growth is obedience. And the key to obedience is discipline, or death to self. The question isn't so much whether Reformed people are to engage in asceticism. The question is: What does Reformed asceticism look like? The Larger Catechism informs us that God has given us the Scriptures to tell us how we may glorify him. In an age when Christians are reluctant to talk about obedience to the law and to exercise church discipline, as a radical solution to a radical problem Reformed asceticism is radical obedience to the moral law.

The desert fathers have something profound to teach us: No matter how long and hard we try, we never "arrive" in our spiritual life in this world. This is an important truth. I think one (but only one) reason many Christians fall into sin is because they achieve a level of spiritual growth and mistake that level for having "arrived". Obviously, when we reach a destination we stop moving. But we overlook an important fact: we are still temporal creatures.

If we come to believe we have arrived, we'll have a certain satisfaction. But this sense of satisfaction, because we are temporal creatures, will wear off. In response we will seek new sources of satisfaction, more stimuli. It is highly likely that these stimuli will be sinful ones.

So, what frame of mind should we be in as we practice the disciplines? The same frame of mind we are in when we practice our physical disciplines. We eat, knowing we shall have to eat again. We bathe, knowing we shall have to bathe again. We sleep, knowing we shall have to sleep again. We do these things, and many others, knowing we shall have to do them again, because we simply must. We must do these things just to live, even to live healthier than we might otherwise. If we do not do these things, we deteriorate. It is the same with the spiritual disciplines, we do them in order to live healthy spiritual lives rather than subsistence level spiritual lives.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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