03 June 2011

What's Hindering Us? Understanding the Passions

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (8)

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

Love is the goal of the Christian life. God calls us to enter into the love life of the Holy Trinity. But, for most of us, despite all that God has done for us something always gets in the way of love. We find ourselves not loving as we should. Why is that?

This is the heart of the struggle in desert theology: confronting the darkness which lingers in us. The monastics were led into the desert to seek radical solutions to radical problems. The worldiness at the core of those problems was a failure of love, a failure to love God and others more than ourselves, substituting a love for the world and the things in the world for that love which we should have. This love for the world and the things in the world is the "darkside" of the Christian life.

We live our lives in a tension between the "spirit" and the "flesh". The life of the Christian is a daily confrontation with the "flesh" by the power of the Spirit. The desert monks were aware of this battle and conceived of this struggle as a battle for their very souls, at least insofar as those souls live in this, the temporal world. To put it into Calvinist terms, the issue was sanctification, not justification. The battle is sanctification.

The Westminster Confess of Faith, Chapter thirteen, says that our sanctification, although throughout our whole persons, is in this life "imperfect...there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh" (section two) and it is in the course of our battle that we "grow in grace, perfecting [our] holiness in the fear of God" (section three). Our holiness cannot be static; we must grow and, in this growing, make our holiness more complete. This spiritual battle is best summarized perhaps by I John 2.15, to which I've already alluded:

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.

There it is: the whole struggle is against the world, the flesh and the devil.

How do the sacraments relate to this? Has God given us any weapons to employ in our struggles against the flesh? In a word, yes. In order to engage in this struggle we must go back to the beginning of our Christian experience, our baptism. Our baptism shows us how to fight the world, the flesh and the devil. The baptismal texts demonstrate that baptism is the beginning of our Christian life. Through faith, God forgives our sins, takes us as his children, conquers the powers of darkness by the cross and breaks the power of sin. As St. Paul puts it, we are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6.6). The flesh no longer dominates our hearts. We may sin; but sin has no dominion over us, unless we give in to it!

Nevertheless, even without dominion, sin remains in us until we leave this world. But we no longer need to yield to its power. Through the Holy Spirit, we have a renewed nature, able to obey God or to obey the world, the flesh and the devil. As St. Augustine said, we are able to sin and able, by God's grace, not to sin. In heaven we will be able not to sin and unable to sin. In the meantime, the battle continues apace.

One of the names given by the monks to these battles is The Passions, which amounts to just another name for the flesh. In Galatians, Chapter Five, St. Paul says, "Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want."

Whether we call them the passions or the flesh, we are talking about the same thing: a life controlled by sin. These are the things which get in the way of the Spirit, who produces God's love in our hearts.

The monk who explained the passions most clearly, I think, was Evagrius of Pontus, in his Praktikos. He came up with a list of the passions (or tempting thoughts, or logismoi): gluttony, avarice, impurity, depression, anger, restless boredom, vain-glory, and pride (sections 6 through 14 of the Praktikos).


Gluttony is not simply over-eating; it also includes desires for unnecessary variety in food, or simply a preoccupation with food over and above the need for nourishment. Gluttony involves any preoccupation with food such that we live to eat, rather than eat to live. In C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, (Letter XVII) Screwtape discusses an element of gluttony that often goes unnoticed: gluttony of delicacy, as opposed to gluttony of excess:

[Some] would be astonished...to learn that [their lives are] enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed...by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided...a human belly and palate...produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?

At the very moment of indulging our appetites -- however slight -- we are certain that we are practicing moderation in food. At the very moment of believing we are being so spiritual, we are in fact being some of our most sensual.

For some of us, food is the major cause of the poverty of our spiritual lives, the root of all our disobedience. The reason many of us are not the sort of people we want to be is that we are out of control; we just have no discipline. If we were able to better control our diet, we might likely be better able to control our wills. If we would better control our wills we might likely live closer to God.

As Calvinists, we might be tempted to dismiss this sort of concern as legalism and fear it more than gluttony (whether of delicacy or excess). But the Larger Catechism says that among the duties required by the Sixth Commandment ("Thou shalt not kill") is "a sober use of meat [and] drink" (see question 135). More than likely, excess in food and drink are in view. But the more general issue is sensuality. And sensuality is indulged just as much in delicacy as it is in excess. The battle in sanctification is a battle against all forms of sensuality. (On my view, no one today is better at excusing sensuality, in the name of avoiding legalism, than Protestants and Calvinists.)


According to Evagrius, avarice, or greed, is unwillingness to shares one's goods with others. We look for our security in earthly possessions. We give in to thoughts such as that if only we had well-paying job, or some other material advantage we would then be secure. We have a tendency to covet what others have, not content with what God has already given us -- even if He has given us much less than what others possess. But it isn't just possessions. Sometimes avarice manifests itself as a refusal to receive help from others, or shame when one must receive such help. If we loathe receiving help from others we are not truly free from avarice. According to Evagrius, this love of money is rooted in fear of a difficult future:

Love of money suggests: a long old age; hands powerless to work; hunger and disease yet to come; the bitterness of poverty; and the disgrace of receiving the necessities [of life] from others. (Praktikos, section 9.)

So perhaps we are content with our material goods at present; but when we contemplate the future and see ourselves old and alive way past our ability to earn our own living and stricken with the ailments which come with old age, it is then that we can be susceptible to greed. (I'll say it: this explains why a great many people not only attempt to accumulate all they can and not share, but also why they vote the way they do.)

We must acknowledge that God has some people in this world precisely to be cared for. Being cared for by others is God's provision for their security. Conversely, those who are not the ones cared for by others should be the ones caring for the others. On this subject, it is interesting to note that the Larger Catechism also includes as duties required by the Sixth Commandment, "comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent." Moreover some of the duties included in the Eighth Commandment are "giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others...and [endeavoring] by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own" (emphasis added).


Impurity is a focus on sexual lust. For monks, it was (and still is) included in the temptation to leave the celibate life for marriage. But for Calvinists there is, even if we accept some form of monasticism, no such thing as a "temptation" to leave the celibate life for marriage. And a desire for marriage, in and of itself, is not evidence of sexual lust. There can be no contemplation of marriage without, on some level, the contemplation of sexual relations with whomever one wishes to marry, especially if one wishes to have children with one's intended. (This is one of the reasons I believe in the shortest possible engagement periods.)

However it goes without saying that those who don't live in monasteries experience impurity, in the sense of a passion that focuses on sexual lust. We non-monastics probably have more ways of indulging those passions than we might like to think. The fact is most of what many people wear is intended neither to cover nor to make attractive, but rather to make them alluring. (Ladies, men know why shirts are designed -- and worn -- to reveal the maximum amount of cleavage, and to draw attention to the fact. We may be a bit dense at times, but we easily get that much. Trust me.)

Most of our efforts at physical fitness also have the same purpose, not just physically fit bodies, but "hot" bodies. We desire, to be blunt, to be the objects of sexual desire, more bluntly, the objects of illegitimate sexual desire. (Spare me the hate email. Just deal with it.) Again, the Larger Catechism knows about lust, as a passion against which we must battle daily. Among the duties required by the Seventh Commandment are "chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others", as well as "modesty in apparel" (question 138). Among those things forbidden by the Seventh Commandment are "unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, [and] immodest apparel" (question 139). And, as if that isn't enough: "all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others" (emphasis added). Ouch.


Sadness, or gloominess, as Evagrius called it, has its roots in unfulfilled desires. At some point in the monastic life, monks might somehow be reminded of home and family, and the life they had with their families. Monks might then experience a sorrow over those things given up for the monastic life. Adding to this sorrow is the fact that this life is gone forever. He could leave the monastery and return home but, depending upon how long he has been in the monastery, there is nothing of that former life for him to return to.

Additionally, it might be understandable, for example, for a monk to experience sadness at times over the fact that he'll never marry or have children. He might also experience sadness associated with the fact that he will live and die in the obscurity of a monastery, never leaving his mark on the world, or making a name for himself. As non-monastics we can experience this when contemplating what we've given up to follow Christ. It may even strike us when we come to realize that our lives are not going to be what we thought they'd be when we were young. We are not doing the work we thought we'd do. We are not going to have, or do not have, the spouse we'd hoped for. We have an illness we never counted on. Any number of disappointments can bring on gloominess.


Anger, according to Evagrius, is the worst of all because of its destructive power. He described is as "a boiling up...against a wrongdoer or a presumed wrongdoer." It's destructive force is most keenly felt in prayer, when it seizes our minds causing us to see the face of the wrongdoer while we attempt to pray. Then, at night, it can rob us of necessary sleep. We might well understand how anger can be the root cause of all acts of violence, especially murder. But it is also anger, not lust, which is the passion behind most, if not all, acts of adultery.


Acedia, or restless boredom (also sometimes called the noonday demon) was, to Evagrius, the most burdensome of the passions. Imagine a monk, in the desert, taking a break from his labors. There he stands, or sits, the noon time sun beating down on him. Additionally, depending upon his labors and how long he has been a monk, his joints may ache, his back also. He stands there, thinking, "What in the world am I doing here? This is nonsense. I miss my family. I should never have left them. I should have married that girl. I am so miserable. I made a mistake becoming a monk. I was a dumb ass for coming out here!"

It is easy to see how such thoughts can tempt a monk to forsake his vows. And it's no use pointing out that this wouldn't have happened if he hadn't become a monk. This sort of thing happens in business when we sign contracts. It happens in many marriages. ("This is not the man [or woman] I thought I was marrying.")

It happens (or can happen), in short, any time we make promises and then set to work keeping them. It happens to students in university. They begin their studies with enthusiasm which over the years turns into a restless eagerness to finish up and get out of school as soon as possible. It happens in our work, and not just when we've had a bad day. At some point we may think, "This is a dead end. I wish I could quit this job and do something else, like...horticulture." There's nothing wrong with quitting university, or a job. This is just to say that "restless boredom" is not experienced by monks because they are monks.


Vainglory is the need for praise and recognition. Not that there is anything wrong, in and of themselves, with being praised and recognized. But at times the desires for these things can lead us into sins, especially if we do not receive the praise and recognition which we believe are rightfully ours. For example (and church choirs are always good for examples of this sort of thing, sadly) a member of a church choir may be accustomed to having a microphone near him, or even in front of him, during Sunday morning worship. Let's say there was no particular reason for the microphone to be where it was; it was just there. One Sunday morning, he enters with the other members of the choir to find that the microphone has been moved. He is offended, or his feelings are hurt. Why was it moved? Did someone in the congregation ask that it be moved because they don't like his voice? Was it moved simply because the person who moved it didn't like him? The real question is this: Why does it matter where the microphone is? For whom do the choir sing? The congregation? Or for God? If for God, then no matter: God hears very well without your microphone. But if the placement of a microphone really matters, then God is not the choir-member's intended audience. Vain glory, not worship, is the motivation here. And that, to put it gently, is not good.


Pride is, of course, the opposite of humility. This is the holding of too low an opinion of others, and too high an opinion of ourselves. The antidote, obviously, is humility, seeing no one as unimportant, or less important than one's self. Perhaps Evagrius puts it better:

The demon of pride conducts the soul to its worst fall. It urges it: (1) not to admit God’s help; (2) and to believe that the soul is responsible for its own achievements; (3) and to disdain the brethren as fools because they do not all see this about it. This demon is followed by: (1) anger; (2) sadness and the final evil, (3) utter insanity and madness, including visions of mobs of demons in the air.

Pride is a pernicious passion and, like gluttony, can be indulged while seeming to be humility. Take, for example, what Evagrius says about admitting God's help. Actually, take any help at all. Sometimes, we don't want help not because, in our humility, we don't want to put people out, though that's what we'll say, but rather because to accept help is to say, "In this matter, I'm incapable." It may even be that there are things we won't attempt because we do not want to be seen attempting, but failing to succeed. Often we'll hear someone say of another, "He fears failure, so he doesn't try." More than likely, the truth of the matter is he doesn't fear failure itself because failure is something to fear. He fears failure as the demonstration that he was incapable. He fears failure as a wound to his pride. This, I believe is why many Christians are not eager to employ their spiritual gifts, to put themselves "out there".

Pernicious as pride is, it may affect our attitude in receiving help. Rather than accept help as something done out of the kindness of another's heart, we may tell ourselves, and others, that, in fact, the help received was our due. The one who helped us did nothing deserving our gratitude; he only did what he was obligated to do.

I believe that pride best explains the shift in attitude on the part of welfare recipients. When I was a child, welfare recipients received their assistance with a bit of shame. When I saw people at the supermarket pay for their purchases with food stamps they did so in haste, handing over the stamps collecting up the bags and making a hasty exit. Most often, though there were exceptions, the people I observed purchasing groceries with food stamps did so only to purchase necessities -- not candy bars, soft drinks and so forth. Times have changed. To say there is a sense of entitlement is to assert what is now a truism. The recipients of assistance have nothing for which to be grateful; they receive only what others are obligated to provide them. And, in fact, to listen to some of them, those others are not providing as much as they are truly obligated to provide.

It should be easy to see why these passions, or tempting thoughts, hinder our walk with God and each other, why they hinder us from growing in love for God and others. There has for decades been talk of "spiritual warfare". I noticed it first as an adolescent, long before I embraced Christ. Always (or perhaps merely frequently) talk of "spiritual warfare" is talk of warfare against personal demons (I mean "personal demons" as opposed to "tempting thoughts".) I recall walking through a mall about twenty years ago, passing a group of women "binding" Satan, who was, I supposed, also visiting the mall that day. Who knows? Maybe he was.

But for most of us, the passions, not personal demons, are the true objects of our warfare. God calls us to fight the passions with all the spiritual resources he provides. The Orthodox Church's liturgy provides her congregants a special prayer, of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, during Lent when, in her calendar, the fight is at its height:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

The most famous, or well-known, resource employed by the Eastern Orthodox is of course, the "Jesus Prayer": Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the (or a) sinner. The most practiced are reputed to be able to recite the prayer non-stop, even in their sleep.

What resources have the Reformed? According to the Confession, even though we have been accepted by God "in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, and can neither "totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere...to the end, and be eternally saved" we may, nevertheless, "through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in [us], and the neglect of the means of [our] preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby [we] incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have [our] hearts hardened, and [our] consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon [ourselves]" (Chapter 17.1, 3).

In mentioning "means of preservation" the Confession indicates that we, too, have resources by which to resist the passions. In fact, as I'll explain in a subsequent post, they are not very different at all from those employed by the desert fathers.


Nora said...

Very inspiring posting, Deviant. I love it!

About Me

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

Blog Archive