Saint Paul warns Timothy twice (1 Tim. 6:11 and 2 Tim. 2:22) to flee temptation. On an external level, this fleeing takes the form of exiting yourself from the situation, like Joseph fleeing the temptation of Potiphar’s wife. This leaving the situation may have adverse consequences, as it did for for both Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Joseph suffered losing his position and ending up in prison, but Potiphar’s wife also suffered adding false accusation to her other sins.
And yet Joseph fled. He didn’t stay and reason with her. He didn’t stay to try to save her. He fled. It should be noted that Joseph is considered, in the hymnography of Holy Week, the first type of Christ: Joseph’s behaviour is our example.
Joseph teaches us to save ourselves so that others may be saved. This is counterintuitive, I know. But in the spiritual life, saving oneself is not a selfish act; rather, saving oneself is how one helps to save others.
If salvation is understood morally and individually, as if salvation were a kind of reward for being good, or having faith, or believing the right things, then saving oneself first would certainly be selfish. But salvation is not understood that way in the Orthodox Church.
In the Orthodox Church, salvation is understood as healing. And not merely healing, but irradiation with healing Light. So to heal myself and be filled with God’s irradiating Light is to gain what will heal others. The very Light that irradiates and heals me also shines through me to irradiate and heal others. Saving myself does indeed save others. Or to paraphrase St. Saraphim of Sarov, to acquire the peace of the Holy Spirit is to bring salvation to thousands around me.
By remaining in the darkness of passions (anger, depression, lust, fear, manipulation of others, greed, envy, etc.) we help no one–even if we tell ourselves otherwise. This is Big Lie. It is the Lie from the beginning. Eve did not flee the evil one in the Garden because she came to believe that she could somehow get what she wanted–get something good (to “be like God”)–by reaching out and taking it herself. And we do the same.
We do the same when we think that we can change other people, when we think we can resist temptation or when we think we know what’s best. We do what Eve did in the Garden when we continue to nurture thoughts in our minds, the very thoughts that tempt us, the thoughts that make us angry or lustful or envious. We are reaching out for the forbidden fruit every time we return (either physically and in our minds) to situations or relationships or conversations that produce in us despair or frustration or guilt. Instead of fleeing, we return, which heals neither us nor the ones we imagine we ought to or might be helping.
When we flee, we do not merely flee from something, but we flee to Someone. When we flee we recognize our weakness, we acknowledge our inability to assuage the guilt, we confess our helplessness. Externally, fleeing may mean simply shutting down your computer (and installing child-protection software, allowing someone else to set the password), or it may mean physically leaving a place or a person’s presence, or it can mean just saying nothing. Internally, fleeing is more difficult.
Internally, fleeing means to let the thought go and to force yourself to think of something else–usually to force yourself to call out to God in prayer through the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” Those who have not practiced the Jesus Prayer very much may think that asking for mercy on me is rather selfish, but it isn’t. “Me” is connected to everyone. Mercy on me results in mercy on everyone connected to me. By crying out to God for help through the Jesus Prayer, I both relieve my mind of the unending tormenting thoughts by replacing them with the words of the prayer, but I also pray. I beg God for help. And God comes to my aid.
But the Jesus Prayer is not magic. It is not a charm. It is prayer. However, used this way, the Jesus Prayer is not the peaceful prayer of stillness bringing sweetness to the soul that you read about in books by and about contemporary Elders on Mount Athos. Used this way, the Jesus prayer is a weapon, a weapon in the violent battle of our minds–“bringing every thought captive to obedience to Christ.” This is what the Fathers (contemporary and ancient) call spiritual warfare.
We flee to Christ in our minds by calling out to Him. The battle is sometimes fierce and can last days. And yet, when we call, Christ answers. Christ comes to us with his irradiating Presence that transforms us. As the fierceness of battle lessens and peace returns, the Light remains. It is not a Light that most of us can see with our eyes. It is a Light nonetheless, a Light that manifests itself in virtue, not the mere moralistic virtue of “being good.” Rather, the Light changes us. It makes us more ourselves, more the selves we long to be, more like Christ. The Light is manifest in acts of a little more compassion, words of a little more kindness, and silence that is a little more patient. This is how we know the Light of God is shining in our hearts, the True Light that saves us and those around us.