For when the causes of [temptation] are distant from [a person], he is not endangered by the twofold warfare, that is, the one which is both inward and outward. See how much easier is the struggle when [a person] desires things that are afar off than when the very things themselves are close at hand and by their sight inflame the thoughts; for the struggle in the latter case is twofold.
During the late 80s, the Los Angeles Lakers were the reigning professional basketball team. One of my joys at that time was to relax in the evening watching the Lakers work their way through the playoffs to another NBA championship. There was a problem, however. I had a wife and three small children who needed my attention.
I was disturbed by the way I ignored them and snapped at them. I didn’t want to be that way. I would come home from work, focus on “quality time” with my family, and then when everyone seemed content, it seemed safe for me to turn on the game. And sure enough, ten minutes into the game, my wife would need me, the kids would want to show me something or need help in the bathroom or start bickering with one another. And then I would start snapping at them.
So I’d skip a few games, and then when it looked like things were under control, I would think that now I could enjoy a game in peace. Maybe I thought I had earned it. And yet, try as I might to control myself and the situation, I would inevitably end up snapping at my wife and kids.
Then a miracle happened. In the middle of the NBA finals, the TV went out.
I decided not to replace it.
The reason I snapped at my wife and kids really had nothing to do with watching basketball. It had to do with my internal demons, my internal struggles, passions, fears and desires. But I couldn’t focus on these because I was fighting a twofold battle, as St. Isaac points out. So long as I was focussing on an outward passion (watching basketball, as my right, as my way to relax), I could not focus on controlling the inner passions. I was losing the spiritual battle because I was fighting on two fronts.
However, when the source of the outer passion was removed (or at least not easily accessible–I could still go over to a friend’s house and watch the game), I could focus on the inner struggle. For whatever reason, I could read a book and not be upset by interruptions. Reading wasn’t a passion for me. Without a TV, I made it through all of Dickens’ novels in a decade. And more importantly, I wasn’t snapping at my wife and kids in the evenings–or at least not snapping nearly as much as I had been.
An essential strategy in the spiritual warfare is to change our physical surroundings so that sources of external passions are not easily accessible. For many today, that my be the computer and internet, but there are many possible sources for external passions. Distancing ourselves from these external passions makes it easier to focus on the inner passions, the ones really driving us.
I think this removal of external sources of passions is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “If your right hand offends you, cut it off.” He was not talking about mutilation; he was talking about the removal of that which is dear to us, even useful, for the sake of the transformation of our soul.