In homily 69, St. Isaac reminds us that temptations to sin come upon all people, even the “perfect.” Quoting freely from St. Macarius of Alexandria, St. Isaac reminds us that our inner state is rather like the weather. “There is cold, and soon after, burning heat, and then perhaps even hail, and after a little, fair weather.”
I think some of us will find this shocking, that even the perfect experience changes in their inner state. For the spiritual beginner, like myself, there is a tendency to think that if I resist temptation bravely, eventually I will no longer be tempted. But that is not the case, St. Isaac and St. Macarius tell us. Temptation comes and goes, like a visitor (c.f. 2 Samuel/2 Kingdoms 12:4). Like the weather, our mind “suddenly turns away from its peaceful disposition into turbid confusion without any immediate cause, and … it enters into great and unspeakable danger [of falling into sin].” We beginners can easily fall into despair because we expect in our life something “more exalted than struggle.” We forget that our calling is to fight a spiritual warfare on the battlefield of our own soul.
Certainly, if we do not resist temptation, we fall into sin more easily. And certainly, if we intentionally fill our mind with images and thoughts that stir up our passions, such passions will dominate us. For example, if I intentionally look at pornography or if I intentionally read things that I know will make me angry, I cannot complain to God that I am continually lustful or angry. It’s like moving to the Arctic and complaining that it’s so damn cold all the time. What did you expect?
But if we try to resist temptation, we soon discover that it is much harder than we expected—like the fellow who says he can stop smoking or drinking or gambling any time he wants. The real struggle lies in the wanting, consistently wanting to stop and not go back. Our hearts are fickle and our minds are weak: “even without their being negligent or lax; for even though,” St. Isaac says, “they are observing right discipline, downfalls occur which are opposed to their will’s aim.” This is why the person wise and experienced in the spiritual life understands and does not despair. But rather, begins again. The same spiritual disciplines that brought relief in the past will bring relief again. We return with humility to the beginning.
Why is this so? Why don’t our passions just go away if we do not want them? Why does God let us struggle? St. Isaac tells us that this aberration in ourselves, these trials that befall us daily until our death are how we are trained: “now there is warfare, now grace comes to our aid; sometimes the soul is found in a tempest and violent waves rise up against her, and then a change occurs, grace overshadows a man and fills his heart with joy and peace from God, and chaste and tranquil thoughts [are in his mind].” This is the secret warfare of all Christians. This is spiritual warfare. And this is how we accept Christ, and choose heaven, and love God again and again at every hour of every day.
We are human beings, not angels or demons. Whereas angels and demons chose once and are forever bound by their choice, human beings, so long as they are in this world, choose daily, take up their cross daily, die daily and so follow Christ along the Way: step by step, moment by moment. This is why the New Testament consistently refers to the Christian life as a walk. We follow Christ. We walk in the Way.
The experienced soldier of Christ, St. Isaac tells us, is neither boastful when their hearts are at peace, nor despairing when their souls are in turmoil: “If it should happen that after we receive those chaste and gentle thoughts, we should suffer an assault, let us not be sorrowful and despair. And likewise, let us not boast during a period of grace-given rest, but rather, in the time of joy let us expect affliction.”
In saying that we should not despair when temptations assail us, he does not mean that we should not stand up against them and resist them. We do not consider sinful thoughts to be somehow natural or even our own thoughts. The thoughts that assault us are like the weather. Although I cannot stop the rain, I can put a hat on. I can resist the cold by wrapping up and exercising. I can turn away (run away!) from the source of the temptation. I can turn in my mind to Jesus, saying the words “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me!”(again and again). I may not be able to stop the storm, but I can hide under the shelter of His wings.
This is how we become soldiers of the King of Heaven. Our warfare is not with flesh and blood. Our enemy is not someone outside ourselves. Our enemy is a spirit, the spirit of this age; and the battlefield is our own mind, our own heart, our own will.