Every day can be the day in which we grow more free from sin and closer to God. Today becomes the battleground on which we wage war with our own passions: greed, envy, anger, lust, and the others like them. Passion (think “passive”, or “suffering”) is the word in the Christian East for different types of habitual sins and dispositions, both great and small. The first of three stages of the spiritual life is to overcome these passions or, more practically speaking, to be in the process of overcoming them, and to be continually engaged in the purification of the heart. This seems like a daunting task, and, in some sense, it is. How can I remove sinful habits that have been with me since my youth, or all of the other new sinful habits and dispositions I have gathered over the years?
There is hope that these passions can be overcome: 1) God wills for us to overcome sin, 2) our human nature is good, and 3) the Church in Her wisdom has provided us the means to overcome the passions.
1) The Will of God
God is present to us at all times. He is all-powerful and all-loving. God’s forgiveness is always available to us. No matter how many times we fall, when we get back up, God is waiting with open arms to embrace us. Jesus tells us, through the Gospel of Matthew, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish”; while St. Paul tells us that the reward “of sin is death” (Matthew 18:14; Romans 6:23). Jesus reveals to us that God does not will for us to remain in our sin, which leads to death, but He wills that we have life abundantly through union with Him in eternal life. If the all-powerful and all loving God, who is everywhere present and filling all things, wills for us to remove the passions from our hearts, then, it must be possible.
2) Human Nature
God created humanity, and after God had formed the crown of His creation, he saw all that he had made, and that it “was very good” (Genesis 1:31). We are formed and fashioned by the hand of the good and loving God; Jesus tells us that He even knows the number of hairs on our head (cf. Matthew 10:30). God does not create anything evil, so our human nature, our true human nature, even if it is buried beneath generations of wickedness (beginning with Adam and Eve), is actually good. It is our true nature, the true function of the substance of who we are, to be free from the passions, to be free from sin. According to our ancestral story, told through the book of Genesis, pride and disobedience before God were introduced as a “passive” reaction to the promptings of the serpent. In the Christian East, the state of nature before the fall of Adam and Eve is often called the “primordial state.” For us to free our hearts and lives from the passions is to recover our natural state: the true state that God created us to live in.
3) The Wisdom of the Church
Over the last two thousands years, built on the revelation of God the Father through Jesus, the Church has developed a rich spiritual psychotherapy. This broad and comprehensive ‘therapy’ is witnessed to in the rich and fruitful lives of the saints. The sanctification of time, through the cycles of fasting and feasting, allows for us to push forward in self-discipline at some times, and to rejoice at others. The Scriptures, writings of the Church Fathers, and the stories about the lives of the saints have become for us a body of literature that gives guidance and inspiration; these writings bear witness to the true life offered by our Lord: a life free from the passions. Participation in the sacraments, which are visible means to invisible grace, allows for us to commune with God daily or weekly in the Eucharist, and at the most significant stages of life. The Church, in her wisdom, teaches us to submit our lives to our consciences, to guard our senses, to seek the will of God, to pray continually, to immerse ourselves in Scripture, to give to the poor, and to employ countless other ancient and venerable practices.
With the help of God, we can integrate the disciplines of the Church, in our daily life, in order to prepare our hearts for the gift of the latter stages of the spiritual life: illumination and union with God.
May we not lose hope!
There is a saying from the Desert Fathers of the fourth century in Egypt that anecdotally circulates among Eastern Christians:
A monk was asked: ‘what do you do here all day?’ and the monk’s response was ‘we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.’ In its plain sense, this is a reference to the countless prostrations, done by those early monks, where the Christian literally falls down before God in worship. At the same time, the saying can be interpreted to mean that the monk’s life is a falling into sin because of the passions, but is always followed by standing up in repentance and turning back to God, again and again. If even the monk, who lives a life of continual work and prayer without the distractions of secular life, can fall into sin, then we should not be surprised by our own shortcomings. There is no reason to lose hope: “God never tires of forgiving us”, may we never tire of returning to Him (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel).