The idea of a spiritual struggle long predates Islam, however. In the Epistle to the Ephesians St. Paul uses very martial terms to describe the struggle a Christian should expect to face. Fundamentalist warfare – whether Islamic, Leninist, Maoist, Crusader or any other ideology – seeks to change the face of the world usually with violence. Christians seek to “fight the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7), to be sure, but it has nothing to do with the external conquests and exploits. The Scriptural idea of spiritual warfare refers to the inner struggles of the Christian seeking to make his or her own the newness of life (cf. Romans 6:4), as realized in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
A New Creation
A number of Church Fathers over the centuries urged Christians to “become what you are” or to “be what you have become.” In baptism, they affirm, we have been made anew. We are a “new creation” as St. Paul insists (2 Corinthians 5:17), brought through baptism to share in the new life of sharing in the divine nature. The imagery of baptism repeatedly illustrates this: we die and are raised to life, we are reborn in the womb of the Holy Spirit, we strip off the old man and are clothed anew in Christ. We are victorious in Christ, but we are still struggling in a spiritual warfare, seeking the defeat in our own lives of the enemy whom Christ has conquered.
Once more St. Paul helps us understand the terms of our struggle. “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above not on things of the earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). “Things of the earth” in this passage has been explained as anything that distracts our minds or steals our hearts from the communion with God of which we are possible. The spiritual life aims to help us reintegrate these dimensions of our makeup in an order that reflects the new creation.
Our fractured nature does not easily adapt to this new reality. While our spirit may be united to Christ through this mystery, our soul and body find it much easier to be attached to the earth. Physically and psychically we are “of the earth.” Our bodies are drawn to bodily pleasure and convenience. Our minds and wills are drawn to satisfying our ego. The spiritual warfare in which we are to engage is the attempt to liberate these aspects of our nature from the world and live them in a way that is harmonious with our baptismal union with Christ.
Engaging in This Unseen Warfare
St Paul uses two images to describe the spiritual warfare. One is military – the “armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11); the other is athletic. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” he writes, “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age…” (v. 12). The aim of wrestling is to keep standing against the assaults of the foe. Wrestlers use different offensive and defensive maneuvers in their combat. What “maneuvers” does the Christian athlete have to assist in the struggle?
An important offensive move in this struggle is fasting, simply because the temptation to self-absorption is one of the Enemy’s strongest holds deployed against us. We do not fast because certain foods are bad. There is nothing wrong with eating meat or dairy products. Fasting from them at regular intervals is a kind of tool to help liberate our minds and hearts from so “needing” these things that all our energies may be focused on meeting these false needs.
Each of us knows other things besides food that we feel are indispensable in our life: comfort, entertainment, fashions. A Christian athlete may find the desire to please God be defeated by the desire to accumulate (money, titles, books, jewelry). This is why it is helpful to stand back from these things from time to time, to ask if I really need what I want, or to reflect on what I expect to get out of this outfit or show or trip. I may surprise myself to find that I can survive quite nicely without what I once thought I needed. As the Lord says, we only “need” God – if we focus on Him the rest will be given us (cf. Matthew 6:33).
Another offensive weapon in the spiritual warfare is almsgiving. A person may fast or live simply and find a joy in the money saved, whether it be change in a jar or interest on an IRA. Just as no food is forbidden, neither is wealth. The problem many be in what we do with it. The temptation we need to fight here is that of finding security in possessions. Training ourselves to give things away effectively counters this temptation.
There are always groups and individuals seeking our help. Churches may have particular charities they encourage members to support. There are also hands-on ways of sharing what we have. Every community has its elderly struggling to get by, sometimes sacrificing food to afford medication. In some places people are encouraged to set aside a portion from their family meal for the church freezer, to be given to such people whose needs may not be obvious, but are real nonetheless.
When We Are Tempted
One of the more popular spiritual books in the last few hundred years is called The Unseen Warfare. Originally written in the 16th century by a Roman Catholic priest, Lorenzo Scupoli, it was translated and adapted extensively in the 18th century by the Greek saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and then in the 19th century by the Russian ascetic, St. Theophan the Recluse. The book details how people may find themselves in this warfare at different times in their lives. It is available in English in all these versions.
These writers note that when we are tempted to any kind of self-indulgent behavior, a certain dynamic is at work. We need to master the defensive maneuvers required to combat these assaults. In the most common description on this dynamic, temptations begin with:
- A Suggestion –
- A thought pops into our mind to buy this, watch that, or respond angrily to someone. In the words of St Theophane the Recluse, “The enemy has a law––not to begin suddenly with a passion but with a thought, and to repeat the thought often.” We can dismiss it as an idle thought and move on. Or we can hold on to the thought and
- Consider It –
- Should I or shouldn’t I? What happens if I do this or not? The more we consider a temptation, the more we are likely to agree to it. We can still say “no” but it’s getting harder.
- Consent to It –
- This is where I become accountable for that thought. This is what the Lord calls sinning in one’s heart (cf. Matthew 5:28).
- Become Captive to It –
- I decide that this action is acceptable. I do it and justify it in my mind.
- Become Addicted to It –
- I do it repeatedly without questioning it because “that’s the way I am.” The destructive passion has taken control of my life.
In the first two phases I am still in the contest; in the third I am down on the mat. In the fourth and fifth phases the contest is over.