We become soldiers in a spiritual war against sin and evil at Baptism.
In this war, we fight against the spirits of wickedness, or demons, that use the eight thoughts to attack us. The weapons we use are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which help us to win control over the passions.
Armor for the Battle
St. Paul speaks of the battle against spiritual evil in Ephesians 6:12:
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
He tells us what we need to defeat these hosts of wickedness in Ephesians 6:13-20:
In fighting this evil, “the flaming darts of the evil one,” we must:
St. John Cassian writes that spiritual warfare:
“...is in accordance with the will of God. It serves human good and awakens in a person ardent striving for greater perfection.”
When we fast, we emulate Our Lord’s forty-day fast in the desert and his defeat of Satan’s three temptations after his Baptism.
From the times of the early Church, monks have fasted to achieve purity of heart. Through fasting, we learn to control the body and to protect the soul from the passions.
St. John Chrysostom writes that fasting is more than limiting the amount of food we eat:
“Do you not eat flesh? Feed not upon indecency by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive slander and calumnies...For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters.”
The Shepherd of Hermas, a text from the late first to the second century, links fasting with almsgiving.
Almsgiving, Hermas tells us, demonstrates love of neighbor and benefits both the giver and the receiver:
“In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.”
When we give alms we imitate God, who has freely given to us.
The Process of Giving in to an Evil Thought
Thoughts are either good or evil. We choose whether to give in to an evil thought. Giving in to the temptation of an evil thought follows a five step process: Suggestion, conversation, struggle, assent, and captivity.
First, we receive a suggestion that we commit a sin.
Second, we carry on a conversation with the suggestion and consider reasons for accepting or rejecting it.
Third, we enter into a spiritual battle or a struggle.
Fourth, we assent to, or accept, the evil thought.
Fifth, we become captive to the passion. Once in the state of captivity, a person becomes inclined to evil and finds it difficult to resist the thought to commit the evil whenever it occurs. Such a person can become addicted to the passion or a slave to it.
How to Defeat the Passions
Christ Our Pascha teaches that:
“The battle against evil thoughts and passions, and the acquiring of virtues, is the essence of Christian ascesis.”
We cannot attain perfection as long as the passions have power over us. To become free of the passions, we must employ ascetical practices, which train us and give us the strength to defeat the passions.
Just as giving in to the temptation of an evil thought follows a five step process, struggling against and defeating the passions follows a three-step process: Awareness, resistance, and eradication.
In this process, we use our reason and become aware of a passion through grace. Once we have awareness, we use our will and cooperate with God’s grace to resist the passion. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, our love of God then eradicates the passion.
To be free from the passions is called apatheia, a Greek word. When we are in this state, we have the ability to resist the eight evil thoughts. Temptation, though, remains.
[Notes to our talk on “Spiritual Combat in the Life of the Christian,” pages 255-258 in Christ Our Pascha]