I sat in the audience as the pastor gave a stirring and somewhat convicting sermon around the theme of anger. As the sermon came to a close I was hoping he would give me help in dealing with my own anger issues. Instead, he turned our attention to the many recent shootings, focusing on the gunman’s anger issues. “Isn’t it sad that there are so many angry people out there?” It’s always easier to point to the problems “out there” rather than the problems “in here.” We’d rather not deal with our own internal issues, thank you very much.
As important as it is to concern ourselves with the problems of our society and culture, our biggest problems lie within our own heart. Let’s be honest. We tend to focus on external messes because we don’t want to or don’t know how to deal with the mess we are.
In the 1930’s, someone asked the English writer and lay theologian G. K. Chesterton what was wrong with the world. He answered, “I am.” Can we take responsibility of locating societal sin within our own self? It’s a daring move to do so.
Our battle is not primarily against external forces but against internal passions.
Passions and Paul
The need to battle our own passions is highlighted over and over in scripture. St. Paul often exhorts us along these lines and then lists the issues we must battle.
For example, to the Colosse faithful he writes:
Put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness [greed] which is idolatry…but now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3.5-10)
These are issues you and I deal with daily. However, we usually gloss them over, ignore them, or project them onto others so that we can avoid the struggle required to defeat them, or as St. Paul says; “put them all away.”
Here’s another example from the writings of St. Paul:
Let all bitterness, wrath, clamor, and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4.31-32).
You and I are in a daily battle to defeat our evil passions. We consciously co-operate with the Spirit – “Let…be put away from you” – so that godly virtues have room to blossom. We will then “be” (be becoming) a person “as God in Christ.”
On the battle field, the road we walk is the path of obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. These teachings, embodied in the Church, are time-tested holy admonitions which challenge us to know God in union with Him while breaking free from wrong desires.
What are the Passions?
Perhaps the idea of “passions” as a part of the spiritual life is new to you. It is relatively new for me. However, their reality is not new. You and I have been dealing with these “little devils” our whole lives whether we realized it or not.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines passion as: “strong and barely controllable emotion.” In Greek, the word (pathos) signifies literally that which happens to a person or thing, an experience undergone passively.
Many early Christian Fathers regard the passions as intrinsically evil, a “disease” of the soul, alien to a human’s true self, not placed in us by God. They are to be eliminated.
Other Christian Fathers look on the passions as impulses originally placed in humans by God and, so, fundamentally good although distorted by sin at the present time. Thus, the passions are to be educated, not eradicated; transfigured not suppressed; to be used positively not negatively. (from Philokalia glossary, vol. 1, pp 363-364)
One approach or the other, we need to be very aware of their misuse and misdirection. I’m writing about them because they play an often unrecognized role in our behavior and attitudes, negatively affecting our relationships. We need to be fully aware of their presence, be prepared to battle them when necessary, and learn to direct them to their proper end.
This process begins by naming or identifying them. This is helpful to simplify and clarify what we’re dealing with.
Classic Christianity has spelled out particular passions that damage our relationship with God and our own being:
Love of Money/Avarice
There is a wealth of help in understanding and dealing with our passions from ancient writers. Let’s get insight from a couple of them.
Christian monk and theologian, John Cassian (360-435), differentiates two types of Passions:
Natural: These come forth from our physical needs like desire for food that can lead to gluttony or desire for sex that can lead to fornication.
Unnatural: These come forth from our nature such as the love of money.
He notes that although these passions tempt all people, they do not assail all people in the same manner. Thus, for example, in one person the spirit of lust prevails, in another – anger, in some – vainglory, yet in another pride reigns.
Another Christian monk, theologian, and scholar, St. Maximus the Confessor (590-662), writes: “Our passions are the lowest level of our human nature. It is enslavement by the sensual aspects of our human being.”
From St. Maximus’ writings we learn that the passions are:
An unquenchable thirst created by man’s desire for the infinite turned in the wrong direction toward the finite – desiring objects and things that leave us with nothing except the unquenchable desire to want more. These “things” cannot satisfy because they are finite. That lead to greed, envy, jealousy, lust, or resentment. All the passions spring from our desire to possess or control or from our fear of not possessing.
Constantly seeking to acquire and yet never satisfied. They create a constant warfare within. They lead to anxiety or apathy which is a spiritual sloth almost impossible to overcome. (This is particularly true of older Christians.) We know that following the passions doesn’t work but we’re enslaved to them and keep at it. We end up like Paul – “wretched man that I am.”
Misdirected desires which enslave us and make us powerless.
The passions are so much a part of who we are that we don’t notice them. We miss them not because they are small but because they are so characteristic of our being. Thus, we rarely, if ever, take time to examine ourselves to see how they are controlling us. We may sense that something’s wrong but struggle to come to grips with whatever it is. Being able to identify them is extremely valuable.
Tuesday morning this week, in a brief time of quiet, I found my thoughts flighting to a person (I’ll call him Eric) who projects himself as spiritually informed and pious but who has treated me harshly (at least from my perspective). In my thinking, I kept judging Eric as hypocritical and insensitive in his treatment of people, including me. In a slight moment of insight I wondered what passion was driving my thoughts. So, I meditatively read over the list of passions.
It became clear that my issue is anger. Lying within is an angry resentment towards Eric for the way he has treated me and others. I don’t want him to be respected, he doesn’t deserve it. I want people to see him as I do (because I see him clearly and justly, of course!?!).
Though I’ve never acted out in anger towards Eric – I am always civil with and nice to him – there is an inner conflict with “being at peace with all people” and my hidden, resentful anger towards him. The problem is mine alone. Eric is not the real issue. It’s me; so much so that I can’t sit in quiet without my thoughts going to him. Anger is in control.
In light of what I know about the passions, I will confess this sin, pray for Eric, and if possible, thankfully acknowledge that he is in my life to teach me how to be like Jesus. Then I’ll find ways to intentionally act in kindness and gentleness towards him until this anger towards Eric is licked. It will be a process because I’m a stubborn old goat. But, I hope being borne along by the Spirit of grace, it will be a good and satisfying process.
I am torn. I don’t like this kind of examination yet I know it is necessary on my journey to Christlikeness.
The Big Picture
Man is created for communion with God (body, soul, mind, spirit, relationship). It began in the paradise of Eden. Being made in the image of God, we have the honor of an intimate relationship with the Trinity as did Adam and Eve. Sin has tainted that prospect but not destroyed it.
Passions take us away from this delightful place – to a place of self-sufficiency, to a bogus way to be like God. Like Adam and Satan we believe the world and the way of the world is the path to fulfillment, to becoming like God. Communion with God is replaced by communion with the world.
In our fallenness we choose the finite and reject the infinite.
But, thanks be to God, by the grace of God we can walk a path of renewed communion. Trusting Jesus Christ and by faith we can journey to godliness through processes of purification and illumination as we participate in the work of grace within.
I hope to address this process of purification and illumination in my next post.
Coming back to the WOW experience of the spiritual life, I want to propose a practical approach to battling our internal foes. Is there a training strategy which actually works to keep our unwholesome passions from dominating our lives and allows space for godly virtues to develop? I will keep exploring this possibility.
In the meantime, I urge you to spend some time meditating on the list of passions to discover what might be driving some of your harmful thoughts, feelings, and actions towards others and yourself. Then, in repentance, acknowledge your waywardness to God praying for His mercy to help you turn the passion in the right direction.
There is one practice which is truly powerful in confronting the passions – FASTING. Perhaps that’s why gluttony is listed first. By addressing our desire for food we set the stage to address all the passions.
Tito Colliander, Finnish Orthodox Christian writer, provides insight into the purpose of fasting:
Fasting is an expression of love and devotion, in which one sacrifices earthly satisfaction to attain the heavenly. Altogether too much of one’s thoughts are taken up with care for sustenance and the enticements of the palate; one wishes to be free from them. Thus fasting is a step on the road of emancipation and an indispensable support in the struggle against selfish desires. (The Way of the Ascetic, p. 16)