Title: The Christian Life 4: Tools for the Struggle
Subject: Jesus Prayer, Confession, Repentance, Gratitude
Age: 15+ years
Prerequisites: The Christian Life lessons: 1. The Beginning, 2. Humility, 3. The Struggle
What tools can we say are necessary for spiritual warfare? Some of the qualities that we must strive to foster are the following:
- Imitation of Christ's life
- The Church
- The Saints
- The Tradition
- Soberness and vigilance
- Taking stock of our thoughts and who we are listening to
- Being aware of the coming judgment
- The Church
Necessary tools to battle against spiritual warfare include frequent confession, typically at least once per month. A regular prayer life is also necessary. We must become mindful of God and keep God close. Often we must devise something that will trigger this remembrance, such as a watch that beeps on the hour, a cell phone reminder, post-it notes, etc. This prayer life and remembrance of God is something we must be very disciplined and obedient with daily. Once we establish a prayer life, however small and meager it is (we may decide 10 minutes is all we can handle), then we add to it as we grow and as we display obedience. We may ask ourselves how much of our prayer should be self-directed and how much should be from the prayer books of the Church. The prayers of the Church often articulate what it is we can't say. At other times we must just pray. We certainly can develop our own prayer life if we don't have a guide. There are no steadfast rules here as long as what we do brings us closer to God.
The purpose of prayer is to get us into the vicinity of God. This is why we should pray often. Prayer is the process keeping us close to God. We should not pray when we are sinning. We have to decide what actions may be sinful, because we can't be double-minded, for example, when we are in self-indulgence, like watching a movie, playing cards, etc. This is different from spiritual warfare in that we are in public, such as shopping or attend a meeting.
A subset to prayer is the Jesus prayer. Sin is drifting from God and prayer combats this by keeping us present to God. The Jesus Prayer is repetitive. Its value is to keep your mind from wondering, and is a way of staying near God or as close to God as you can, and block things out that are interfering. It has practical use: as long as we are actually praying, it is not a misuse of the prayer. Whenever we drift in Church, we can use the prayer until we come back to the service. It can deflect demons, thoughts, etc. It is another tool against spiritual warfare. It is a tool not for an earthly purpose. There are higher levels of prayer that most of us don't get to. There are two versions of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me," and "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."
Virtue or the Commandments: Life is to be lived in obedience to Christ's commandments, as found within the New Testament. See the passages in the Gospel of St. John:
"If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever--The Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:15-17).
"He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him" (John 14:21).
"Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him" (John 14:23).
"As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:9-10).
The one who wishes to engage in spiritual warfare should pick five commandments of Christ and these first five should be the ones you need the most, the ones that will most directly battle your greatest passions. If five are too many you could start with a smaller number. Once the commandments are chosen, you should work on following them strictly for three months. Once this is successful, you can add two more. As soon as these seven, and at least seven, are second nature to you, you can add two more or three more to get to a total of ten. Once these ten are in place and are second nature, you can just stay at this level and slowly over time and study add one commandment more at a time.
Frequent confession is also a necessary tool to overcome spiritual warfare. Everyone is sinning and everyone's burdens are piling up. Receive this sacrament typically at least once per month. Therefore if you confess at least once a month, you keep short accounts before the Lord. Once a month seems to work; it seems to give the right amount of time. The benefit of confession is that you leave feeling free. You have to be able to identify the actual sin to obtain this freedom. You have to face the sin through your own study of self and through reading, to get in touch with the actual sin and those motivating them. The simple identification of a sin begins to free you. First, you must desire freedom. To make confession real takes real time, effort, and education.
In overcoming a sin or sinful thought, we can use the Jesus Prayer or prayer in general to fight off sin. This is different from sinning and then praying (being double-minded). Should there be an attraction of an affinity of the sin, then you must also repent.
Confession is not repentance. You can repent and become free of a sin through a true repentance. How do we know we have truly repented? We become free of the sin. The act of repenting is something we begin and the act of it starts to free us or frees us completely. We have to be honest with ourselves and ask ourselves whether we are truly sorry. We need to truly accuse ourselves. Nothing underneath can be there which passes responsibility. The purpose of repentance is to free the soul so that it has a chance to stay closer to heaven and Christ, not because we are supposed to or have to, we are Orthodox because of it.
Sometimes we struggle. What is required is that we want and are willing to struggle. Gratitude goes along with repentance, and is perhaps one of the most important virtues for westernized Orthodox. It must be nurtured within us, otherwise it will not take hold. It is praying to God thanking God for "x." It is even a tribulation for the true spiritual masters. For beginners, we can simply begin by thanking God for any good thing, such as our looks, intelligence or friends. When we give God the credit for any victory or any thing, we get whatever it is off of us and onto God. Then God taps us on the shoulder, and He invites us, good and faithful servants, up to a better seat. God gives us something that feels even better: the feeling that God loves you.
If you are thankful for Providence and for whatever happens in our lives, then we can step more easily into repentance. You can begin to see all things are for your benefit. Start with obedience, then the heart will warm up later if you are having trouble being thankful.
Continue the next lesson with Christian Life 5: Unseen Warfare and Self-Accusation.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas