August/September 2016 - Vol. 87

Readings from the Early Fathers on Spiritual Warfare

shield of
                                  faith and cross of Christ

Why does God put up with evil in the world?
by John Chrysostom (354-407 AD)

Why does error have a free rein and why does God allow the wicked to disturb the existence of so many people?

First of all, before trying to understand, we need to put ourselves in front of the incomprehensible wisdom of God. One who is firmly anchored in God does not suffer any loss, even if attacked by a thousand waves and a thousand storms. On the contrary, he emerges stronger.

There is a reason, however, which I can venture to suggest.

In the first place, scandals are permitted so that the rewards of the righteous may not be diminished. That is why God said to Job:
'Do you not understand that I have treated you in this fashion so that your righteousness may be made manifest?' (Job 40:8).
But there is another reason why the wicked are left at large: so that they may not be deprived of the advantages of conversion from their evil ways, which certainly could not happen if they had been rendered incapable of doing evil. In this way, St Paul, the penitent thief, the prostitute, the tax collector and many others were saved.

You may speak to me about those who have been scandalized. Well and good. But I then speak to you about those who have benefited from the scandal by winning glory, and I repeat my point: the existence of careless and lazy people would not justify leaving in a state of inferiority keen and wide-awake people who are capable of richly deserving their eternal recompense. A great wrong would be done to them if they were not given the chance to strive.

[Excerpt from On Providence, 12, I (SC79, pp.I83ff.)]

God has created nothing evil

by John Cassian (360-430 AD)

Never let us try to maintain that God has created anything that is intrinsically bad. We read in Scripture: 'And God saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good.' (Genesis 1:31)

Perhaps someone is asserting that God created the devils as they are, or that right from the beginning he assigned them their role of deceiving and ruining human beings? If so, he is contradicting Scripture and insulting God by thinking of him as the inventor and creator of evil.

In reality, before forming the visible world, God made the spiritual powers of heaven so that they might unceasingly give thanks and praise to their Creator, knowing that they had been made from nothing and were destined for the glory of heavenly felicity.

In fact, the Lord himself says of these powers: 'When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.' (Job 38:71)

The beginning of every thing is Christ in whom the Father has created all that exists. We read in Scripture: 'All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.' (John 1:3) And again: 'In Christ all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible ... all things were created through him and for him.' (Colossians 1:16)

[excerpt from Conferences by Cassian, 8, 6ff. (SC54, PP.I4ff.)]
Why does God allow testing and temptation?

by Maximus the Confessor (580-682 AD)

One can distinguish five reasons why God allows the devils to attack us: first, so that from attack and counter-attack we may become practised in discerning good from evil.

Second, so that our virtue may be maintained in the heat of the struggle and so be confirmed in an impregnable position.

Third, so that as we advance in virtue we may avoid presumption and learn humility.

Fourth, to inspire in us an unreserved hatred for evil through the experience we thus have of it.

Fifth, and above all, that we may attain inner freedom and remain convinced both of our own weakness and of the strength of him who has come to our aid.

[Excerpt from Centuries on Charity by Maximus the Confessor, 2, 67 (SC9, p.114]

The devil does not have full power
by John Damascene (675-749 AD)

Among the angelic powers the chief of the terrestrial order, the one to whom God had entrusted the task of looking after the earth, was not evil by nature, he had not received any trace of evil from his Creator. He was good. 

However, he did not maintain the light and the honor that God had given him. By a deliberate act of his own free will he rebelled against the Creator. He turned his face away from goodness and fell into evil. Evil in fact is merely the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. 

A host of angels placed under his command followed him in the fall. Despite their angelic nature, they also freely plunged from goodness down to evil and became wicked.

The devils cannot do anything against us without God's permission. But with God's permission they are powerful. All wickedness, all the passions are inspired by them. But listen: God allows them to suggest sin to a person, but they cannot force him to do it. We ourselves are responsible for accepting or rejecting their seductive suggestions.

[excerpt from The Orthodox Faith, 2, 4]

The devil's strategy

by Ambrose of Milan (339-397 AD)

The devil demonstrates simultaneously his weakness and his wickedness. 

He is unable to harm anyone who does not harm himself. In fact, anyone who denies heaven and chooses the earth is, as it were, rushing towards a precipice, even though running of his own accord. 

The devil, however, starts working as soon as he sees someone living up to faith's commitments, someone who has a reputation for virtue, who does good works. 

He tries to worm vanity into him, to make it possible for him to be puffed up with pride, become presumptuous, lose trust in prayer and not attribute to God the good that he does but to take all the credit himself.

[excerpt from On the Gospel of St Luke 4, 25]

Let us be wholly absorbed by grace

by Pseudo-Macarius (4th century)

Inside us evil is at work suggesting unworthy inclinations. However, it is not in us in the same way as, to take an example, water mixes with wine. Evil is in us without being mixed with good.

We are a field in which wheat and weeds are growing separately. We are a house in which there is a thief, but also the owner. We are a spring which rises from the middle of the mud, but pours out pure water.

All the same, it is enough to stir up the mud and the spring is fouled. It is the same with the soul. If the evil is spread, it forms a unity with the soul and makes it dirty. With our consent, evil is united with the soul; they become accomplices.

Yet there comes a moment when the soul can free itself and remain separate again: in repentance, contrition, prayer, recourse to God. The soul could not benefit from these habits if it were always sunk in evil.

It is like marriage. A woman is united with a man and they become one flesh. But when one of them dies, the other is left alone.

But union with the Holy Spirit is complete. So let us become a single spirit with him. Let us be wholly absorbed by grace.

[Excerpt from Homily by Pseudo-Marcarius, 16, I (PG34, 613)]

We conquer the enemy by conquering ourselves 

by Leo the Great (400-461 AD)

In the days of Saul and David, it was when the Israelites fell into sin that the Lord allowed the Philistines to oppress them. In order to regain the ascendancy over their enemies, the people were ordered to fast. The Israelites understood very well that they deserved all they had to endure at the hands of the Philistines because they had neglected God's commands and given themselves over to evil practices. It was no use for them to try to win their freedom by taking up arms; they first had to get rid of their sins. And so they began to discipline themselves and to conquer the desires of the flesh in order to be able to conquer their opponents. When they fasted their oppressors gave way before them, whereas when they indulged all their appetites the enemy held them in subjection. 

It is the same with us today. We have our own struggles and conflicts, and we can win by using the same tactics. The Israelites were attacked by human beings; we are attacked by spiritual enemies. We can conquer by bringing our lives into line with God's will for us; then our enemies will give way before us. It is not their power but our lack of self-discipline that makes them a threat to us, and we shall weaken them by overcoming ourselves. 

We must ask God's help in this warfare, because our only means of conquering the enemy is to conquer ourselves. How often we come into conflict with our own lower nature, with those unspiritual, unregenerate attitudes that Scripture calls the flesh! What the flesh wants is opposed to what the spirit wants, and what the spirit wants is opposed to what the flesh wants. If the desires of the flesh are the stronger, then our spiritual faculties will be dragged down to the level of our lower nature and will be enslaved where they ought to be masters. But if we are determined to serve the Lord and find our joy in his gifts, if we trample underfoot our instinctive tendency to gratify ourselves and refuse to allow sin to rule in our mortal bodies, then our spirit will be in control and no strategy of the Evil One will be able to overthrow us. True peace and freedom can only be ours when the flesh is ruled by the spirit and the spirit is guided by the will of God.

The spark of divine love within you
by Basil the Great (330-379 AD)

Love of God is not something that we can be taught. We did not learn from someone else how to rejoice in light or want to live, or to love our parents or guardians. It is the same, perhaps even more so, with our love for God: it does not come by anotherís teaching. As soon as the living creature (that is, man) comes to be, a power of reason is implanted in us like a seed, containing within it the ability and the need to love. When the school of Godís law admits this power of reason, it cultivates it diligently, skillfully nurtures it, and with Godís help brings it to perfection.

For this reason, as by Godís gift, I find you with the zeal necessary to attain this end, and you on your part help me with your prayers. I will try to fan into flame the spark of divine love that is hidden within you, as far as I am able through the power of the Holy Spirit.

First, let me say that we have already received from God the ability to fulfill all his commands. We have then no reason to resent them, as if something beyond our capacity were being asked of us. We have no reason either to be angry, as if we had to pay back more than we had received. When we use this ability in a right and fitting way, we lead a life of virtue and holiness. But if we misuse it, we fall into sin.

This is the definition of sin: the misuse of powers given us by God for doing good, a use contrary to God's commandments. On the other hand, the virtue that God asks of us is the use of the same powers based on a good conscience in accordance with God's command. 

Since this is so, we can say the same about love. Since we received a command to love God, we possess from the first moment of our existence an innate power and ability to love. The proof of this is not to be sought outside ourselves, but each one can learn this from himself and in himself. It is natural for us to want things that are good and pleasing to the eye, even though at first different things seem beautiful and good to different people. In the same way, we love what is related to us or near to us, though we have not been taught to do so, and we spontaneously feel well disposed to our benefactors. 

What, I ask, is more wonderful than the beauty of God? What thought is more pleasing and satisfying than God's majesty? What desire is as urgent and overpowering as the desire implanted by God in a soul that is completely purified of sin and cries out in its love: I am wounded by love? The radiance of the divine beauty is altogether beyond the power of words to describe.

[Excerpt from the Longer Rules of Basil the Great (Resp. 2,1: PG 31, 908-910)]

Selection of quotes are from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, A Patristic Breviary, by Thomas SpidlikFirst published as Breviario Patristico by Piero Gribaudi Editore, Turin, Ital (c) 1971 Piero Gribaudi Editore Turin. First published in English in 1992 by New City, 57 Twyford Avenue, London, English translation by Paul Drake. First American publication 1993 by Cistercian Publications, WMU Station, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
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