This is the second podcast of four describing the path out of addiction.
In the first, I outlined the context for living a life on the path of freedom — a freedom which is not only about emptying ourselves of our sin, but more importantly about being filled by the Holy Spirit. The two key principles we live by are bearing constantly a whole-hearted love for Christ and desire for union with him, and a constant willingness to share in his voluntary passion: to accept total humiliation from the world with dignity and humility.
In the light of these key principles, I discussed five aspects of living in this way. We live in attentiveness, aware that we fight not only in the physical realm, but the mental and spiritual. We live in hope, knowing that freedom is possible. We live in love, our desires being perfected so that we can find a fuller life, not an emptier one. We live in pilgrimage, day to day on a path of growing closer to Christ, and we live in joyful repentance, knowing that though the path is a struggle, it is a joyful struggle and a holy struggle that prepares us for ultimate fulfillment in the arms of Christ.
So setting out to live in this way, what practical steps or strategies do we have to keep us on the right path?
The Preparation for Battle and the Four Key Spiritual Weapons:
Many of us have probably tried and failed, not just once, but many times, to escape from pornography. It is hard to continue the struggle in the face of the despair that arises from this past failure. But let us turn to Christ, ask his help, and try once more.
St Theophan the Recluse, in his rewriting of the text of Unseen Warfare, gives us four key spiritual weapons we can use. I’ll talk about those in a minute, but before we commit ourselves to taking up these spiritual weapons, we should prepare for battle.
The first step in preparing for battle is to commit ourselves to the principles I have already mentioned, and above all to desire to stay in the life of Christ and to accept whatever humiliations come our way. One key practical step towards making this a reality in our lives is to build into our life the practice of regular prayer. Let us begin at least by making sure we start every day, before even opening our eyes, by calling on Christ, the Theotokos, our patron saint and our guardian angel to be with us and to stay with us in the coming day. And when we do open our eyes, let’s have our icons close by so that the first thing we cast our eyes on to in each new day is a vision of glory.
Another key preparation is to be clear in our own minds as to precisely what pornography is — an anti-icon — and what it does — it destroys communion. If you haven’t listened to the rest of this series of podcasts, that is what I have been describing and illustrating as we have gone along. The audio of all the podcasts remains available on the Ancient Faith website, and transcripts of all the episodes are available on the Finding the Freedom to Live website.
We need to know what in our lives triggers these temptations to use pornography. We can look back on what has led up to our giving in to the temptation in the past, and when the temptation arises again, we can ask ourselves what it is about the pattern of our lives, or what we are feeling at the moment that causes this temptation to be stronger at this moment.
Is it because I feel I have failed at something? Is it because I am trying to avoid some task? Is it because I feel particularly lonely? Being aware of our particular triggers can help us plan specific ways to respond to them. For example, if I find the temptation arises when I feel lonely, then I can plan that when it arises next, I will have a friend to call, or a place to go where I can be with others.
Equally, knowing what has helped me overcome temptations in the past enables me to specifically plan to use these things in the future to fight back against the temptation, building positive patterns of life to replace the negative pattern of falling back into pornography use.Will power alone is not enough to beat a pornography addiction. Click To Tweet
An important moment of preparation is to clean up. When I’m feeling strong enough, particularly when I am energized by prayer — for example, if I have started my day with prayer, if I have just returned from Liturgy, or if I have just begun to repent after a fall into temptation — these are good moments to clean up. To delete images, videos, and bookmarks from the computer. To throw away any pornographic prints or magazines, and so on. Find a time of strength and in full honesty about the weakness that has been and will be again, make it as hard as possible for that weak self to give in next time.
We should make sure that we participate in the fasts of the church as far as is possible. St John Climacus said “He who cherishes his stomach and hopes to overcome the spirit of fornication, is like one who tries to put out a fire with oil.” [14:21]. Abstinence from sexual intimacy is also recommended by the church in the times of the fasts, and this often helps those who have developed a porn habit. St Paul says that by mutual consent, for prayer, a period of abstinence can be beneficial, and this is at no time more true than when we are preparing for the struggle for faithfulness and against pornography. This is effective in spiritual terms, but also in psychological and physical terms, enabling the brain to rest from the intensive release of the same neurochemicals that are released in pornography use, and to which the chemical aspect of a pornography addiction is directed.
So these are all strategies of preparation — they are means of reducing or avoiding temptation, and they are essential, but absolutely inadequate on their own. They help to strengthen the will, but will power alone is not enough. These strategies must be set in the context of our overriding goal: not to be free of pornography, but to be in union with Christ. What kind of a person am I aiming to be? Let’s remember that there is a perfect ‘you’ that Christ is calling you to become.
In the light of this perfection, we can grieve for our losses, for our sins (which are themselves losses and lost opportunities), for our brokenness, for the loss of the false image of ourselves which we experience when we hit humiliation through our failures. We can also grieve for other addicts, for those involved in the porn industry at all levels, for those who love us and suffer hurt because of our actions and as we live out of our own hurts.
So, having taken these steps of preparation for the struggle, having engaged the battle, the next step is to look at the four key spiritual weapons St Theophan describes, and the context he sets them into, that of the Mysteries of the Church, centred on communion.
The four spiritual weapons are (1) to never rely on yourself in anything, (2) to bear in your heart always a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone, (3) to strive without ceasing, and (4) to remain constantly in prayer.
We know that relying on ourselves, on our own strength, on our own ideas, on our own will-power… all these fail us, and we slip again and again into our sin. Relying on ourselves is a failed strategy we need to give up. So instead, let us take up St Theophan’s first weapon, of knowing that we cannot depend on ourselves, and, in full acknowledgement and real acceptance of our own weakness, we need to turn to God and to neighbour for any help we need.
We know also that God has infinite power and infinite love, and that if we throw ourselves completely into his hands, he will be faithful. So we take up the second spiritual weapon, all-daring trust in Him. We can trust him always; where I find myself consistently unreliable, I find God consistently reliable — if maddeningly unwilling just to take away my freedom even when I want it to be taken away. So, unable to rely on myself, although I acknowledge that I am powerless, I know that I am not hopeless, and I am not helpless. I have Christ for my hope and the Holy Spirit for my help.
We know that everything we’ve tried to keep us away from habitual pornography use has failed. Resolutions have failed. All kinds of tricks and techniques have failed. We know that there is no magic answer that is going to just make the problem go away. But what we do have is Christ’s path. It is a sure path, that has been trodden by many great saints through the ages. It is a path that will not fail us if we can get on it and stay on it. So the third spiritual weapon, Strive without ceasing, is about staying on this path.
We know that under our own steam we fail, and we doubt our ability to stay on the path. So we look not to the future, but in the present moment, we use the fourth spiritual weapon and turn to God in prayer. There is no moment when we do not have recourse to prayer, and so we use it; we make the most of it. God’s presence is here. Christ is always with us, through the Holy Spirit, and although everything is impossible for us, with God everything is possible (Mt. 19:26).The greatest medicine is Christ's gift of himself in the great mystery of the Church. Click To Tweet
These weapons, and this battle, is a fight in which I seek to become a more complete person — in which I seek to be remade in closer conformity to the likeness of God, whose image I bear. It is a fight for wholeness and health, and so, apart from the weapons, I also need the physicians. I can find physicians in the spiritual hospital, the Church. The greatest physician, of course, is Christ himself, and the greatest medicine is his gift of himself in the great mystery of the Church — the gift of his body and blood in which we partake. In participating in these mysteries, we are drawn deeper into communion, towards the ultimate fulfilment of all our truest and deepest desires.
So today I’ve only been able to briefly outline the four spiritual weapons, and the context of communion with Christ through his church. Next time, I’ll have a look at the four spiritual weapons in more detail.