How do St Theophan’s four spiritual weapons help us deal with our addictions?
This is part three of four podcasts where I’m talking about the path out of addictive behaviours and patterns of life. If you haven’t listened to the first two episodes, please go back and do that first, as they set up the essential context for living in a way that makes these four spiritual weapons I shall discuss today effective.
The most important thing to remember is that our overall aim is not to be free of our addiction or our habitual temptations. Our overall aim must be to live into union with Christ, who said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God… and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33). So our two key principles are first, to bear a wholehearted love for Christ, seeking constantly to remain in his presence, and second, to be willing to voluntarily accept humiliation in this world in our struggles.
So to the four spiritual weapons: the first, never rely on yourself in anything; the second, bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; the third, strive without ceasing; and the fourth, remain constantly in prayer.
1. Never Rely on Yourself in Anything
The first spiritual weapon is to never rely on yourself in anything. This is a key step of humility: in it, we acknowledge our weakness, and in this case, our specific inability to control our porn use, or our addiction, on our own. In doing so, we recognise our real position — that is what humility is about, seeing our real situation in God’s eyes — we recognise our real position and our real total weakness in regard to this temptation in particular.
Having recognised our true situation, we take it to confession and lay it out before the Lord in the presence of our spiritual father or confessor, and ask sincerely for his help and prayers.
Knowing our weakness, knowing that we cannot rely on ourselves, we also seek other godly help — we can ask for prayer and support from those we trust in the church, among our family and friends and our broader community. We can seek a support group that works according to these principles. There are a variety of support groups now available, Christian and secular, for those struggling with pornography use, and also for the spouses or families of strugglers.
The good news about this spiritual weapon is that we do not have to rely on ourselves. There is help available, even though it may sometimes seem very difficult to find. If you feel the need for more help than you are able to find, please feel free to contact me through the FtFtL website.We need to have others we can call on: seek help and be a helper Click To Tweet
Not relying on ourselves means that we need to have others we can call on, and we need at least one person who is willing to be called on at any time temptations strikes us. For some, that may be possible with their spiritual father, but in most cases either our priest is unlikely always to be able to answer our call, or we feel uncomfortable about disturbing our spiritual father and end up dropping this spiritual weapon, trying again to rely on ourselves, and falling. So let us devote serious effort to finding one trustworthy person who is willing to be called on in any time of need, whom we can be honest with about the temptations we are facing in the moment (without unnecessary detail), and seek at least conversation and encouragement in the moment to stay on the path.
Not relying on ourselves also means setting up our lives as much as possible to avoid those situations that set us up for temptation. Many of these will be specific to the person, and that is why I talked earlier about knowing what your triggers are, and what helps. But one such situation is almost certainly going to be the combination of night time and internet. There are various technical solutions — none of them perfect, but all helpful — that can be used to mitigate this situation, and you’ll find details about some of them on the FtFtL website (coming soon).
Not relying on ourselves, above all, means trusting God, and this brings us to the second spiritual weapon, which is to always bear in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone.
2. Bear Always in your Heart a Perfect and All-daring Trust in God Alone
With this spiritual weapon, we make a new decision every day, every hour, and every moment to stick to the path of repentance and all-daring trust in God. We determine to be willing to surrender our own will and attempts at living under our own power in favour of a minute-by-minute dependence on God, and a life of prayer without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
In not relying on ourselves we are powerless — but we are not hopeless because of this spiritual weapon — a perfect and all daring trust in God our hope. Hopelessness collapses us back in on ourselves, but using this spiritual weapon of looking to God in trust rebuilds our hope. All of the power we lack in ourselves is available through the Holy Spirit that the Father send us when we live in Christ’s life. So we are powerless in ourselves, and yet in the Spirit of God we are strong. We are not hopeless. And we are not helpless — we have the path, we have the steps we can take, we have the spiritual weapons.We are powerless in ourselves, and yet in the Spirit of God we are strong Click To Tweet
Recognising our inability to depend on ourselves, and using that fact as a gift to enable us to cast ourselves into God’s hands, also enables us to grieve in God’s presence for what we have lost, and what we have never had. Grieving our losses and our lacks is the honest way of facing what our addiction is designed to cover and to escape from. It is not through running from our inadequacies into addiction that we can ever find real comfort; rather it is through facing our fears, our losses, and our lack in the light of God’s presence and weeping over them. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Christ tells us, “for they shall be comforted.” (Mt. 5:4), and “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Lk. 6:21).
But in facing our fears and grieving for what we have lost and what we have never had, we do not become obsessed with ourselves and with our own problems. We keep the vision of Christ — not our own failings — always before our eyes, trusting in God’s power and God’s love to bring us through. Not focusing on ourselves, we lift our eyes to heaven and, like Constantine, see there the vision of the Cross — that is the sign, the icon, in which we will conquer.
3. Strive without Ceasing
The third spiritual weapon is to strive without ceasing. That is, never to leave the Cross of Christ. To stay on the path towards Christ. To not give up. To keep on showing up.
It means that we face and accept our falls without discouragement. Relying on ourselves in nothing, we know a fall is always possible, and trusting in God completely, we know that he will welcome us back and help us to stand.
There’s a story about a man who asks a monk, “What do you do, there in the monastery?” And the monk answers him, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.”
So striving without ceasing is about continuing to take small steps. Making a continuous choice to want to get better. Falling, and getting back up again.
In fact, just before that story in the book Way of the Ascetics, the author tells us, “If you are remorseful because… you fell… and if you are full of self-reproach and resolutions ‘never to do so again,’ it is a sure sign that you are on the wrong road: it is your self-reliance that has been wounded.” Striving without ceasing means keeping hold of the other spiritual weapons: not relying on yourself in anything, and bearing an all-daring trust in God.
Staying on the path, striving without ceasing, is a constant exercise of our freedom, moment by moment, not a magical cure that takes away our freedom and avoids our struggle.
Striving without ceasing is constantly loving God with all our hearts, minds and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Loving our neighbour also implies recognizing the way in which our addictions and our past and present behaviours have hurt others. We should be aware of specifically who has been hurt and how so that we can bring that to confession and explore with our spiritual father whether there are any practical ways of making amends to those we have hurt.
Striving without ceasing is also committing to spiritual growth, to learning more. To involvement in the life of the church, and especially to participation in the mysteries of the church, and to spiritual reading and increased communion within the church, both with other members of our local parish and all the saints in this world and the next.
Striving without ceasing is also constantly reviewing, assessing my temptations and triggers, making sure I keep cleaning up, sticking with the process. Some people find that keeping a spiritual journal helps them anticipate and avoid falls, clarify triggers and helps, and have a clearer picture of past events unclouded by present moods.
So striving without ceasing, we stay on the path. We always make immediate and clear confessions of our failings and faults of all kinds. And we continue to grieve for our losses and failings.
And all of this is helped by the fourth spiritual weapon, to remain constantly in prayer.
4. Remain Constantly in PrayerRejoice always! Pray without ceasing! In everything give thanks; this is the will of God for you. Click To Tweet
St Paul tells us, “Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing! In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
To rely on ourselves brings us to disappointment and sadness, but to never rely on ourselves, trust in God, to stay on this path, and to know that we can always call on God in prayer — this is a great joy and a blessing, and something we can give thanks for at all times.
So we pray in joy and we pray in thanksgiving. And when we do not seem to have the joy and the thanksgiving, we pray with what we have, still knowing that God’s presence is always with us. We pray in every moment we need help to stay on the path. We pray for mercy, and when all other words fail us, we can simply pray, “Lord, have mercy.” And we can pray it over and over again.
We can pray the Jesus prayer at all times and in all places, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.
Remaining in constant prayer will transform our thoughts and our lives, and keep us on the path.
It is a good, helpful practice to establish regular times of day for praying. And it is better to start with something small and manageable. Short and often is better than long and rare. I’ve already said that at least we should make sure we are in prayer before we open our eyes in the morning, even if that prayer is just “Lord, have mercy.” But it’s good to have a daily discipline of prayer time with spiritual reading, either from Scripture, or spiritual books, lives of the saints, and so on — something lighter, such as the recent book Everyday Saints, is also an option, with its anecdotes that cause us to reflect on the spiritual life. Many of these books have short chapters that make it easy to just read one chapter a day.
Reading spiritual books helps to keep the path before our eyes. Otherwise it’s easy for us to get used to our state of sin and look at the world and think ‘I’m not worse than most people’. Better to hold before us instead the vision of beautiful spiritual sobriety in the lives of the saints and elders.
We can use the prayers in the usual prayer books — the morning and evening prayers. And we don’t have to slavishly follow the text, or feel that we have to read everything. And we can add prayers in our own words, either aloud or internally, bringing to God whatever is on our hearts in the moment. We can also use the akathists to various saints — to our patron saint, for example, and of course use the akathist to the Theotokos.
In our prayers, we can remember also those whose lives have been negatively affected by pornography. We can pray for those involved in creating and producing porn as well as other people addicted or blinded by it. Some people have even used a photograph of the face of ‘porn stars’ they used to favour in their icon corner — to pray for them every day, to replace past lusts with real love.
In praying, give in love. It’s not about the time that’s spent, or the number of prayers that are read. It’s simply spending time that is given completely to God, without distractions. Just sitting in front of the icon of Christ, gazing into his eyes, is more significant than reading any number of prayers with inattention.
So we hold on to these four spiritual weapons: not relying on ourselves in anything, bearing an all-daring trust in God alone, striving without ceasing, and remaining constantly in prayer. Colliander, in Way of the Ascetics, has a nice little anecdote about the experience of one holding on to the spiritual weapons who nevertheless suffers a fall: “He who does not rely on himself is thankfully amazed that he did not fall lower; he praises God for sending him help in time, for otherwise he would still have been lying prostrate. Swiftly he rises and begins his prayer with a threefold Praised be God.”
Let’s join that man!