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Someone recently asked me about how to understand the evil thoughts they experience.  Influenced by Jordan Peterson, this person suggested that it is a dialog between “ego” and the shadow or negative parts of themselves.  I don’t know what Jordan Peterson actually says about these things, but I have some idea about what the spiritual fathers of the Orthodox Church teach us about thoughts and the battle against evil with us.

The principal way we experience (or notice that we are experiencing) the angelic influence (both heavenly and infernal) is in/by our thoughts.  However thoughts are seldom merely spiritual, they are very often associated with a feeling (a passion) which itself is almost always associated with a bodily experience (real or feared or hoped for).  The first thing we must realize is that these thoughts and feelings are not who we are.  We are the person experiencing the thoughts and feelings, we are not our thoughts and feelings.  These thoughts and feelings, or feeling-thoughts, are what we call passions.

The reason why we call these feeling-thoughts passions is because in a certain sense, we (our inner, true selves) are passive.  That is, they happen to us.  We suffer them.  However, this does not mean that we are merely victims of forces we have no influence over.  Rather, we can nurture and inflame passion, and we can resist and calm them.  It is a great deal like weeds in a garden.  If we are lazy, they will take over; if we are diligent, the weeds will merely haunt the edges of the garden.  

Spiritual warfare, then, is when we fight the thoughts and passions that lead us away from Christ.  However, like a beginning gardener, we must first learn to tell the difference between the weeds and the flowers.  This telling the difference is what the spiritual fathers call discernment.  Discernment is not the ability to know something about someone else’s motives or inner life.  No, that is suspicion, and suspicion is a passion, not a spiritual gift.  Discernment is knowing yourself.  Discernment is recognizing the source of your own thoughts and feelings, where they are tending toward and what actions they are prompting and whether such actions are life-giving or not.  

We learn discernment the same way a gardener learns to tell the young weeds from the young flowers: through instruction and experience.  To learn we must be humble and teachable.  We must be willing to try and be willing to make mistakes and to learn from them.  We must submit to the instruction of those who are more experienced.  Most of all, success in spiritual warfare requires that we keep trying and not give up.  Otherwise, the weeds take over.

There is very little we can do to stop random thoughts or passionate stirrings within ourselves (especially when you are a beginner like me).  However through free will and godly zeal we can learn to deny ourselves.  We can also flee whatever external setting that is stirring up or inflaming the passion (like what psychologists call “triggers”).  Moreover, through asceticism we can train ourselves to recognize the passionate thoughts when they first arise and to pluck them out (like seedlings) before they grow into deeply rooted plants that are difficult to remove.  Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Through free will and godly zeal we can learn to deny ourselves.  Our first line of defence agains evil thoughts and passionate desires is to learn to deny ourselves.  When we notice that we are thinking an unkind or lustful or hateful or any other wicked thought, we can force ourselves to think a different thought.  Here the Jesus Prayer is very helpful.  By begging our Lord Jesus for mercy for allowing such a wicked weed to grow in the garden of our mind, we are denying the thought.  

We also deny ourselves by not doing what our passions are urging us to do.  However, this requires discernment.  A strong urge to eat, for example, is not in itself a sinful passion.  The evil aspect of the passion may be tied up in the timing of the urge to eat, or the amount or the quality of the food.  In fact most physical passions are not in themselves evil except when they are out of control or perverted into a fetish or a means to escape or postpone dealing with a problem.  Just as grass is appropriate in a lawn, but not a garden, so denying passions is not about convincing yourself that some thought or urges are evil in themselves.  The evil aspect is the mis-timed or inappropriate passion, the twisted or the uncontrolled passion.  

Another way to do spiritual warfare against evil thoughts and feelings is to avoid the situations that inflame or trigger such thoughts and feelings.  Again, discernment and humility are needed.  You might notice, for example, that angry thoughts and feelings torment you after you watch political videos.  You can do battle against those angry thoughts by not watching political videos, and thus avoiding the trigger.  It is the same thing as an alcoholic avoiding a bar—if he doesn’t go to a bar, he is not as tempted to drink.  By watching ourselves and with the advice of our spiritual fathers, we can avoid sowing the seeds that grow into weeds, we can give no place to the evil one to tempt us in our mind and through our passions.

Finally, through asceticism we train ourselves to pay attention to our thoughts and passions by saying no to ourselves.  Simple disciplines like daily prayers, going to Church and controlling our diet (fasting) greatly help our ability to attend to our thoughts and recognize our passions.  It is like the discipline of spending a little time pulling weeds in the garden every day.  When I make myself do something for Christ’s sake, I come to better know myself.  And it doesn’t have to be something huge.  For example, just to make myself say a little prayer every morning and evening involves a great spiritual struggle.  It can seem like a huge huddle to jump over just to pray a few minutes in the morning or evening.  But this regular and freely chosen struggle reveals to us the spiritual warfare going on within us all the time, but is usually unseen.  

And of course, it’s not our success or failure in praying or fasting or any ascetical struggle that is the important thing.  The important thing is that we are continuing to struggle for Christ’s sake.  And in struggling we are learning about our own weakness and turning to God for help.  In fact, it is much more dangerous to seem to be successful in your ascetic struggle than it is to fail and repent.  A person who seems to be successful in her ascetic struggle but loses her temper or secretly harbours lustful thoughts is in delusion.  She is much worse off than a person who struggles and fails, and then tries again.   Through failure this person knows by experience her dependence on God and is indeed being transformed by God’s Grace.

Angelic and demonic influence most often comes to us through our thoughts and feelings (or at least that is where we most commonly become aware of it).  Therefore, we make progress in the spiritual life by tending the garden of our mind.  We defeat the demons and grow in godliness when we pull the weeds and water the flowers.  Watering the flowers in our mind is, I think, what St. Paul had in mind when he advised the Philippian Church this way:

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”