Challenges And Temptations

Challenges And Temptations December 12, 2023

Archibald Tuttle: St John The Dwarf / Wikimedia Commons

We often wish the challenges we face on a daily basis would go away. We think that would make our lives peaceful, and with such peace, we would find it easy to have fulfilling lives. The problem is that if we found ourselves having such peace, we would find ourselves attached to that peace we would feel as if we had little to no reason to push ourselves to grow, and to become someone even better. Despite how much we might not like them, we need challenges in our lives to push us and help us grow. This is not to say we cannot and should not have times in which we find such peace; we need them, as well, but the respite should be temporary, helping us regain our inner strength through rest before we take on new challenges. If we had nothing confronting us, no struggles, life would become boring, for it is often those very challenges which end up making life not only interesting, but actually worth living. This is why many desert fathers and mothers suggested that there is something in the human condition which requires us to be constantly tested if we are to get the most out our lives:

Abba Poemen said about Abba John the Short that he besought God, and the passions were taken away from him; he then became without a care. Going to an elder, he announced to him, “I see myself reposing, with no battle to fight.” The elder said to him, “Go and beseech God for the battle to come upon you, for it is by [fighting] battles that the soul makes progress.” The battle came, and he no longer prayed for it to be taken away; he said, “Lord, give me patience in the battles.”[1]

St. John the Short (also known as John the Dwarf) thought if he did not have normal human passions, he would be at peace, and through such peace, find it easy to attain perfection. This is because he thought he would not be tempted to do any wrong, and if he did no wrong, he could easily do whatever he needed to do to be virtuous and through them find his own perfection. But the reality is that virtues grow through trial, and without any trial, without any temptation, many of them would not be developed. Likewise, they also give us the desire we need to be concerned about such growth. That is, the same passions which challenge us, as they sometimes make us desire what is not so good, are also capable of being transformed and used to have us desire and engage what is good. This is why John found out that when he became impassioned, he was no longer growing spiritually. The elder who told him what the problem was helped give him the spiritual direction he needed, and as John had enough discipline to follow spiritual direction, he did as he was told. He asked God not to take away his passions, but rather, to have the means he needed to successfully resist them if and when they would lead him astray.

The lesson we can learn from John is rather important. We should see what happened to him when he got his wish fulfilled. He learned what we should all learn: we should not flee challenges when they come upon us. This is not to say we should desire to face a burden or challenge which we have no means of overcoming. There is a difference between having no challenges, and being overburdened. We should not look for or try to make things worse for ourselves by trying to take on something which is too much for us to deal with. We should not look to become martyrs. We should not act imprudently, for then, all we would do is lead to another kind of failure. On the other hand, if we want things to be too easy, we will lose out on all the growth we should want for ourselves. “And elder said, ‘We are not progressing because we do not understand our own nature and do not have patience in the work we initiate but desire to acquire virtue effortlessly.’”[2] It is important that we continue to be active, to face challenges; consistent light activity is better than one great challenge, then we find ourselves being built up over time and not losing what   we gain, instead of having a one-time gain which we could easily lose, which is why Amma Matoes said, “I prefer some light activity that last to one that is onerous at first and soon broken off.”[3]

BIf, reading this, some thinks this means virtue is something we develop on our own, that is, it is all in our hands, they are misreading the desert fathers and mothers. They know grace has to be involved, and without it, we will not be able to attain perfection. They know what is key is to cooperate with grace so that grace can perfect nature, for grace gives us the potential we need to attain a greater level of sanctity.  This is what Abba Hyperechios meant when he said, “We have to arm ourselves before temptations; thus we will clearly appear to be reliable when they occur.”[4] For monks and nuns go to God in prayer, constantly asking God to help them in their ascetical practices.

While we might not like being challenged, we might not like constantly facing temptation, we might not like understanding the kinds of difficulties which come our way, life would become dull without them. We would become complacent and find ourselves no longer growing.  As athletes know, resistance found in exercise helps build them up, so spiritually, we need challenges, temptations, to face and overcome, if we want to grow and develop and become all that God would have us be.

[1] John Wortley, trans., The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2012), 100 [John Colobos 13].

[2] John Wortley, trans., The Book of the Elders, 107 [N 297].

[3] John Wortley, trans., The Book of the Elders, 102 [Matoes 1].

[4] John Wortley, trans., The Book of the Elders), 106 [Hyperechios].

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