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Poison apples

When a sinful urge strikes, is it ever possible that we have no choice but to give in? Based on some teachings of the Holy Fathers, Amelia explains why the answer is no, as well as why we are fully responsible for overcoming and avoiding temptation.
Life is a sequence of decisions. Every moment, although sometimes without realizing so, we're deciding things. How do I feel about this? What do I really want? What should I do? What will I say? What went wrong? How can I correct it? What if someone finds out? How do I stop myself?

We easily fall into the trap of thinking that we have no choice in certain situations—that sometimes the way we think or feel or act is simply an automatic response over which we have no conscious control. But God didn't create us this way, to be slaves of passions or compulsions or addictions. He created us with the free will to choose, and we have the ability to apply this free will in all situations. He never forces us to do things that are sinful, the things He forbids. We're the ones responsible for those choices.

In many instances, we know better than to involve ourselves in certain situations. We know better, but we allow ourselves "just a little bit of daydreaming," or "just a taste" or "just a peek" or "just for a minute," and suddenly we find ourselves overtaken by a force too powerful to control on our own. Acknowledging that we often do know better, the holy fathers warn us to steer clear of all potentially tempting scenarios that could wind up getting the best of us.

Sometimes those specific scenarios vary from person to person, and other times they’re universally dangerous. In some cases, what's harmless to one person might be the spiritual downfall of another. For example, a glass of wine might not be a stumbling block to most people, but to an alcoholic it can be a death sentence. In other cases, no matter how well equipped we think we might be, there are certain battles that aren't worth fighting; mere involvement in certain situations is sinful, even if just stumble a little bit and don’t fall all the way. In other words, different fruits are poisonous to different people, but some fruits are poisonous to all.

Temptations are much easier to avoid than to escape. When we feel the fire lit inside of us—that burning, unstoppable hunger that can only be satisfied by enjoying whatever we’ve dangled in front of ourselves, it’s difficult to escape without spiritual injury. God unconditionally provides us a way out, but in the heat of the moment, we don’t always care to take Him up on the offer. Once we've indulged a little, whether in our thoughts or by way of the physical senses, the alternative (stopping) is far less thrilling than the chase. We might know that we should stop, but we temporarily don't really care.

Saint Macarius of Optina explains: The passions cannot exercise dominion over us when we resist them and call on the help of God against them. Our self-love and pride strengthen the passions against us and give them victory over us. We need the Lord's help, but once we're over our heads in temptation, we don't bother to call on Him. We know that calling on His help and the help of His angels would stop the temptation in its tracks, but we also know that it would prevent us from indulging in whatever we so strongly desire in that moment—often, that's not something we truly want to prevent. We want things both ways: We want to be holy by knowing better, but we also want to experience whatever we've already set our hearts on.

No matter how spiritually unruly we are, there's hope for us. But changing is more than just a matter of having hope. We should start with hope, of course—hope in God's mercy, hope in His help for the future, but we eventually need to progress from hope to hard work—the hard work of prayer, of fasting from the things that put obstacles in the way of our salvation, of avoiding thoughts and situations that we know will get us into trouble, and finally, of accepting whatever help the Lord gives. When we call on Him in times of temptation and He offers us an escape, we need to grab hold of ourselves and take it. Surely it's difficult, but the rewards of walking away far outweigh any momentary gratification that would come from indulging in anything we'll later come to regret.

It is essential to pass beyond the borders of our passions—i.e., to be completely delivered from them, and to change them into the opposite—into virtues. When we pass beyond an actual border, it is necessary to have a passport. And so, in conquering the passions we receive a new image, the passport of eternal life.
— Saint Barsanuphius of Optina