The First Step In Sanctification

Waging unseen warfare


We now finally arrive to the visceral “down to business” practical instruction of the ascetic life. Having laid an immense amount of groundwork, Archbishop Averky now points us towards the topic of spiritual warfare.

it is perfectly clear and natural that the principal task in the life of a Christian, the essence of the spiritual life, is a constant, never-ending battle with evil, which does not relax, even for a moment.

This should not be a controversial statement. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (drawing from Isaiah 59) illustrates the armor which we must equip for the battle, a battle that is of a spiritual nature (Eph 6:12).

What, then, should we do? And with what evil should the Christian engage in battle?

In his usual fashion, His Eminence asks the question that the reader naturally asks at this point of the reading, and answers:

A Christian should fight every type of evil wherever it appears, but this battle with evil should, in the first place, be a battle in his own soul.

So our battle against evil is universal and total, but not to overwealm us, we are given a starting point: out own soul.

The battle to which all of these holy ascetics call Christians is named “unseen warfare”—unseen by the external eyes of man, for this battle is internal and takes place inside the soul of man.

Here we see the term “unseen warfare” used synonymously with “spiritual warfare” as they pertain to the inner man.

Just what is this unseen warfare? It is a continuous, inner battle that a Christian wages in order to reach Christian perfection.

So we have the scope of our warfare, the starting point of our warfare, and now the end—or purpose—of our warfare. We are to wage unseen warfare as a means to attain perfection.

This unseen warfare is not easy! It is much more difficult than any ordinary earthly warfare, for it is much easier to battle with other people than with oneself.

A clearer image of how we go about unseen warfare begins to emerge here. The image become stark in the next paragraph:

In other words, the essence of unseen warfare is in a persistent battle with the spirit of self-assertive human pride and all its offspring– various passions and vices.

So spiritual warfare for the Christian is a battle against one’s own sin, that in battling this way, we may destroy our sin for the purpose of attaining Christian perfection (becoming God-like, sanctified).

according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, the most important and essential condition for success in unseen warfare is to “never rely on yourself in anything.”

This is comforting to me since I know how terrible I am at fighting off my own sin. This is also one aspect of Orthodoxy that can be difficult to grasp here in the West. We are very individualistic, and while that may make for a good economy, the Church is clear that one does not pick their souls up by their own spiritual bootstraps and make something of their spiritual life. That has to be done in a specific way.

But we ourselves should strive through our own efforts to acquire such an awareness of our nothingness. The Holy Fathers indicate the following four dispositions for this purpose:

Here we are given a very practical guide on how to engage in unseen warfare.

Try to perceive your weakness, basing your observations on all your life experiences,

This is actually not terribly difficult, at least in my estimation. I’m a former Calvinist, and the Reformed tradition has a way of drilling into one’s self that one is completely and utterly nothing in the grand scheme of things. Still, it is good to have the proper perspective.

Ask God in prayer that He give you the realization of your weakness and insignificance,

I think this should definitely be a regular part of my prayer rule. An active part of sanctification is becoming aware of your sin—your “weakness”—and actively fighting against it.

I’ve often used the example of a man covered in dirt in a dimly lit room. He may come to the realization of his own filth only insofar as the light is sufficiently bright. As time goes by and he cleans himself, he may adjust the brightness of the light, only to see it exposing more dirt he didn’t see before. The Fathers often speak of God not showing us the full extent of our own sin as an act of mercy lest we be given to dispondency. It is good practice, however, to ask God to make us more aware of how dirty we may be.

Always fear for yourself and be wary of the crafty designs of Satan,

If awareness of our nothingness may lead us to dispondency, the opposite risk is also true in that we may fall victim to delusive charms and prelest.

If you happen to fall into some kind of sin, immediately recognize your weakness and complete helplessness.

This is a very helpful step. Archbishop Averky is under no impression that the everyday ascetic struggle of Christians will generate perfection overnight. The waging of unseen warfare is often messy, and we often fall. In doing so, we must acknowledge the state in which we find ourselves.

Thus, that which is most necessary for success in unseen warfare is the recognition of one’s own weakness and complete insignificance without the help of God.

Bringing the point back around. This makes perfect sense.

A humble man knows that he is weak and helpless, and that nothing good should be expected of him, and, therefore, when he sins, he does not despair but only hastens to repent. Thus, in unseen warfare, it is first of all necessary to never in any way rely upon oneself and one’s own powers, but to place all one’s hope in the One God.

May God grant us the ability to turn to Him in faith and repentance.

More in this series

3 thoughts on “The First Step In Sanctification

  1. As a non-Calvinist Protestant who is learning about Orthodoxy, I’m wondering – could elaborate on the similarities and differences between sanctification and theosis?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In brief, and at the risk of over-simplifiying:

      Sanctification in the Protestant sense is a distinct process from justification and glorification.

      So salvation in the Protestant scheme is a singular event (“are you saved?”) And once attained, the Christian begins the process of sanctification to become Christlike. This terminates in one’s glorification in eternity. That’s the basic Ordo Solutis.

      In Orthodox soteriology, these things are not distinct. The concept of salvation as a singular event is foreign. In Orthodoxy, salvation in a process which encompasses what Protestants would call justification, sanctification, and glorification. Theosis is the process of partaking of the divine nature—the never-ending process of becoming more God-like that doesn’t end even after death, yet begins in this life.

      Does that help?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It seems that historical Protestants were big on assurance and certainty from what I’ve read, so the single point in time view of salvation squares with that.

        It also seems like there is some overlap between salvation as a process (which I’m very comfortable with – we must persevere to the end) and theosis, though they are not synonymous.

        I’m still trying to tease out the differences, but I think I’ll get there as I read more of the fathers. I’ve learned to be ok not understanding everything right away.

        Thank you for your summary, it’s quite helpful.

        Liked by 1 person

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