Often in our spiritual life we experience a strong and at times overwhelming tension between evil and good, temptation and grace. From at least the time of Zoroaster (6th century B.C.), down through the Qumran community (1QS) and into the early Church (1 John 4:6), these forces have been identified as warring spirits that dwell within the human heart or soul. A spirit of truth or righteousness is known and even felt (Romans 7!) to do battle against a spirit of error or deception. “I do not do the good I want,” the apostle Paul declares, “but the evil I do not want is what I do!” This conflict is perceived as the reason why the righteous faithful, as well as those who rebel against God, experience temptation and fall into sin. Whichever of the two spirits or “inclinations” achieves the upper hand in a given moment will determine a person’s attitude and conduct.
In the Christian understanding of things, spiritual warfare in our members leaves our free will intact. However powerful the evil spirit may be, it is subject not only to God’s will and intervention into our life; it is also vulnerable to our personal ascetic struggle. The good spirit can always prevail, so long as we recognize the power of sin, acknowledge our incapacity to withstand for long the onslaughts of the evil spirit, and throw ourselves wholly upon the grace and mercy of God, who alone can bring victory out of a conflict that otherwise would plunge us into eternal death and corruption.
This conflict is most often represented as a struggle between Satan – demonic power – and the Holy Spirit or Spirit of Truth. This is perhaps why in our Orthodox tradition we begin nearly every liturgical service with the prayer, “O Heavenly King,” which concludes with a supplication addressed to the Spirit, “Save our souls, O Good One!” We know all too well, as Fr Alexander Schmemann affirmed to incoming seminarians, that “the Devil exists.” And that the closer we come to God, the more faithfully we try to place our life under His Lordship and in the sphere of His love, the more fiercely and effectively the Devil attacks.
In the times of preparation for the great feast of Holy Theophany, commemorating Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John, it might be useful to reflect a little on the significance of baptism in this life and death struggle that we term “unseen warfare.” An important source for that reflection can be found in St Diadochos of Photiki’s treatise “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discernment”1. A 5th century anti-Monophysite father and mystical theologian, St Diadochos offers important insight into the nature of our spiritual struggle and the importance of baptism as a means of obtaining saving grace.
Diodochus had to deal with what he considered to be a dangerous heresy. “Some have imagined,” he said, “that both grace and sin – that is, the spirit of truth and the spirit of error – are hidden at the same time in the intellect [the nous or spiritual faculty that knows God through immediate experience] of the baptized.”2 He continues:
“Before holy baptism, grace encourages the soul towards good from the outside, while Satan lurks in its depths, trying to block all the intellect’s ways of approach to the divine. But from the moment that we are reborn through baptism, the demon is outside, grace is within. Thus, whereas before baptism error ruled the soul, after baptism truth rules it.”
Nevertheless, he adds, although Satan no longer dwells within the soul, he continues to exercise his influence on it “from the outside.” For those who take up the ascetic struggle against that influence and wage war against the temptations of the flesh, grace that dwells in the hidden depths of the nous can lead the person away from the “pestering by demons” and toward a full and eternal communion with the God of love.
To our modern ears this may sound somewhat too materialistic, with its understanding that baptism effects a kind of territorial transfer between Satan and grace, expelling Satan from a person’s soul and infusing it with divine grace. Nevertheless, Diodochus understands with Saint Paul that the passions are located on the level of the “flesh,” the superficial aspect of our life, whereas grace dwells in and operates from the nous or depths of our inner being. Baptism bestows upon us sacramental grace. But there is nothing automatic about its effect. It can become “operative,” so to speak, only when we allow it to work within us, to guide and protect us in the struggle against demonic temptation. That is, only when we take up the “good fight,” by which grace (alone!) enables us to stand fast against “the principalities and powers” of this world and to journey – body, mind, soul and spirit – toward Life in God.
All too often in our daily experience, we feel ourselves torn by warring influences, spirits of good and evil, that hold us fast in seemingly endless conflict. We want to do the good, yet evil lies close at hand. It’s easy to see why, in order to explain this tension, so many religious traditions, including our own, have called on the image of dual spirits that are engaged in constant combat to attain mastery over our bodies, our minds and our feelings.
Our hope in the midst of that struggle lies precisely in baptismal grace. We have died with Christ and risen with Him in newness of life (Rom 6). This is what enables us to engage in spiritual warfare with “the hope of glory,” with the firm conviction that in and through that warfare, the One who saves us from “this body of death” is Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7).
Perhaps we can look at it this way. Through the grace of baptism we come to perceive the fact that the struggle between the “two spirits” – the “inclinations” toward good and evil – is one that takes place only on the level of the flesh, the powerful yet superficial dimension of our life. The Spirit whom we receive in baptism is the Spirit of Truth, who dwells within the innermost depths of our being, to protect us from Satanic influence, to liberate and sanctify us, and as “the Good One,” to save our longing souls.