For those who have followed in the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, you will note that we spoke of the slavery that we fall under. Slavery into those daily temptations and desires we have. Additionally, we discussed St. Gregory of Nyssa’s statement that we are mistaken as to where the good lies (Part 1 and Part 2). Some of us while reading these texts may be wondering as to what this has to say about our desires and our faculties which are involved in our sin. We have not said these things to say that the body is somehow evil or even that desire is evil. Our desires, our bodies, our minds are all God-given gifts meant to aid us in our pursuit of union with God and it is their misuse which results in calamity. Let us look to St. Athanasius:
But the audacity of men, having regard not to what is expedient [ie good] and becoming, but to what is possible for it, began to do the contrary; whence, moving their hands to the contrary, it made them commit murder, and led away their hearing to disobedience, and their other members to adultery instead of to lawful procreation; and the tongue, instead of right speaking, to slander and insult and perjury; the hands again, to stealing and striking fellow-men; and the sense of smell to many sorts of lascivious odours; the feet, to be swift to shed blood, and the belly to drunkenness and insatiable gluttony. All of which things are a vice and sin of the soul: neither is there any cause of them at all, but only the rejection of better things. For just as if a charioteer, having mounted his chariot on the race-course, were to pay no attention to the goal, toward which he should be driving, but, ignoring this, simply were to drive the horse as he could, or in other words as he would, and often drive against those he met, and often down steep places, rushing wherever he impelled himself by the speed of the team, thinking that thus running he has not missed the goal,—for he regards the running only, and does not see that he has passed wide of the goal;—so the soul too, turning from the way toward God, and driving the members of the body beyond what is proper, or rather, driven herself along with them by her own doing, sins and makes mischief for herself, not seeing that she has strayed from the way, and has swerved from the goal of truth, to which the Christ-bearing man, the blessed Paul, was looking when he said, “I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of Christ Jesus (Phil 3.14):” so that the holy man, making the good his mark, never did what was evil.” St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, Chapter 5.
Our natural faculties are not ‘the problem’. God has created all humanity in His Image and Likeness and Christianity is not a faith of body-soul dualism where matter might be considered evil. Christ has come and taken this very body and soul which is our own! However, according to St. Athanasius, it is our misuse of the body, it is our misuse of our faculties that results in sin. Why does this misuse arise? St. Athanasius has pointed to the fact that we pay no attention to the goal and we simply set our desires and faculties loose to ‘run wild’ as the charioteer in the example he has given. As we have mentioned, this is sin at its very definition, to miss the mark. If we do not have the goal and the aim in mind then inevitably our desires and our passions, instead of allowing us to pursue God with ever-greater desire, will simply respond to that which is nearest and most immediate to me and we will find ourselves thrown off the road to the pursuit of God. Our eyes made to ever behold the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation and to know His Love and care for us begin to be tools by which we can pursue our desires at the cost of harming our neighbour by making objects out of them. Our feet, made to give us a means to pursue God’s work, now become the means by which we can get ahead of our neighbour at all costs or by which we pursue our neighbour to get vengeance upon them for wrongs done. Our capacity for love and even our pursuit of love which is natural to us, having been created in a relationship of love to God, has now become simply the drive for the pursuit of pleasure at any cost whether in material goods or in other persons.
As St. Basil teaches:
“We have received from God the natural tendency to do what He commands…By using these powers in a fitting and loyal manner, we live in virtue in a holy manner; by turning them away from their goal, we are led away on the contrary to evil. Such is, in fact, the definition of vice: the misuse, contrary to the Lord’s commandments, of the faculties that God has given us for good. As a result, the definition of virtue is such that God demands of us the conscientious use of these faculties according to the Lord’s ordinance.” St. Basil the Great, The Long Rules, 2.
Our faculties and even our senses are not ‘evil’ in and of themselves but rather while being inattentive to the goal (our union with God), we have allowed them to be swayed and overtaken by every new temptation or pursuit presenting itself to us. As St. Athanasius teaches, let us pursue our goal (and as St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches let us rationally come to know that which is truly Good by nature and not by deception) and by this come to use the whole of our being to pursue Him Who stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3.2).