Sin and Morality: Part Two

April 24, 2014 Length: 27:20

Fr. Vassilios shares part two of his talk on Sin and Morality, including the passions of anger, talkativeness, and avarice. "The passions are not to be annihilated, but redirected and mastered."





In my previous podcast, we introduced the subject of sin and holiness, which is what we are going to carry on with today. In the last podcast, I dealt mainly with one passion and one virtue: the passion of pride and the virtue of humility. I pointed out that the passion of pride is really the sin that makes us most like the devil, and the virtue of humility is the virtue which makes us most like God. Also, these two things, pride and humility, are often the root of other passions and virtues. Pride often leads to many other kinds of sin, and humility is what makes so many other virtues possible.

So we’re going to carry on by looking at some other passions and virtues within the context of our modern lives and how these things affect us and how we can try to engage with them and battle them. Before we talk about these passions, let me clarify what we mean by passions and virtues. The passions are usually thought of as spiritual or physical inclinations or habits or instincts which we need to war against or need to try to overcome or control in our lives, and they often have a negative impact on our soul and on our body. The virtues are the positive counterparts of those passions, which we need to labor to acquire and to increase.

But there is a misconception generally that the passions themselves are bad in and of themselves, and this is actually not the case. The passions are necessary in our spiritual life. Without them, we can’t really get very far. In fact, perhaps the only sin or passion that cannot be turned to good is the sin of despondency or sloth or idleness. It’s not so much a passion as an absence of passion. Without the passions, we can do no good. I’d like to give you an example, a passage from St. John Climacus from his work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. He says:

God neither caused nor created evil, and therefore those who assert that certain passions come naturally to the soul are quite wrong. What they fail to realize is that we haven’t taken natural attributes of our own and turned them into passions. For instance, the seed which we have for the sake of procreating children is abused by us for the sake of fornication. Nature has provided us with anger as something to be turned against the serpent, but we have used it against our neighbor. We have a natural urge to excel in virtue, but instead we compete in evil. Nature stirs within us a desire for glory, but that glory is of a heavenly kind. It is natural for us to be arrogant against the demons. Joy is ours by nature, but it should be joy on account of the Lord and for the sake of doing good to our neighbor. Nature has given us resentment, but that ought to be against the enemies of our souls. We have a natural desire for food, but not, surely, for profligacy.

This makes it clear that the saints who excelled in virtue, who acquired sanctity, did not give up the passions but mastered them and controlled them and redirected them properly. Their anger was turned against their own sins, their own shortcomings and failures; their hatred, likewise. Their envy was transformed into a burning desire to imitate the saints. Even their sexual love was turned to God; being the most passionate form of love, they were capable of loving him with that same kind of intensity. St. John of the Ladder again says:

I’ve watched impure souls mad for physical love, but turning what they know of such love into a reason for penance and transferring that same capacity for love to the Lord. That is why, when talking of the chaste harlot, the Lord does not say, “Because she feared,” but rather, “Because she loved much.” She was able to drive out love with love.

So it is clear that the passions are not to be annihilated but redirected and mastered. The whole struggle of repentance is to learn to master these passions, and that mastery of the passions is what is known as dispassion in Orthodox spirituality. It does not mean to no longer feel the passions, but to have mastered and controlled them and to have transformed those passions into virtues rather than to completely annihilate them.

Now, the first passion I want to talk about today is one I think many of us struggle with, and this is the passion of anger. Its positive counterpart, the virtue opposed to anger, is often referred to as “meekness.” Some could also say “patience.” When we hear this word, “meek,” we seem to think of a certain kind of personality, someone who is shy, easily pushed around, somebody who doesn’t raise his voice. This is not what we are talking about. Meekness is not a personality trait.

As a virtue, it’s something that is not always apparent in a particular sort of character or mode of behavior. Our Lord described himself as meek, and yet he smashed up the markets outside the temple in Jerusalem; he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. So certainly not someone who’s easily pushed around and who’s not outspoken. And we often make the mistake of judging meekness by externals. I, for example, have seen people who, in the face of abusiveness, have seemed to have remained really calm, seemed to have stolid patience, but then later confessed how much boiling rage was within them.

Often, anger is also not apparent. There is also a difference between being prone to explosions of temper and the passion of anger, which is something which often can not find an outlet, an expression, but lingers within and poisons our heart and our mind and dominates our thoughts. This is worst form of anger. St. John Cassian expresses this really well. He says:

If we take St. Paul literally (referring to Ephesians 4:26: “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath”) then we are not allowed to cling to our anger for even a day.” I would like to make a comment, however, that many people are so embittered and furious when they are in a state of anger that they not only cling to their anger for a day, but drag it on for weeks. I am at a loss for words [about those] who do not even vent their anger in speech, but erect a barrier of sullen silence around them and distill the bitter poison of their hearts until it finally destroys them. They could not have understood how important it is to avoid anger, not merely externally, but even in our thoughts, because it darkens our intellect with bitterness and cuts it off from the radiance of spiritual understanding and discernment by depriving it of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

This is the kind of anger that often afflicts us, that is concealed and bottled up. But I mentioned also that a lot of the passions are rooted in pride, and anger is no exception. Now, of course, that is not always the case. There are many forms of anger and reasons for anger, and anger can be a good thing. We are not expected to be incapable of anger.

There is what is called righteous indignation. I mentioned already our Lord smashing up the markets outside the temple in Jerusalem. The psalmist says, “Be angry, and do not sin,” so that we have to be capable of being angry at sin and injustice and unrighteousness. Particularly we have to be capable of anger at our own selves. In fact, I thought it was well-expressed in a song lyric I heard: “I want my anger to be healthy. I want my anger just for me.” And that kind of expresses very well the idea that the anger is needed, but it has to be redirected and properly controlled.

Anger is often rooted in pride because we often become angry when our pride has been wounded. Someone may make a constructive criticism, may point out the way we behaved wasn’t right, or a piece of work we produced is slightly flawed. And because our pride is wounded by this, we can become very resentful of that person or that comment, become very angry and even hold that against them, even when their intention was to help us, because, as I mentioned, pride is thinking that you are better than others or that you deserve to be treated better than others, and it blinds us to our own faults and to reality. So that even if we admit that the criticism is correct, our deepest reaction is: “Who are you to criticize me? You’re no better.” That’s the kind of anger that often comes from pride. When we have humility, when we think of ourselves less than everybody else, at least certainly no better than anyone else, we’re not as incorrigible. We won’t react by thinking, “Who are you to tell me that?” So anger is often the result of pride. When our pride is wounded, we can become very angry.

Anger can also lead to a worse spiritual condition: hatred, and also, of course, slander and gossip and talkativeness. And this brings me to another aspect of our spiritual life, which is talkativeness. Now, many people don’t think of talkativeness as a sin; they may see it as a bad quality. But consider what St. James says about the tongue and talkativeness in his epistle:

The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set on our members that it defiles the whole body and sets on fire the course of nature, and it is set on fire by hell. No man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.

And that really sums up what we are getting at here, with our battle of the passions, that if we think of the tongue as something autonomous and independent of God, something that is “It’s mine to do with as I please,” it is always going to end up becoming a tool of sin. However good my intentions are to love others, if I can’t learn to control my body, my tongue and any other part of who I am, then despite the good I want to do, I’m going to end up doing the evil I do not want to do. If I can’t control my tongue, I’m going to let secrets slip; I’m not going to be able to keep a secret when I’m told things in confidence. I may make an off-the-cuff remark or a bad joke that’s going to hurt someone’s feelings or poison a relationship. I’m going to be constantly getting myself into trouble, however good my intentions will be, because I can’t master my tongue; I can’t learn intelligent silence.

Of course, this talkativeness, we should not limit it just to the act of speaking, just to the tongue itself. We can do just as much harm with the written word, and we see this, in fact, every day in our lives; perhaps we don’t really realize it, but with our modern forms of communication, these things like Facebook and Twitter—particularly, in fact, Orthodox discussion forums. I always tell people that want to learn about Orthodoxy, “If you want to learn about it, please avoid the internet. Please avoid Orthodox discussion forums, because the kind of judgmental, venomous chatter you find on these places is really breath-taking.” And, of course, you know, many a troll may be a quiet person by nature, but once he’s in front of a screen, all of that venomous poison comes streaming forth, and the reason for this is because the root of the passion of talkativeness is the heart. Christ says:

A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good, and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. Out of the abundance of his heart his mouth speaks.

So the answer to mastering the tongue—to learning intelligent silence, learning when to speak and when to keep our mouth shut, when to be able to control ourselves so that we don’t hurt people’s feelings unintentionally or let secrets slip and so on—is to purify our heart. And the more pure our hearts, the less harm our speech will cause.

Even pride can actually be the reason for our excessive chattering, in various ways. One obvious example is how we may exaggerate and embellish in order to make ourselves look good, from the average Joe bragging about the last fight he got into or how much he drank last night, to the devout Christian trying to pretend that something he was told in conversation was the result of his own scholarly knowledge. We all are guilty of trying to make ourselves look better than we are. Also, sometimes the desire to be the center of attention in a conversation, the desire to entertain people with stories, can lead to a lot of gossiping, spreading many rumors, and, again, some people may think of this as a bad quality, and it’s actually one of the most destructive things of all.

There’s a wonderful anecdote I’ll share with you about this. There was a man who used to love entertaining people with juicy gossip, and sometimes the rumors were true. Sometimes they were embellished to be more entertaining and dramatic; other times they were just completely false. One day he found out that a man’s reputation had been ruined because of something he said in conversation, and he went to see his priest and told him what had happened and asked how he could make amends. The priest asks him, “Do you have any feather pillows in your house?” And he says, “Yes, I have many.” He said, “I want you to take one of those pillows, cut it open, throw all of the feathers out of the window, and then come and see me tomorrow.”

The next day he goes to the priest and says, “Father, I did as you asked. What do you want me to do now?” And the priest says, “I want you to go and find every single one of those feathers. Put them back into the pillow.” In disbelief, the man says, “But those feathers are long gone. That’s impossible. You know that.” “Indeed,” said the priest, “and that is how it is with our words when we gossip.”

So something that may seem very innocent, a desire to simply entertain people with juicy gossip and so on, can be one of the most destructive activities of all. The solution to this is twofold: purifying our hearts, learning to love our neighbor as ourselves, do unto others as you would have them do to you; and to master our tongue. If we purify the heart, then that means our intentions are more pure, but if we do not control the tongue, then, whatever our intentions, we’re going to keep slipping into the same mistakes and failing to live up to the love that we wish to live up to.

The third passion I want to talk about today is avarice. This is the desire for too much money, too much luxury. It’s the passion that distorts our definition of need. Obviously, the virtue opposed to avarice is charity, generosity. As many Church Fathers have said, this is not about how much you have to give, but how much you’re willing to sacrifice. Someone who gives from his poverty is a more charitable person than someone who gives out of his abundance. St. Basil the Great says, “Are you poor? You know someone who’s even poorer. Do not shrink from giving the little you have. Do not prefer your own benefit to remedying the common distress.”

But this simple principle of giving what we can is distorted by the passion of avarice; it’s distorted by how we adjust our definition of need to suit the kind of lifestyle we want to live, to suit our desire for luxury. We think of luxuries as necessities. We think we need to eat extremely well, or that we really do need that expensive pair of shoes, or we need abundant savings for a rainy day. Of course, this temptation can be even worse for married people with families, because, obviously, we need to look after our children’s needs: they need food and shelter and a good education and so on. That is all true, but sometimes we can use that as an excuse for a privileged and luxurious lifestyle. Again, Basil addresses this issue:

“But wealth is necessary for rearing children,” someone will say. This is a specious excuse for greed. Although you speak as though children were your concern, you betray the inclinations of your own heart. Do not impute guilt to the guiltless. They have their own Master who cares for their needs. They receive their being from God, and God will provide what they need to live. Was the command found in the Gospel, “If you wish to be perfect, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor” not written for the married? After seeking the blessing of children from the Lord and being found worthy to become parents, did you at once add the following: “Give me children, that I might disobey your commandments. Give me children, that I might not attain the kingdom of heaven”?

Other Church Fathers warn us that even the idea of charity, the desire of having plenty in order to help others can often be an excuse for avarice. They warn us to not think that having much means that you are going to give much.

This brings us also to the virtue opposed to avarice, which is the virtue of poverty, the idea of voluntary poverty, that is. That is to say that we are able to live a frugal life and live on little, because what really enables true charity and generosity is not wealth but a freedom from excessive need. The principle of charity is not “The more I have, the more I will give,” but “The less I need, the more I will give.” Indeed, think about how little the rich really do give compared to what they could give, because they want to maintain their luxurious lifestyles. Again, St. Basil the Great touched upon this back in the fourth century:

How many could you have delivered from want with but a single ring from your finger? How many households fallen into destitution might you have raised? In just one of our closets, there are enough clothes to cover an entire town shivering with cold.

This kind of reminds me, actually of Schindler’s List at the end of the film, when Schindler realizes, “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I threw away so much money. You have no idea. This car. O God, what about the car? Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. This pen, two more people. This is gold, two more people. I could have got one more person, and I didn’t. I didn’t.”

And we can often apply that to the attempt to practice the virtue of self-denying love. We will realize that “If I didn’t have so many selfish desires, so many needs, I could have practiced love better. If I didn’t need that extra meal in the day, I could have given it to somebody else. If I didn’t have this desire for this particular luxury in my life, I could help others more.”

And this really brings us to the whole purpose of our struggling with the passions and trying to acquire virtue. What is the point of all this battling with passions and virtues? The answer is divine love. Whenever we are trying to master the passions or acquire virtues, what we are trying to do is to learn to acquire perfect love. And everyone talks about love, and people say, “Love is all that matters. As long as you love people, it doesn’t matter what you do,” and so on and so on. But we never seem to really think: love is not at all easy. Love is the height of spiritual perfection. It is not something that can simply be wished into existence, so to speak. It’s something that will take a lifetime of struggle to acquire.

Before his crucifixion, the Lord said to the apostles, “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: than to lay down his life for one’s friends.” That’s the kind of love we’re being asked to acquire. We’re not talking about sentimental feelings. We are talking about truly loving your neighbor as yourself. Consider what that means. That means I put everyone else first. I think of others as more important than me.

And that is not easy to do for as long as we are not disciplined enough to sacrifice our own selfishness and our own desires and our own passions in order to help others. If I don’t overcome my avarice, I will have too much and others will have too little. If I don’t overcome my gluttony, others will be hungry because I keep stuffing my face. If I don’t control my lust, I will end up coveting other people’s wives. If I don’t master my tongue, I will, as we said, let secrets slip; I will say things which are offensive, tell a bad joke when someone is [in] a fragile frame of mind, and so on. If I don’t master my anger, I will lash out when I’m in a bad mood. And if I don’t master my pride, I will never be able to love my neighbor as myself, because I will always think of myself as superior.

Pride is the sin, the passion, that gives birth to all the other passions which hinder my progress in divine love, and humility is the virtue that gives birth to all other virtues and which gives birth, above all, to true divine selfless love.