As we grow and develop in the Christian life, it is important to recognize that the struggle for holiness takes place at deeper and more hidden places in our soul. Perhaps we’ve grown in virtue enough that what people can judge of our actions is beyond reproach – perhaps we’ve become like the “just man,” mentioned in the psalms. At that point, temptations to sins of the flesh – gluttony, lust, greed, etc. – may seem to have vanished. Temptation does not only come from undisciplined flesh however. Temptation is also planted, sown in us by an enemy. So when certain struggles of the flesh seem to have vanished or dried up, new and more subtle seeds of evil are being planted in us. Undisciplined and impenitent flesh is fertile soil for obvious sins of the flesh, but self-discipline and self-control are fertile soil for the hidden sins of the spirit. The goal of the spiritual life is not to eliminate temptation – if we begin to believe that we do not experience temptation anymore, and that because we do not we are more perfect, we are preparing the ground for sins of pride, arrogance, self-importance, vanity, etc. It would be better for us to continue in the sins of the flesh with humble recognition and tears of repentance, than in claiming victory over these sins to have our spirit puffed up with pride.
Yet God wants to remove all sin from our hearts, and all our tendencies to sin. For our part, avoiding sin and the near occasion of sin begins with discipline of the body and continues with discipline of the mind. Temptation is always a lie or a false opinion that we desperately want to believe. We must place all our thoughts and opinions to the test, rejecting even the ones we like the most if it means we can be free from error and sin.
But while people are asleep they do not act according to the command of Jesus, “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” At that point the devil on the watch sows what are called tares—that is, evil opinions—over and among the good seeds that are from the Word. According to this the whole world might be called a field, and not the church of God only. For the Son of Man sowed the good seed throughout the entire world, but the wicked one sowed tares—that is, evil words—which, springing from wickedness, are children of the evil one.1
GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS:
For it is not everyone who may draw near to God but only one who, like Moses, can bear the glory of God. Moreover, before this, when the law was first given, the trumpet blasts, and lightnings, and thunders, and darkness, and the smoke of the whole mountain, and the terrible threats that if even a beast touched the mountain it should be stoned, and other like alarms kept back the rest of the people, for whom it was a great privilege, after careful purification, merely to hear the voice of God. But Moses actually went up, and entered into the cloud, and was charged with the law and received the tables. For the multitude, the tables of law are viewed according to the letter. But for those who are above the multitude, these are viewed according to the spirit.2