Penetrate mentally what I have said. Before a man begins to act according to his passions, even if his thoughts mount an assault against him, he is always a free man in his own city and he has God as an ally. If, therefore, he humbles himself before God and bears the yoke of his trial and affliction with thanksgiving, and wars a little, the help of God will deliver him. But if he flees labor and goes after bodily pleasures, then he will be forcibly led into the land of the Assyrians and involuntarily becomes their slave. Then the Prophet says [to those people]: Pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar because his life is your salvation (Bar. 1:11,12). Praying for the life of Nebuchadnezzar means that man should not become fainthearted in sorrows that have come to him from temptation, neither should he turn away from it, but rather bear them with humility, considering that it is necessary that he endure all this. Let him hold that he is unworthy to be freed from that burden, but actually deserves that his trial should be prolonged and made more severe; and whether or not he understands that the cause is in himself or perhaps he does not yet recognize this, but he should believe that nothing from God is indiscriminate or unjust. This is how the brother thought who mourned and wept when God removed his temptation, crying, “Lord, am I unworthy to endure a little affliction?”
And again there is the account of the disciple of one of the great elders who was severely attacked by the spirit of fornication, and the master seeing this said to him, “Do you want me to beg God to lighten this attack?” But the disciple said, “Even though I am hard-pressed, I see that there is great fruit coming to me from this labor. Rather ask this of God, that He give me endurance!”
Such are those who really want to be saved: this is what it means to bear the yoke of temptation with humility of wisdom and to pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar. This is why the Prophet said, In the life of Nebuchadnezzar is our salvation. The same thing is implied in saying, “I see great fruit coming to me from this labour” as “in the life of Nebuchadnezzar is our salvation.” This the Elder confirms by saying, “Today I know that you are in the way to making progress and you will surpass me.” For when someone struggles manfully against committing sin and begins to fight against the passionate thoughts that arise in his soul, he humbles himself and becomes contrite, and yet struggles on—and on by the sorrows of his struggle he is purified little by little, and returns his natural state.
Whereas, as we were saying, if a man is beset by his unruly passions, it is due to his ignorance and pride, and he ought after the humiliation [of falling] all the more correctly to take his own measure and to continue praying until God works His mercy in him. For unless a man is tempted and sees the troubles which uncontrolled passions cause him, he will not at any time fight to be cleansed of them. About this the Psalmist says, When the sinners spring up like grass, and all that work iniquity look loftily down, it is that they may be utterly destroyed unto ages of ages (Ps. 92:6,7) “Sinners springing up like grass” refers to passionate thoughts, for grass is a feeble thing and has no strength. When passionate thoughts arise in the soul therefore, they are brought to light; this means that the workers of iniquity, that is, the inordinate passions, appear, in order that they can be completely destroyed forever and ever.
Consider now the consequences of this saying. First passionate thoughts arise in the mind, and then the underlying passion comes to light and they are destroyed. All this applies to strugglers. But we who give way to the sins and are always satisfying our passions, never recognize the passionate desires that spring up, or the underlying passions they reveal, so that we can combat them, but we remain under their sway, in Egypt, in the humiliating brickfields of Pharaoh. And who will give us the clear realization of our bitter slavery so that we may be truly humbled and eager to obtain mercy?
When the sons of Israel were in Egypt and enslaved to Pharaoh, they made bricks, and those who made bricks were always bent down to the ground and looked at the earth. So it is with the soul if it is dominated by the devil and goes on acting sinfully; tramples down its own reason and ceases to think about anything spiritual, but makes its thoughts and activity revolve only around earthly things. Then the Israelites built for Pharaoh from the bricks they made three strongly fortified cities, Pithom, Ramses, and On, which is Heliopolis [the city of the sun]. These represent love of pleasure, vainglory and love of money, from which three all sin proceeds.
When God raised up Moses to lead them out of Egypt and deliver them from slavery to Pharaoh, they were burdened with even greater labors by the king, and he said to them, You are worthless and lazy and therefore you say, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to the Lord, our God (Ex. 5:17). In like manner, when he sees that God intends to have mercy on a soul and relieve it of the burden of its evil passions either by His word or through some of his servants, the devil lays even heavier burdens of passions on it and attacks it all more vehemently.
The Fathers, knowing this, strengthened mankind with their teaching and do not allow us to be a prey to anxiety. One of them said, “Have you fallen? Rise up; and if [it happens] again and again and again, do the same.” And another said, “The strength of those who really want to acquire virtue is this: even if they fall they do not get discouraged and give up, but go on and resume the struggle.” Each of the Fathers quite simply, each in his own special way, holds out a hand to help those who are in combat with the enemy and are being attacked by him. For they take as applying to themselves the words of Holy Scripture, Shall not the fallen rise again? or Shall not one who has turned away from me turn back again? (Jer. 8:4).Turn to me again, my children, and I shall heal you from your wounds, says the Lord (Jer. 3:22). And many other like it.
When the hand of the Lord was heavy on Pharaoh and his attendants, they were willing to send away the sons of Israel, and He said to Moses, Go and sacrifice to the Lord your God, but leave your sheep and oxen (Ex. 10:24), by which are signified to us the thoughts of our minds of which Pharaoh wanted to be master, hoping through them to draw back to his service the sons of Israel. But to this Moses replied, Nay, but thou shalt give to us whole burnt offerings and sacrifices, which sacrifice to the Lord our God. And our cattle shall go with us and we will not leave a hoof behind (Ex. 10:25-26). When Moses did succeed in leading the sons of Israel out of Egypt, he took them across the Red Sea. Although God wanted to lead them to the seventy date palm trees and the twelve fountains of water, he led them first to Marah, and the people were in distress since they found nothing to drink as the water was bitter (Ex. 15:27); and from Marah he brought them to the seventy palm trees and the twelve fountains of water. So too the soul, when it stops committing sins and passes by the mental Red Sea, must first fight laboriously and be much afflicted; then it comes through affliction into a state of holy rest. We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). For tribulations attract the mercy of God to the soul, as the winds bring down the rain. But too much rain coming down on delicate young plants makes them rot and destroys their fruit, a modest amount of wind dries them out and stiffens them—so it is with the soul. Relaxation, carelessness, and repose make it flabby and scattered, but temptations strengthen it and unite it to God, as the Prophet says, Lord, in our affliction we were made mindful of thee (Isa. 33:2). So, as we said, we must not let ourselves be upset or downcast during temptations, but stand firm and give thanks in our tribulations, and pray to God with humility at all times, that he may have mercy on our weakness and protect us in all our temptation to His glory. For to Him belongs all glory, honor and worship unto the ages. Amen.