We all know that prayer is a great tool for spiritual growth and in some ways it is the method and even the goal of the Christian life. But is there ever a time in the Christian life in which prayer is not the go-to tool? In a book on Greek Orthodox spirituality, the author recounted a conversation that was shocked me:
“There is a detail we must keep in mind in reference to the repetition of the Prayer as a method of overcoming the logismoi, [word for spiritually disturbing thought]” Father Maximos said softly as we turned back to where the car was parked. “A person should not resort directly to the Prayer immediately after being assaulted by troublesome logismoi.” “Why not?” I asked puzzled. “I know that what I am about to say may sound paradoxical. But an automatic recourse to the Prayer could have the opposite effects. It may lead a person to extreme psychic turmoil and to a loss of self-mastery. Old Paisios used to tell us that when confronted with a logismos, whoever resorts to repeating the Prayer very rapidly resembles a terrified soldier in the heat of battle. He holds his rifle tight to his chest, paralyzed with fear. To reassure himself that he is not afraid he repeats ’Holy Virgin help me, Holy Virgin help me.’ And he shakes from head to toe, sitting there completely immobilized and unable to fight or even to breathe.” Father Maximos laughed. “That reminds me,” he mused, “of the dentist we had on Mount Athos. The moment he would take a look into our mouths he would sigh, start crossing himself, and begin lamenting. ’Holy Virgin! May you help us. May God place His hand here.’ “Before a person begins to pray, when confronted with a troublesome logismos, a rational mastery over the situation must be developed. Again, if at all possible, the best way is to employ the strategy of complete indifference.”
When I first read this I was taken aback. But then it hit me, Jesus says to pray for God to protect us from temptations when we go to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). But his instruction to his disciples when it comes to sin is to ‘deny yourself.’ Not only so, but St. Peter’s instruction to disciples is to “be sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). Later in the same letter, being sober-minded is connected with resisting Satan’s temptations! Sober-minded, rational mastery over temptation is what we do for our prayers.
It would seem that having rational mastery over your emotions, your deepest desires, and the things which tempt you to sin is precisely the remedy to temptation in the moment. And one of the chief strategies of overcoming self-defeating thoughts is to distract yourself. The same, it seems, applies sinful thoughts in general.
It makes sense. While we should pray for God’s help in all things, asking God to help us overcome a temptation when we’re not trying to remove ourselves from its presence, master its cause in our hearts, or arrange our lives to exclude sin is like praying for good health while eating donuts. It seems doubtful that the Lord would help us to do anything we don’t care to accomplish. Overcoming sin is no different, we cannot simply pray for repentance, we must obey the command to repent.