If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Romans 7:16-20)
St Paul vividly describes in the passage above his own spiritual struggles “against the flesh,” noting that he often knows what the right thing to do is, but he still doesn’t always do it. He sometimes recognizes something he wants to do is sin, and yet he still does it. All of this from a man who sometimes writes as if once you are baptized your struggles with sin should be over.
Christ Himself describes this warfare in graphic terms that have sometimes misled extremists to mutilate themselves, a practice which the Church rejected as a literalist misunderstanding of the words of Jesus: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell…” (Mark 9:43-47) Christ is speaking in hyperbole to show how serious he takes those inner spiritual struggles with temptation and sin which plague all humans. Note that all of these actions he commends are directed only against the self – never against others, sinners, unbelievers, etc. The spiritual warfare is working to establish the Kingdom of God within ourselves, it is never a war against others to impose biblical values on them.
St John of Kronstadt comments on the struggle—the spiritual warfare—which every Christian faces in life. He notes that if we don’t conquer the passions, they will tyrannize us, taking away our freedom and making us slaves to sin and death:
‘The Kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force‘ (St Matthew 11:12). If we do not daily strive to conquer the passions, which fight against us, and to gain the Kingdom of God in our heart, then the passions will tyrannically, forcibly take possession of us, will invade our soul like robbers; our attachments to earthly things will increase in proportion as our faith in heavenly blessings and love for them grows weaker and weaker; our love for God and our neighbor—will also grow weaker and weaker; we shall enjoy rest of conscience and peace of heart more and more seldom. We must struggle in the matter of the salvation of the soul, which is more precious than anything in the world; we must count everything earthly as dross, or as a phantom, a vision, and everything heavenly, above all, the Lord Himself—as truth itself, eternal, most blessed, and unchangeable. (MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 254)
The life of a Christian is spiritual warfare which lasts our entire life. It is why we need practice to prepare for this warfare, which is what true asceticism is. Denying the self, forgiving others, fasting, loving enemies, humbling oneself, considering others ahead of one’s self, asking forgiveness, charitably giving to others, confessing one’s sins, always being thankful to God in every circumstance – all of these are ways to overcome the passions which attempt to rule our lives.