Be Angry, but Do Not Sin: Hesychios on Spiritual Warfare and the Incensive Power of the Soul
Along with the humility, perfect attentiveness, and prayer, Hesychios discusses the importance of the “power of rebuttal” in spiritual warfare. In a previous post, I began to touch upon the importance of hatred of sin or one’s sinful thoughts for progress in spiritual life and as an essential aspect of a true and abiding love of God. Love of God and for that which is holy will lead us to hate sin or sinful thoughts and seek to set them aside as soon as they become evident to us.
This view, it may be helpful to know, arises out of a specific anthropology; an understanding of the powers of the human soul (the appetitive, intelligent, and incensive powers) based upon the tripartite division formulated by Plato in Book IV of his “Republic” and accepted by the Greek Christian Fathers. According to the glossary of the English translation of the Philokalia, the Appetitive aspect (epithymikon) is the soul’s desiring power, the Intelligent aspect or power (logistikon) is the ruling aspect of the intellect or its operative faculty and the Incensive power (thymikon), which often manifests itself as wrath or anger, but which can be more generally defined as the force provoking vehement feelings. The three aspects can be used positively, that is, in accordance with nature and as created by God, or negatively, that is, in a way contrary to nature and leading to sin. For instance, the Incensive Power can be used positively to repel demonic attacks or to intensify desire for God; but it can also, when not controlled, lead to self-indulgent, disruptive thought and action..." (Vol I, p. 358).
It is the incensive power of the soul that experiences extreme emotions. Thus, it can be positive or negative. The positive use of the incensive power is to repel evil thoughts or rebuke demonic attacks; that is, the power of rebuttal. To put it another way, we use the incensive power correctly when – and only when – we are angry at the things that anger God. However, having said this, the writers of the Philokalia are clear and consistent in stating that the incensive power was given to us as a defense against sin.
Here are two very good examples: Using the example of temptations to unchastity, Evagrios writes, “Our incensive power is also a good defence against this demon. When it is directed against evil thoughts of this kind, such power fills the demon with fear and destroys his designs. And this is the meaning of the statement: ‘Be angry, and do not sin’ (Ps. 4:4)” (On Discrimination, section 15, p. 47). To “be angry and not sin” is to be angry at sin, beginning within oneself. This is why St. Isaiah the Solitary could write, “Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.” (On Guarding the Intellect, section 1, p. 22)
The Fathers understand St. Paul well who wrote: "We wrestle not with flesh and blood..." The enemies whom we are to hate are not our fellow men, but the demonic and unnatural thoughts which attack our day-to-day lives. To these, the Fathers often applied the words of psalm 137: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” The "children of Babylon" are the actions born of hatred, of cowardice, of greed and lust, and all the ugly and unnatural thoughts one might have. We are to guard (nepsis) the heart and mind and with the sword of the incensive power drive our unnatural thoughts and temptations away.
Often we enter into the battle unarmed and Hesychios tells us that without prayer “we have no weapon to fight with. By this prayer I mean the prayer which is ever active in the inner shrine of the soul, and which by invoking Christ scourges and sears our secret enemy.” We must not be timid or passive in our response. Again, Hesychios writes: “The glance of your intellect should be quick and keen, able to perceive the invading demons. When you perceive one, you should at once rebut it, crushing it like the head of a serpent. At the same time, call imploringly to Christ, and you will experience God’s unseen help” (Philokalia, Vol. 1, p 165).
Trusting in Christ, humble, prayerful, and having silenced our hearts, we must ever be on the watch for the enemy. Hesychios provides the following image: “If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare, let that little animal, the spider, always be your example of stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be as still inn your intellect as you should be. The spider hunts small flies; but you will continually slay ‘the children of Babylon’ if during your struggle you are as still in your soul as is the spider; and in the course of this slaughter you will be blessed by the Holy Spirit” (166).
However, as noted above, while the writers of the Philokalia and Hesychios urge us on in the battle and encourage us to be zealous, they present us with one very important caveat. Although the incensive aspect of our soul is God-given in order to repel demonic attacks and to intensify our desire for God and His will, if not controlled and transformed by grace and ascetic practices, it can easily lead to self-indulgent and destructive thoughts and actions. And so, Hesychios tells us: “The incensive power by nature is prone to be destructive. If it is turned against demonic thoughts it destroys them; but if it is roused against people it then destroys good thoughts that are in us. In other words, the incensive power, although given as a weapon or a bow against evil thoughts, can be turned the other way and used to destroy good thoughts as well, for it destroys whatever it is directed against” (167).
We are to be “incensed” - enraged and infuriated toward all within us that is contrary to love and goodness and fearlessly and swiftly wield the sword against all unholy thoughts. But in the process we must avoid the temptation to raise this sword against another - the fruit of which is only malice and violence. Hesychios describes the danger with utmost clarity: “I have seen a spirited dog destroying equally both wolves and sheep” (167).