Two weeks ago, we explored Abba Isaac’s teaching that “worldly vices and concerns” often “assail” the soul. Isaac’s remedy? A focused, disciplined effort to draw the mind away from the distractions and passions that so easily weigh it down. In a nutshell, learning to pray entails clear thinking and wise living.

I remember one of my first Bible teacher’s definition of wisdom: “Wisdom is knowing how to live,” a knowledge grounded and flowing from our relationship with Christ. After all, it is Christ who created the world. Jesus knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to human life and human flourishing. He understands our hard-wiring, our spiritual, emotional, and physical DNA. If we attempt to live against the grain of the universe, we only end up scraped, bruised, frustrated, and disillusioned. Yes, as Patrick Henry Reardon puts it, “true life involves living in a particular way.”

Abba Isaac urges us to say “no” to those influences and appetites that we—in our most honest moments—know are choking our desire to love God and our neighbor. I can remember Jim Houston saying in a class at Regent College: “You can’t read Playboy and expect to have a fruitful prayer life.” Isaac would agree. He encourages us to say “yes” to concrete practices God has ordained for spiritual healing and growth: prayer, silence, solitude, meditation, worship, simplicity and service.

Habits are so quickly formed. Because of the nature of the central nervous system—what researchers call its plasticity—it takes only two or three choices to create a deeply habituated thought or action; if these choices are bad ones we create dead zones in the soul. Where once we were sensitive—light like a feather to the winds of God’s Spirit—we become resistant, hard, brittle, spiritually dull, heavy as a stone.

Happily, we can also make good choices through the power of the Spirit, and our soul’s dead zones can begin to reverberate with life. However, rare is the time when the Spirit automatically, instantly reverses the fallen, destructive tendencies we have created over time. The more normal means the Spirit uses to ignite spiritual healing and growth involve careful, honest analysis and the creation of a game plan for transformation—undertaken through the power of the Spirit and utilizing the means the Spirit has ordained for spiritual change and development (the classical spiritual disciplines). Isaac employs the issues of food, drink, and overindulgence to illustrate the problems bad habits can pose for our prayer life, topics we’ll explore in the next article.

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