We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
2 Corinthians 101:5
In many icons of the Nativity, Joseph is depicted in a lower corner of the icon, at a distance from the manger. It is as if Joseph is shown taking in the whole scene, alone with his thoughts, trying to process what is happening. Oftentimes, he is shown speaking to an older man. The older man represents the devil. If the devil was depicted carrying a pitchfork, with horns, and a sinister red face, Joseph would probably pay him no mind at all. However, in this depiction, the devil is an old man, like a grandfather. He looks like someone who is not only harmless, but can be trusted. We revere our grandparents, like they are never wrong. That’s why the devil is depicted in the way he is, because what he does is not so obvious. In the icon, the devil is not leading Joseph away by the hand, nor is he providing Joseph with instruments of destruction to create harm in the beautiful scene. No, he is talking to Joseph in the most subtle of ways, perhaps even with kind words, trying to distract him and to create doubt as he looks over the scene.
Why is this scene depicted in the icon of the Nativity? Because this makes the story more understandable actually. We have the glorious scene of the Nativity—Jesus in the manger, Mary His mother next to Him, shepherds and their adoration, angels lighting up the sky, Magi journeying and the bright, brilliant star guiding them to the perfect light. Can you put yourself in that scene? I can’t!
The figure I relate to most in the Nativity icon is Joseph. Sure, I’m present in church, I work there. I never miss a Sunday. I get to behold God’s glory both in worship and in ministry. Yet, I am still confused about the message and it’s place in the world today. I’m confused about why God allows bad things to happen in this world, in His church, and in my own life. And I am constantly tempted both with opportunities to sin and opportunities to doubt, and these temptations are from the devil. But many times they are not so obvious. The devil has never walked into my office with horns and a pitch-fork. Rather he comes in more subtle ways, the most subtle of which is in my own thoughts.
Before anyone can do an action, he or she must have a thought. A hand does not move on its own. The brain orders it to move. And the brain does not order the hand to move unless there is a purpose for the hand to move. My hands are moving as I am typing this message, but my brain is calling the shots, it is telling my hands which keys to press and which words to type.
If my thoughts somehow become negative, I might type out a “bad word,” but that isn’t happening because I’m controlling my thoughts. Any thought of writing something profane is tempered with the thought that many people read these messages and writing something profane will dishonor God and will drive people away from me and the messages I write.
We’ve all had bad thoughts—we have them every day. Let’s say that while I’m typing, I have a thought to walk across the street to the CVS near church and steal a candy bar. That thought in itself is not sinful because no actions are following the thought. If I get up from my desk and start walking, I still haven’t actually sinned, but I’ve put into motion some action that could lead to sin. I can also sin if I sit with the thought of stealing the candy bar for any amount of time. If I spend 30 minutes just sitting here daydreaming about stealing, that is also a sin, because now I’m being neglectful with the time.
The point today is that obedience to God is aided by getting control over our thoughts. Thoughts lead to actions. Negative thoughts lead to negative actions. Sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions. Positive thoughts lead to positive actions. Godly thoughts lead to Godly actions. And Godly actions lead us to God.
We are all busy. Like when we ask someone “how are you doing?” the most often stated response is “I’m really busy.” No matter how busy we are, however, we all have mental down time. I may be walking into an appointment in the office, or from my office to a meeting in another room and while this would qualify as “work”, I wouldn’t be mentally working necessarily while I’m walking. I have mental free time when I fall asleep or when I wake up. My mind is free while I’m eating, or showering, or getting dressed or shaving. There is plenty of time each day to think. Yes, some of those thoughts are about work, or what I’ll write, but many of them have nothing to do with work, with God, or with family. So the question for us today is, what do you occupy your thoughts with? What do you think about in your mental free time? Is your mind filled with negative thoughts? Do you let tempting thoughts ruminate in your head when they come in, or do you quickly push them out?
Again, what we do with our thoughts is important, because thoughts lead to actions, and our thoughts shape also who we are. Spiritual warfare is an Orthodox concept. If one wants to understand the concept, he or she only needs to look at Joseph and the old man (the devil). That man is not giving Joseph a gun and saying “let’s go rob a store together.” He is preying on Joseph’s mind, and he is hoping to create doubt and distraction. The battle for our actions is not fought with our hands. It is fought in our minds. And our first line of defense against the devil and the temptations that take us away from God is to control our thoughts. So, think about your thought patterns. What do you think about? And is what you think about Godly, or worldly; is it positive or negative; is it constructive or destructive, does it lead you towards God or farther from Him? Make sure as you are fighting this spiritual warfare, that you are nourishing your mind with positive and Godly thoughts, so that the devil does not win the battle for your mind, and that your positive and Godly thoughts leads you to positive and Godly actions.
As she carried in her womb what she conceived without seed, Mary went to Bethlehem, with elder Joseph to enroll, for they were of the house and the lineage of David. The time arrive for her to give birth to her Child; but then there was no place in the inn for them. Therefore the grottos served as a luxurious royal place to the Queen. And Christ the Lord is born, to raise the image which was formerly fallen. (Apolytikion, Forefeast of the Nativity, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: Are you good at taking your thoughts captive to obey Christ? How can you improve on this?