Self-control in Difficult Straits and the Transformational Power of Prayer


In Andrew A. Lubusko’s 2006 dissertation on self-control and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, he notes that fatigue, emotional stress, and cognitive overload are primary factors in self-control failure. When we are tired, we become less aware of ourselves and what we are doing. When we are anxious, we are too worried about the future to be concerned with controlling ourselves in the present. When we are depressed, we are often so wrapped up in our past failures that present goals, such as self-control, seem pointless. And when we are thinking about solving this issue or that, how can we have mental energy left over to solve the problem of ourselves in the present moment. Clearly, being tired, upset, and distracted are psychological states that make continued self-control in the face of temptations difficult and perhaps in the long run impossible. And in contemporary life, such conditions are almost our default state, an unavoidable part of the fabric of human life. So what are we to do when we desire self-control, but find ourselves too tired, too anxious, too depressed, or too overwhelmed to control anything, much less ourselves?

Common sense tells us to get rested, calm down, and set aside our cares. Easier said then done. And clearly just spoiling ourselves with food, drink, and other forms of pleasure is not the answer, for these external fixes to inner problems can only compound our difficulties. In fact, for the impulsive person such diversionary activity can be dangerous and destructive, eventually providing even more reasons for being anxious, depressed, and tired, making impulsivity that much more likely. In the end, our diversions into various pleasures only serve to mask the fatigue, emotional stress, and cognitive overload of the moment. We become desensitized to our real inner condition and thus unaware of how much we harm ourselves. Without the capacity to experience physical pain provided by our nervous system, we would find ourselves crippled or dead in short order. The same is true for our sensitivity to our inner world and soul.

While physical fatigue may be alleviated by a good night sleep, even that sleep flees from us in face of anxiety, depression, and the stress of a thousand problems waiting for resolution. Behaviorists will rightly point out that diet, proper exercise, and recreation can help us get more balanced, but unless we deal with the inner causes of our condition, we will never really be free, nor able to positively influence our condition. What, then, can we do?
To the fearful and sorrowing, to those “troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41), to those “that labour and are heavy laden,” (Matthew 11:28), there is Someone who can “satisfy the weary soul and replenish the sorrowful soul” (Jeremiah 31:25), and ultimately “give us rest”(Matthew 11:28). There is one Person who can change our inner state and give us the freedom we desire and that Person is Christ. Rather than focusing on what is causing fatigue, stress, and cognitive overload that does not allow us to remain in control, the fathers suggest focusing on Christ and letting Him have control over our hearts, bringing us rest, the assurance of His care, and trust that He will take care of our tomorrow if we give Him our today. And one simple, yet powerful, way to do this is through the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

In an excerpt from A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos recalls his conversation with a hermit on Mount Athos concerning the salutary benefits of the Jesus prayer, “We do not try to guide the nous (noetic faculty) to absolute nothingness through the Jesus prayer, but to turn it to the heart and bring the grace of God into the soul, from where it will spread to the body also.” In another passage, he relates the benefit of the Jesus prayer in the midst of exhaustion, “Half an hour of the Jesus prayer is worth as much as three hours of deep sleep. The Jesus prayer, once it has reached a certain level, rests and calms us. So, even from this point of view, it is an invigorating physiological remedy.” We may be too tired to read prayers or read Scripture, but we often have the strength still to call out, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” again and again. And doing so, Christ comes to us, calms us, and refreshes us. We receive strength from His strength. And behold, we who are weak go “from strength to strength” (Psalm 84:7). And when we rest, our rest is that much deeper, because it is in Him.

In his book On Prayer, Saint Paisios the Athonite reminds us, “We should constantly and unceasingly repeat the Jesus prayer. Only the name of Christ must remain inside our heart and mind; when we neglect our prayer, that is our communication with God, the devil finds the chance to confuse us with negative thoughts. Thus, we end up not knowing what we want, do, or say. The soul must be constantly ready and alert and always in contact with the spiritual headquarters, that is, God. Only then, it will feel secure, full of hope and joy. When I was in the army, during the war, I was a radio operator. I noticed that we felt secure only when we communicated with the Army Division on an hourly basis. When our communication was limited to every two hours, we felt a little bit insecure; sometimes, when we could only be in touch with them twice a day, we felt uncomfortable, lonely and lost. The same thing applies to our prayer. The more we pray, the more secure we feel, on a spiritual basis, of course. When someone is involved in manual labor, it helps him a lot to say the Jesus prayer and at the same time perform his task. When someone is doing work that needs concentration, i.e. he is driving a car, or he is operating on a patient, he should also say the Jesus prayer so God can help him and enlighten him; however, he should pray with his heart, and use his mind to concentrate on his work and thus avoid doing any mistakes. The more the mind concentrates on praying, and is being humbled, the more it is enlightened by the grace of God. However, the more it gets dispersed and confused due to its haughtiness, the more it becomes troubled; therefore our mind, which is clean by nature, fills up with dirty thoughts.”

There is a way out of the morass of fatigue, emotional stress, and cognitive overload. And that Way is the Truth and the Life. We are offered something so much greater than not being tired, not being depressed, not being anxious, and not being overwhelmed. We are offered the fullness of life, the possibility of holiness, and the peace of God. We are offered Christ Himself. His yoke is sweetness and light. The moment we turn to Christ, our lives change. Our external circumstances may remain the same, but we have changed by virtue of the One Who abides in our hearts, Who carries our burdens, and Who gives us rest. Then doing the right thing in the face of temptation becomes easier, because we have Him to guide us in His peace, joy, and ineffable care for all of us.

Rdr Andreas Moran2/22/2016 3:39 pm
Excellent article with which one can readily identify. It reminds me of what my late spiritual father, Bishop Irenaeos, said: 'We sin sometimes because we do not have confidence in God’s consoling love. We think He is distant and silent. We seek immediate consolation in physical ways and in worldly things. The gratification of our passions, though, is not true consolation and does not console but only deepens our anxiety. We should not give in to great anxiety and worry – this shows a lack of trust in God.'
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