Orthopathy- the struggle with our passions

[This is a response to Tony’s Protestant view of orthopathy.]

A friend recently told me a story about a Protestant man visiting an Orthodox Church. During his conversation with the priest he was suddenly, but graciously, interrupted by the priest. The priest told him he needed to take a break from their conversation because it was time for him to pray and he invited the visitor to join him. The Protestant man stood amazed as the priest poured out his heart in earnest prayer before the icon of Christ. What may have previously been assumed as rote ritualism now holds tangible purpose in the mind and heart of the visitor as he wrestled with his own lack of intense personal prayer.

While many acts of  piety including the disciplines of the faith are often foreign to Protestants, there is no shortage of examples in scripture that continue throughout the early Church. Life is a struggle and the Orthodox Church continues this emphasis on disciplines like prayer and repentance as we strive against the passions. Orthodox Christians follow a Church calendar that grounds us in the events of Jesus’ and the saints’ lives with regular periods of fasting and intentional liturgies and prayers for help and strength. Daily we must take up our cross to follow Christ and deny ourselves as we seek to develop orthopathy.

What is orthopathy?

The term orthopathy comes from the Greek words ορθώς (right, correct, upright) + πάθος (passions, affections) and includes sexual desire, anger, fear, love, hunger, & a host of others.

Due to the fall the likeness of God is marred and we are polluted by sin resulting in an inclination toward self-love. St. Augustine comments on this tendency when he uses the term “incurvatus in se” (the turning inward on oneself), highlighting our propensity toward ego-centrism rather than love of God and others.

Many of the passions we experience feel pleasurable and natural, but they must be kept in check since they are capable of causing spiritual suffering resulting in deleterious effects on our relationship with God and others. Gluttony, pride, lust, anger, avarice, and host of others pull us away from God.

There is nothing wrong with our desire for food or sex, but they must remain within a divinely ordained context as defined by scripture and Church tradition. The struggle with our passions are difficult and real! There are no simple answers to the complexity of the human condition and the passions that entangle our lives. Many struggle with the same passions their entire lives while asking God to remove their desire for those sins. What we learn through this process is to rely on God who gives us the strength to endure.

I agree with my friend Tony’s point that we need a “reorientation of emotion [and] this requires an understanding that emotions are an intrinsic component of the Christian life.” The word ’emotion’ is often viewed in narrow terms and should be broadened to include passions or affections.

I want to advance the discussion by pointing out that we cannot have right passions until we adhere to right belief and right practice. Orthodox Christianity emphasizes three interconnected and necessary areas of the Christian life: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, & orthopathy. All three are instrumental components in directing a person according to God’s desired end- union with God. As St. Peter says, that we may become ‘partakers of the divine’ (2 Peter 1:4).

Right belief/worship (orthodoxy) propels us toward right practice (orthopraxy), which reins in and transforms our passions and affections (orthopathy) for His glory! So often we are unbalanced or negligent in fully incorporating all three aspects.

Saint Anthony tells us that life is a struggle with the passions in our pursuit of honoring God. He says, “it’s not a sin to eat, so that the body will be properly maintained in life without any evil thought, but it is to eat without gratitude and improperly and without restraint; neither is it a sin to look with chastity, but it is a sin to look with envy, pride and desire; it is not a sin to listen quietly, but it is with anger. It’s not a sin to let the tongue be unrestrained in thanksgiving and prayer, but it is to speak evil; to not let your hands do acts of mercy, but to commit murder and theft. So each of our members sins if it does evil instead of good, doing things its own way and not according to the will of God.”

May God help us in our struggle!


As Christians we are called to fight our passions but sin has made the struggle difficult. Humanity is sick and we were never created to live in this state. Unlike many in the West (Catholics refute this teaching so I am referring primarily to Protestant denominations) that adhere to a teaching of total depravity and the use of legal terminology like penal substitution, the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that humanity is ill and a natural result of this sickness is sin and our struggle with passions. Our true nature is to be healed by God.

We are called to love God and our neighbor and embody the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Our spiritual sickness makes this difficult and the way to attain these fruits is through repentance which leads to true healing and the implementation of the disciplines for a life of struggle.

St. Peter tells us, “Gird up the loins of your mind… not conforming yourselves to the former lusts but … you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:13-15). “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul… submit yourself to every ordinance… ” (1 Peter 2:11, 13).

Orthopathy indicates a fundamental orientation regarding ourselves and our relationship with God and the world. This life, Jesus tells us, is not meant to be egocentric but one of love for the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind; and, loving our neighbor as ourselves (Lk. 10:27).

Abba Evagrius states, “What a man loves, that he certainly desires; and what he desires, that he strives to obtain.”

St. Innocent of Alasksa also writes, “Every individual instinctively strives for happiness. This desire has been implanted in our nature by the Creator Himself, and therefore it is not sinful. But it is important to understand that in this temporary life it is impossible to find full happiness, because that comes from God and cannot be attained without Him. Only He, who is the Ultimate Good and the Source of all Good, can quench our thirst for happiness.”

Consider how our affections are often manipulated. Our culture is saturated with entertainment and driven by our freedom to pursue our passions. Public spaces like shopping malls or advertising on TV are designed to capitalize on our desires. James K. A. Smith notes that these methods of marketing essentially function as liturgies that shape our affection. How much more should Christians be regularly involved in the Orthodox liturgies and prayers that strengthen us spiritually!?

As Orthodox Christians we practice many disciplines in order to ‘rein in’ our passions. The knotted prayer rope (komboskini) is often utilized by Orthodox Christians to keep our minds focused during prayer. Many Orthodox Christians participate in the daily prayer rhythms (orthos, 3rd, 6th, & 9th hour, vespers, etc.). The Jesus Prayer is perhaps the most popular and succinct Orthodox prayer: “Lord Jesus, Son of God have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Praying with prayer rope


Other disciplines like confession with your priest provides us with spiritual guidance and accountability. Alms-giving helps to loosen the bonds of avarice. Fasting (from food, sex, entertainment, or other vices) is designed to keep our gluttonous appetites in check.

The didache (διδαχή) which means ‘the teaching’ contains additional information about fasting. It is also referred to as The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. In chapter 8 of this 1st century document it states that the Jews fast on Monday and Thursday, but the early Christian Church fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. Orthodox Christians continue this practice by fasting from meat and dairy. We also fast for longer periods of time, like Nativity (Nov. 15th- Dec. 24th) and Great Lent, or shorter periods throughout the year to commemorate significant events in Church history (More information on the disciplines will be provided in a subsequent blog.)

Living a life focused on orthopathy emphasizes the reality of various ‘doors’ to our hearts that can influence our affections/passions. Things we see, hear, and touch can affect us. If the sights, sounds, and touches we are allowing are producing affections contrary to right belief and practice then it is not aiding in our process of theosis (a soteriological and sanctifying movement toward unity with God).

Elder Ephraim the Philotheite encourages us, “Struggle, my child, for God’s road is narrow and thorny; not inherently, but because of our passions. Since we want to eradicate from our heart the passions, which are like thorny roots, so that we may plant useful plants, naturally we shall toil greatly and our hands will bleed and our face will sweat. Sometimes even despair will overcome us, seeing roots and passions everywhere!”

If we deny the necessity of right affections/passions then we are left vulnerable to influence from external sources and remain spiritually unbalanced. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to emphasize the triad of spiritual life. Right belief about God, ourselves, and neighbors (orthodoxy) helps to inform right practice in our lives (orthopraxy) which further contextualizes our passions (orthopathy). As we endeavor to live this Christian life let us be passionate for God and remain vigilant to strive against the passions that so easily entangle our flesh.

*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue or follow Here.

Photo credit: upsplash, Nathan Dumlao


One thought on “Orthopathy- the struggle with our passions

  1. Pingback: Orthopathy: Developing the Interior Life – Catholic Theology and Philosophy

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