Two stories come to mind when thinking about a Christian’s protracted struggle with sin. One is about a woman who goes to Confession, and, with frustration tells her priest, “Well, Father, I feel a little bit embarrassed. I’m here again to confess the same three sins.” Without pausing the good reverend replies, “Would you feel better if you had some new sins to confess?”
The second story involves a holy man and his disciple living several centuries ago in an isolated desert region. The young man has left everything and earnestly wants to be like the holy man but finds that he has a daily struggle with lust. In frustration, after about a month, he tells the saintly man about his turmoil and asks him if the temptation of fornication ever goes away. After a long pause in an effort to choose the right words, his mentor says, “Yes, that temptation does go away. Three days after they put you in the ground.”
The teaching of the Catholic Church recognizes the stubbornness of sin in our lives and anticipates a life-long battle with it. At Baptism “all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin… Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence…” (CCC #1263, 64).
No one articulated the struggle with concupiscence better than the apostle Paul: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self. But I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7: 21-25 RSV).
As someone who has served in leadership positions in evangelical, evangelical-charismatic, and Catholic circles, I’ve noticed a certain pattern over the years in people that were under my care. After initial conversion and Baptism, they had an admirable level of discipleship and eschewed many sinful behaviors and bad habits in an effort to stay on the straight and narrow. However, the influence of the Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Envy, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Greed, and Sloth—had not entirely vacated the premises of their heart and some fault-line(s) in their character had become a major source of frustration.
Out of this frustration they often turn to a formulaic approach to resolve the issue: Read the Bible, pray, attend church services, read a certain Christian book, see a Christian counselor and the problem will go away. In my experience this canned approach is more prevalent in evangelical and evangelical-charismatic churches than in Catholic circles with the former having sermon and book titles often beginning with “Five Keys,” “Four Steps,” or “Three Ways.” The Christian life becomes a problem to be solved rather than a Mystery to be lived and the parishioner’s frustration is compounded when their faults and weaknesses remain even after doing the prescribed formula.
This is a crucial juncture in their journey. One response is to re-double their efforts and persist in working the same formula or add something to the old formula to make it more effective. It’s also common for believers to hear a variety of false voices that, though diverse, have a common agenda: disengage the person from spiritual disciplines and the Sacraments. Knowing the origin of the voices, whether human or demonic, is not nearly as important as recognizing their deception and embracing the voice of the Holy Spirit who speaks to us through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
The voice of false pragmatism says, “Hey, what you’re doing isn’t working. You still have a drinking problem. Why not make a clean sweep, start over, and just go to AA meetings until you get your bearings? The religious stuff isn’t working for you.” A false therapeutic voice so common in our culture will say, “Don’t jettison spiritual disciplines and the Sacraments but only do them when you feel like it. This way you’ll be acting out of your authentic self.” A similar yet different false voice says, “This religious stuff isn’t the real you. It hasn’t helped you with your problem. You feel God more out in nature than at Mass. It’s time to get back to the real you.”
When the formulas aren’t working, a voice of false humility often emerges: “You call yourself a Catholic but look at your life. Look at the hole you punched in your master bedroom wall during your last outburst of anger. Look at the adult websites you visited last month. If you stopped being a practicing Catholic, at least you’d be less hypocritical.” There’s often a strong element of shame in this voice that leads to hiding. What did Adam and Eve do after their fall from grace? They hid. The part of shame that tells us that we have sinned is good; the part that encourages us to hide is not.
These voices make me think of a man who has planted an apple tree in his backyard. The tree has enough exposure to the sun. He’s taken great care in watering, fertilizing, and pruning it and has carefully placed a layer of mulch around it. In the third year the tree begins to produce fruit but in the fourth year some of the fruit is being damaged by a certain species of aphid. While he is researching on what to do about the aphids, he decides to stop watering, fertilizing, pruning, and mulching because such actions are not removing the pests. The tree eventually dies.
When we neglect or abandon spiritual disciplines and the Sacraments because our formulaic approach to our spiritual lives hasn’t eradicated every fault (aphid) and weakness, our foolishness can have more deleterious and tragic consequences than the death of a mere tree. I heard a Catholic priest say once that many spiritual obituaries of his fellow priests begin with the words “Father stopped praying.”
The Catholic, with the besetting sin, should remember that both Augustine and Aquinas taught that, in relation to his creatures, mercy is God’s greatest attribute. He or she should call to mind some of the things that Christ himself told St. Faustina about mercy:
Souls that make an appeal to my mercy delight me. To such souls I grant even more graces than they ask. I cannot punish the greatest sinner if he makes an appeal to my compassion.
Tell aching mankind to snuggle close to my merciful heart, and I will fill it with peace.
There’s no expiration date on his forgiveness in this life, no limit to the number of times you can go to Confession: a tsunami of mercy awaits you. Keep going to Confession; keep going to Mass; keep praying the Rosary and don’t give up even though you ate an entire cookie sheet of brownies yesterday and are still noticeably “green around the gills” towards a co-worker who got the promotion you wanted. As Churchill told the British people during WWII, “Never, never, never, never give up.” We’re all, in one sense or another, bad Catholics, and to be a practicing Catholic merely means that we keep practicing until we get it right.
The believer should also be reminded that a lot of good can come out of a long struggle with sin. St. Therese of the Child Jesus, echoing John of the Cross, said, “the love of God turns to profit all that he finds in me, the good as well as the bad.” St. Augustine quotes St. Paul, “Everything works together for good to those who love God,” and adds Etiam peccata: “even sins.” Perhaps these are some of the things that the Bishop of Hippo had in mind:
Stubborn faults and weaknesses encourage us to jettison the formulaic approach. When a sin persists in our lives, we feel out of control. Formulas are often embraced to make us feel more in control. After a while, though, we throw up our hands and say, “This is not working!” Now a good transition can take place from relating to God as a Cosmic Vending Machine (“Do the prescribed formula and get the desired result”) to the Living God who is full of mystery, paradox, and unpredictability (Remember: Yahweh commanded a prophet to marry a prostitute. See Hosea 1:2-4). Aslan is good but he is not safe. This epiphany creates fertile soil for what Jean Pierre de Caussade calls an “abandonment to Divine Providence.” Since we are frail, contingent beings who can’t control much in our lives, we may as well put our lives in the hands of the God who sustains all things by the word of his power (Heb 1:3).
A long struggle with sin can humble the believer. Father Jacques Philippe opines that “we have a deeply rooted tendency toward pride that makes it difficult for us, and even impossible, to do good without appropriating a little of it for ourselves…” Humility is the foundation of the Christian life. It’s the poor in spirit who inherit the kingdom of God, the ones who know they are morally and spiritually bankrupt apart from the tender mercies of God: “…apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). A sustained battle with our weaknesses can bring us to that holy precinct where our strength ends and the grace of God begins.
Those who have had a protracted struggle with some fault often have compassion for others. Compassion is the constant companion of humility. How can we self-righteously judge others with some besetting sin when we too have had our stumbles? Those who are forgiven much love much. In fact, over the years, I’ve seen a pattern where those who struggled with a particular sin end up helping those with the same problem. Henri Nouwen called these people “wounded healers.” AA is a good example of this dynamic as are many Christian-based programs for recovery from addiction. Jesus called forth Lazarus from the tomb (a symbol of regeneration following conversion/Baptism) but he needed people to remove his grave clothes (a symbol of helping others with their fallen tendencies). Somebody reading this may have the ministry of removing grave clothes and not even know it.
Those who have wrestled with a chronic weakness often experience a greater intimacy with God because of the experience. I’ll never forget a devout evangelical woman telling me about her long battle with fault and weakness. She grew up in an emotionally unhealthy family and carried that legacy into her marriage. After several years of ups and downs, detours, dead ends, three steps forward, two steps back, her marriage and family situation is now in good shape. She told me that a greater intimacy with God was cultivated through the experience that she thinks would not have occurred had she worked through her issues quickly. She became more united to God by wrestling with him like Jacob did on the ford called Jabbok. A strong bond had been forged because God had seen her at her worst, warts and all, and had not forsaken her.
The believer who has a long battle with some fault-line in their character often learns warfare. Judges 3:1-4 tells us that God allowed certain enemy nations (e.g., Philistia) to remain in the land so that Israel would learn warfare. God wanted his people battle-tested. The enemies we fight aren’t the Philistines, Canaanites, and Sidonians; it’s the world, the flesh, and the devil. Macarius, the great monk writing in the fourth century, contends that God could’ve insulated us from this battle in a cocoon of grace, but we would’ve grown arrogant in our perpetual sanctity. And it’s in this experience of falling and getting back up that alcoholics learn H.A.L.T., an acronym that reminds them that they are more susceptible to excessive drinking when they are hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired. Of course it would’ve been better if they never had become addicted to drink, but God is able to redeem even their lost years.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” painted by Pompeo Batoni in 1773.