So You Sinned: Thoughts on How to Not Do That
I’ve talked some recently about issues surrounding, in particular, habitual and “Come to Jesus” types of sins, and I’ve encouraged people to seek out confession and to pray for the theological virtues. And I still do. However, I also wanted to address the issues of sin on a more practical level. Because, while the doing the right thing involves knowing what it is and if we are doing it and grace, we must support all of those components with our own cooperating actions. Even and especially when those actions seem futile, because they help us to get a little bit closer to acting virtuously each time.
So firstly, this: learn to feel sorrow for your sins in the right way. I know that when I first read the saints’ writings like The Story of a Soul or the Diary of St. Faustina, I was hyper aware of their awareness of their most minor sins and deep sorrow of how they had wounded Our Lord. This is actually a good thing, but only when it is grounded on their own deep knowledge of God’s loving mercy as it is extended towards them, and only when it is coupled with their own profound love of God that would allow them to see the smallest slight against the one they loved as a marring of the intended perfection of their love for Him.
Following the admonition to “Know Thyself,” though, I am not yet such a saint. I am still working on getting it—knowing and believing that there is a love that could extend so deeply to me even as I turn away from the one who is loving me. That I can feel sorrow for hurting Someone and He is the one who is there to comfort me. Yet, to feel sorrow without recognition of mercy is ultimately not repentance but scrupulousity. It takes practice to balance the both/and notion of seeing the reality of things and responding appropriately to them in justice, while at the same time I am seeing the the diffusive mercy that God offers me at the moment of recognition, in order to restore me.
After all, part of the reason I need mercy to begin with is that the most penitent apology coming from my own power isn’t enough to compel God to have mercy on me. Only the free act of His love can offer me mercy, though I will only receive that mercy to the degree that I am disposed to accept it. I am not saying we shouldn’t feel sorrow at sinning, since that sorrow is the proper response and what will dispose us to receiving mercy, but it cannot be the sorrow of one who despairs. It must be a sorrow that fuses itself to our hope, resting in the promise that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” Sorrow without hope, after all, is despair. And the only sins God will fail to have mercy on are the sins we fail to confess.
Secondly, let go of your pride and ask for help. Ask for help in the confessional, and for more spacific support, as for help from a spiritual director, and maybe even a close friend. All sin is hard to stop. Confession, in which the priest acts in persona Christi as a minister of Grace, is essential because it allows us to restore our union with God. Because Christ gave us this sacrament, in part, I suppose, because it gave us concrete knowledge that we had been forgiven. Confess as close to sinning as possible, and go to confession often, particularly for the grave matter habitual sins. If you want to stop sinning and it is possible to drop by Confession multiple times a week, do it. Ask for the grace and then go as often as you can.
Nevertheless, in order to truly combat the more ingrained habitual sins, we need support before we sin, too. This is where a good, holy spiritual director can come in handy. They can, in coming to know you, offer very specific suggestions for your life that will help you to recognize the whole context which supports that sin. Maybe that context that supports sin is being on the internet after a certain time, or leaving too close to the time you go to work and guarantees road rage. Whatever it is, as they come to know you better, a spiritual director can provided prudent, objective insight into how you can prevent it.
If you aren’t able to find a spiritual director (and even if you are) you might also want to enlist the help of a trustworthy friend or two. Be honest with them. That’s easier to say than to do; I know because I have asked friends for help a time or two. It means taking a big dose of humility and letting down the mask of who you want everyone to think you are, revealing to them the darker, likely more shameful, aspects of your character. No one wants to look bad. But sometimes, in being honest with a good friend, we can find the love and support we need of someone who deeply wants us to be the best, holiest person we can be. They can be people we turn to in temptation, or who can provide hope when we fall, or encouragement when we are continuing on in our struggle. They can celebrate with us when God helps us to over come the sin a little bit more. It’s hard to trust people with those parts of ourselves, but fighting sin is hard to do in isolation, and often times simply not being alone in it gives us the beginnings of hope.
Thirdly, seek out the root causes of sin. Sin isn’t normally something we make a completely random act of the will to do. It isn’t as if the spiritual state of a person is completely separate from the psychology of the person. A book I was recently recommended by a friend is Be Healed by Bob Schuchts. Now, I’m not one for self-help books, but this is more of a guide of practical spiritual and psychological practices to help people understand why they are sinning and what to do about it, both according to nature and grace working in cooperation. So if you can ignore the title and cover art, I highly recommend that book. But even if you don’t use it, you can still use the basic practice of asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to you how your most external sins trace back their roots to the Seven Deadly Sins of Pride, Sloth, Greed, Lust, Wrath, Gluttony, and Envy. Sometimes it’s obvious which is the overarching area of sin, sometimes it’s not. So spend some time in prayer about it. As you trace it back to the root, begin to ask the Spirit to reveal how that kind of sin became a problem. Was there a moment you decided to believe “no one could ever love me” or “I will always be alone”? Considering the psychology as well as the spiritual allows you to work with God to find authentic healing.
Fourthly, as you come to recognize the roots of the sin, don’t just root them up in a vacuum. If you don’t replace them with anything, well, we tend to abhor vacuums and the vacuum those sins leave will fill up just as easily with other sins if we don’t find a better alternative. Practices might be spiritual: reading spiritual reading at night rather than being online, or pausing to mutter a Hail Mary before you light off on your friend. They might also be natural: calling a friend to avoid feeling lonely and to talk out your anxiety or going out on public dates rather than just watching Netflix in the dark all the time. You probably will end up with a mix of habits on both levels if you take this seriously, which ultimately makes sense. But don’t just say “no” to sin. “Just say no” is one of those ideas that never works out as well as we hope, becuase humans don’t just do things to avoid consequences. We do things for the sake of achieving something as well. So work to find a good, virtuous end to focus on and direct your effort towards, rather than just simply denying everything you think you want. Few of us have the strength to only resist. Sometimes we need to receive something too, so make sure what you are receiving is the fruit of virtuous actions.
Fifthly, learn to laugh at yourself, after you have been able to feel true remorse. The worst way most of us can respond to true, heartfelt sorrow is to dwell on it beyond what remorse would ask. When you only focus on your failure, it becomes tempting to lose sight of the mercy and the love. It can be a stronghold for Satan to whisper more lies. Continue to confess, but also learn to not be anxious in anything. A way to do that is by not taking yourself so seriously.
So, to get personal, one way I struggle is getting anxious. When I get that way, I tend to lash out in anger at people around me. Afterwards, I always feel awful about how I treated people. But if I continue to only focus on that, I lose sight of how they and God love me despite my sin against them. So to avoid the loop of “I did this awful thing, I must be the worst human ever,” I try to apologize and make restitution if needed, get to confession ASAP, and after that, I try to laugh with God about it. I’ll make a joke about needing more grace, or about how He needs to give me like a cosmic censor bleep at the rate I’m going. It’s corny, but it helps me to take myself less seriously and humble myself enough to accept His mercy.
After all, if you get too anxious about all the ways you’re messing up how you are being Catholic and messing up being human and relating to others in an imperfect way, it doesn’t make you any holier. It just makes you anxious.
Lastly, don’t forget to frequent the sacraments and prayer. Confess: early and often. Go to Mass and frequently receive the Eucharist, the heart of the Christian life, and if you cannot receive, go to adoration and make a spiritual communion. Pray constantly. Short mental prayers. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy is a sustained, yet shorter prayer that orients us towards seeking mercy. The Rosary is good to fight temptations as well. I personally have been (at the advice of a friend) working to incorporate the Divine Office into my daily prayer life, because it is the prayer of the whole People of God, that is, the Church. Praying just morning and evening prayer allow me the ability to begin and end my day with an orientation towards Christ and His salvific action, and the hope I have in Him. It also is a great lead in to focused mental prayer.
All in all, sinning sucks. It’s something I hope to stop doing, sooner rather than later. But, my sin is not who I am, and it does not have to determine who I will be. So, havehope. And give some of these practices a try as you work to cooperate with the grace God is giving you. If you have any other suggestions on how to fight sin, please leave them in the comments below, so that we can all gain more understanding of how we can grow in holiness as memebers of Christ’s Church.
This post originally appeared at the Eating Peaches Blog at Patheos. It has been republished with permission.