Sunday, November 28, 2021

Discouragement from Habitual Sin

Do you struggle with discouragement from habitual sin? For many Catholics this is a huge problem. There is a pattern we tend to fall into: we do well for a while, but when faced with temptation we give in and sin. The sin brings apathy, a sense of "Well, I already blew it, what's the use in trying?" So you go into a slump—your prayer life suffers, you keep committing the same sin over again (because you already messed up, so what does it matter?), and you get apathetic. Maybe a week goes by. Maybe a month. You feel like a slob, spiritually and in other respects. Eventually you are so unhappy and angry with your life that you rouse yourself; you say, "I have to get right with God." You go to confession and lay your soul bare before a confessor. He gives you some good advice, you repent tearfully, receive absolution, and go out rejoicing, resolved to do better this time. You are grateful for God's mercy and kindness at giving you another shot and things go well for you spiritually. Things continue this way for a time—maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months—until you get complacent, get tempted, and fall again. Then the cycle repeats. Year after year after year. Maybe decade after decade.

This can be frustrating in the short term, but the long term consequences are more dire. Repetition of this pattern over many years can lead us down a dark path, the steps of which include:

  • Acedia (spiritual sloth): "It's inevitable I'm going to commit serious sin sooner or later so there's no point trying to make spiritual progress."

  • Distraction: Unhealthy focus or preoccupation with just "that one sin" such that you ignore other important aspects of your spiritual life (see USC, "Distraction of That One Sin").

  • Resentment: Simmering bitterness towards God. "It is unfair of God to prohibit something I am unable to restrain myself from doing. It puts me in an impossible position."

  • Blindness: Inability to see the working of grace in ones own life.

  • Dulling of Conscience: Having accepted the inevitability of certain sins, one's conscience dulls to them; we get used to that sin or at least to the idea of living with the sin.

  • More Time Outside of Grace: The lengths of time we perceive ourselves to be in a state of mortal sin grow longer and longer; the times we are disposed to receive Communion grow shorter and fewer, until they are like small islands of grace in a vast sea of sin.

  • Loss of charity: A gradual hardening of heart takes over. We become jaded and angry, impatient with ourselves and others. The very ideas of spiritual progress, grace, etc. seem like jokes.

  • Loss of Hope: "At the rate this is going, It'll be a miracle if I make Purgatory." 

  • Despair: "How can I—or anyone—possibly avoid going to Hell? The vast majority of us are simply doomed." 

  • Loss of Faith: You no longer perceive the issue as your problem, but as a problem with the faith itself. "The Catholic religion doesn't work. It only gives me stress and anxiety. This system simply can't be the truth. I can no longer assent to this."

As we can see, discouragement at habitual sin can create a slow decline that ultimately leads to loss of faith. It is good to recall that Satan is in this for the long haul; while individual sins certainly matter, the devil aiming bigger than that; he is trying to create an overall trajectory in our life that leads us away from God. He is attacking us tactically, while we tend to get bogged down in the bushes, unable to see the forest for the trees.

Do you recognize this pattern in your life? Even if you are not to the point of despair or loss of faith, does any of this sound familiar? It very well may. I've been here for sure. And so have many Catholics, for whom the pattern above is the reality of their spiritual life. Not all will eventually lose faith, of course; people walk spiral down this vortex to varying degrees. Many of us have been (or are on) this path somewhere.

So what's the way out? The real problem is that "Try harder next time" and like advice doesn't seem to help. Most have been struggling every way we know how to free ourselves from habitual sin for years. Some eventually have victory; many don't. Is there a better way?

We ultimately need to reframe how we look at this problem, and it starts with revisiting the idea of "winning" and "losing" against temptation. When we are tempted, we are thrown into a spiritual battle, a battle we can either win or lose. But when do we win or lose—at what point is a particular spiritual conflict won, or conversely, at what point is it lost? Most of us will answer that the battle is won when we pass on without committing the sin, and that it is lost if we commit the sin we are struggling with. How many of us, after fighting with a temptation, fail to persevere and then think, "Well, I lost that battle", or something similar?

While it's true that victory of temptation is a "win", it is not always true that committing the sin is a "loss", at least in a certain sense. What I mean is this: thinking "I lost that battle" implies that the spiritual battle is over once you have committed the sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. What happens after we sin is just as important. The battle isn't just whether you will sin; it is how you will respond to the victory or failure. If you have victory, will you become complacent and idle? If you are defeated, will you become discouraged, fall into a slump, and go down the slope described above? The battle after the sin is pivotal, as it determines whether you will be solidified in a certain spiritual "trajectory."

Therefore, when you commit a habitual sin, rather than thinking, "I've lost again", or "I blew it", or "There's no point in praying or trying now that I'm already in a state of sin", instead think, "The battle is not over. I am moving into a new stage of the battle. I can still win." Even if you have sinned, your prayers still matter. God is still just as invested in helping you. You don't need to throw in the towel. You don't need to beat yourself up; focusing excessively on your own failures is itself a trap of pride. The battle has not ended; I can have victory at any time if I choose God now in this moment. The moment of grace was not at some place in the past when you were struggling between light and darkness; the moment of grace is now; it is always now. All you have to do is strike now and you win. Every time. The victories will be varied and the journey will be bumpy, but you'll get to where you want to go. Where you are heading is more important than whether the road you are on has potholes. It's not so much whether you hit potholes; it's whether the potholes eventually cause you to give up and turn around. 

Maybe this is nothing new. I am certainly not promising any breakthroughs. But I am sharing something that has been extremely helpful to me in my own spiritual life. Realizing that the battle does not end if I sin, that the moment of grace is now, and that as long as I seek God in any given moment I always win have been transformational principles. Perhaps they will be of some help to you as well.

Happy Advent brethren

Related: "Christ Will Give You Victory" (Jan. 2019, USC)


English Catholic said...

Thanks, this is good stuff.

I could write much here. I've also found the discouragement that comes from a decades-long habitual sin (laziness) to be far more dangerous than the sin itself. Thankfully, the discouragement is much easier to fight than the habit.

The 'try harder next time' advice, along with the associated (metaphorical) self-flagellation, makes things worse. It leaves me hating myself, exacerbating the laziness and driving me further from God. Typically I find that speaking kindly to myself, and focussing on God's mercy instead of His justice, makes me more likely to overcome the sin. If I make an act of hope and/or charity, and prayerfully consider the fact that Christ shed His Blood for me, not just for humanity in the abstract, I also find that helpful in overcoming both the habitual sin and the discouragement.

I also agree that focusing on the now helps; dwelling on past sins, even if not yet confessed, is toxic.

Anonymous said...

I had this problem with pornography and self-abuse. It got pretty bad, since I could not seem to go even a month without falling and mostly, a month was a long stretch. This went on for years, too. At times, even in prayer, I was distracted by impure thoughts.

Some things that I think helped me:

St. Terese of Lisieux's writings on God's love. People think she is kind of a girly-saint and not particularly serious. I find her to be one of the strongest-souled people I have ever read.

I focused on my prayer life. I resolved to never skip my prayers, no matter what state I was in. Daily prayers and daily rosary. I "made a deal" with Our Lady, that if she would help me, I'd never give it up. So far, She has, and I haven't. So I would turn to prayer even immediately after falling. No excuses, no skipping, and no failing. (Though, of course, I am not perfect even there...)

The trials of those in the Bible. They had to go through a lot. I figured that if God was big enough to forgive my sins, then maybe He allowed me my failings for other reasons; developing humility, persistence, sympathy for others, faith, etc. An easy win would only increase my pride, and my "contempt" for other sinners. That really came down on me once, when reading about the failings of priests in the area of purity. I was enjoying minor success at that time, and I got really angry with them, "Why can't they knock it off! don't they know what they are doing?!" etc. Not surprisingly, I fell again almost immediately. That gave me a lot to think about how this is not my project, but rather God's. I needed to do my part of course, but without Him I would always fail.

I also had the thought that I had completely given myself over to this vice for the first half of my adult life. I had heard that sometimes God gives us as many opportunities to fight off temptation as we had sought out to sin. If that applied in my case, I had well over 15+ years of struggle ahead of me. So I had to be in it for the long haul.

Believe it or not, it has been just about 15 years of a hard fight to get past this vice. But I have pretty much been free of it for almost a year now. Some moderate temptations, but nothing too bad so far. I am certainly not saying that I have won, by any means. I am well aware that I could fall again this evening. I have to trust God that I won't, and keep up the struggle.

But I would like all of you to keep up both your Faith and your Fight. If God be with us, who can be against us? God does not want you to sin, and He will give you every grace to overcome your faults. But it is on His time and according to His plan. Your only responsibility is to always get back up and keep trying.

Anonymous said...

Totally relate. Been there, done that (er, still there, rather pathetically).

Something that's helped me greatly: keep a crucifix in every room and look at it when the serpent of temptation strikes. At that moment, the poison has entered, but death is not yet certain, and Christ on the cross is the fulfillment of the bronze serpent on the pole, of which was written, "whoever was bitten and looked upon the bronze serpent would live."

Also, check out the "Spiritual Combat," by Fr. Lorenzo di Scupoli (it's available free online; see link below, and no I'm not affiliated). While Fr. Lorenzo isn't a saint -- yet! -- St. Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church and renowned master of the spiritual life, claimed that the "Spiritual Combat" was an invaluable aid in his own spiritual life.

Within the first few chapters of the "Spiritual Combat", Fr. Lorenzo skewers the oh-so-popular "Try harder" advice and replaces it with a far more practical regimen consisting in four simple (but exceedingly challenging) principles: Absolute distrust of self, absolute trust in God, proper use of our faculties, and a perseverance in our duty of prayer. Disclaimer: Fr. Lorenzo recommends a spiritual director to help tailor the challenges of this book to the individual soul. That said, if you're sick of sin, Fr. Lorenzo's bluntness cuts through rationalization of sin like a breath of fresh air.

Here's a link for the chapter on what to do "when wounded" (i.e. having sinned)

Merry Christmas! *Oremus pro invicem* (let's pray for each other).

Anonymous said...

I had a realization once that the only person who is surprised when I sin is me. God knows how feeble we are and that we suffer tremendously from the sickness of sin. He is always waiting for us in the confessional with open arms and Heart. Every time we come to Him there after a fall He gives us the medicine that we need to chip away at our sins, vices and faults. In the process we grow in humility and see and accept how dependent we are on God. We learn that we are powerless to overcome sin on our own and in desperate need of a savior.