One of the most frustrating and depressing things that many Christians experience is the problem of persistent sin. There are those of us who live sinful lives and then have a miraculous encounter with Christ and leave those sins behind. But there are many of us who begin a relationship with the Lord and find ourselves still in the thralls of a habitual sin.
For some of us, we want to stop gossiping, but we can’t. For others, we find ourselves in the thrall of drugs or alcohol. Or maybe we constantly give in to our tempers at the slightest provocation. And in this technologically advanced age, many are habitually chained to the sin of pornography.
The guilt that we feel over these sins is real and it is made all the worse by the constant pricking of our conscience We know what is right and we still continue to fall into this sin. And we pray and pray, but we don’t seem to be making any real progress.
But couldn’t God deliver me from this sin? Isn’t it within his power?
I remember reading in St. Faustina’s diary that the Blessed Mother appeared to her and presented her with a mystical golden sash that, when worn, would remove from her all temptations of lust. I remember being a young man and reading that thinking, “Why can’t I get one of those?”
And yet many of us keep waiting to turn the corner and find that one final piece of enlightenment that will place everything into place and we can finally put our sins behind us for good. But that day never seems to come.
So why does God let me persist in my sin?
Maybe God is allowing your sin to persist for a reason.
First, it should be said that we have an obligation to do all that we can to repent of our sins and live of a life of virtue. This is especially true of mortal sins. Let nothing in what is written here be taken as a softening of that obligation. There is no compromise with sin in our lives. It must be completely eradicated in every corner of our souls.
But why doesn’t God answer my prayer to make me stop sinning?
God does answer all prayers. But it is important to remember that God does not want people who do certain things but instead he wants people of a certain kind. A man who doesn’t cheat on his wife has not broken the rules of marriage. But that in and of itself is not what a wife wants; she wants a husband who loves her (and that is why he will not cheat).
God wants people of a certain kind. And that kind of people are those who know that they need God. Now, many of us who struggle with the same sins day after day and year after year might say that we know that we need God already. Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps the constant failure is God’s way of reminding us that we are powerless to save ourselves. Experience, especially the experience of failure, can be the most profound teacher there is.
It is not in my own efforts that I will find victory, but in the grace of Jesus. And it is something that I must rely on constantly. If I did not experience moments of victory and moments of failure, I might conclude that turning away from sin was a singular event rather than a decision that I must re-choose every day. When a couple makes vows at the wedding, it is an important moment, but this is not the end of the vows. Instead, the couple must recommit to these vows every day, especially when they fail to live up to them. When I screw up as a husband, I ask for forgiveness and I remember that I need to ask God for help to be a good husband every morning.
CS Lewis put it this way (please excuse the extended quote, but I think it is worth the length): “We may , indeed, be sure the perfect chastity – like perfect charity – will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or even less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teach us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.” (Mere Christianity, Bk III, Ch. 5, par. 12).
Our failures teach us that we ARE failures without God.
If we overcome our sin too quickly, we may also quickly fall under the illusion that it was MY effort that was the key. And then we become susceptible to the worst vice of all Pride. Lewis wrote, “You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” (Mere Christianity, Bk III, Ch. 8, par. 3)
We need to learn humility. It is the only antidote to the truly deadly sin of pride. When we are tormented by our habitual sins, we at least know that we are in no place to lord it over anyone else. We are low and we feel it. Perhaps God allows this so that we can understand our sinfulness and weakness in a profound way and not give simple lip-service to it. Maybe the reason we haven’t overcome our sin is that we would turn into self-righteous prigs if we did so at this stage of spiritual development.
Maybe we have not overcome our sins because we haven’t learned the most important truth.
We can’t overcome our sins.
Christ must do it in us.
That doesn’t mean that we are merely passive. When Jesus fed the five thousand, He told the disciples to give the crowds food to eat. But they had only five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus multiplied the food. But He insisted that the disciples give that food of theirs, which was all that they had.
We must give over every ounce of our will, every power of our intellect, and every drop of our affections to overcome our sins. But in the end, it will never be enough.
But Christ can take the five barley loaves and two fish of our lives and multiply into something better. He can take our broken selves and save us.
© W.L.Grayson, 2017