In my last article I contrasted public sin and private sin. However, I felt like I wasn’t able to give proper attention to the latter as I was to the former. So allow me to expand on my reflections here.
All sin is bad and must be removed from our lives. But not all sin is the same. There are distinctions in types of sins such as mortal and venial. And we explored last time the distinction between public and private sin. Public sin carries with it the extra burden of scandal which can create significant problems in the Church. But the problem of private sin is that it tends to be secret and so it festers.
I don’t know about you, but I often find it difficult to relate to a vice that is not my own. If I don’t struggle with some temptation, it seems so foreign to me. For example, I’ve never been really tempted to drugs or alcohol. The old ‘80’s slogan “Just Say No” worked perfectly well for me and I could not understand why anyone would say “yes” to those things. But if you were to bring up the vice of laziness, I would be right there with you, understanding the compunction to sit around and not do the work God has set before me. I am not usually an angry person, so it is hard for me to feel empathy with people who struggle with their temper. My first reaction is usually “Why do you have to be so angry?” But then when my mom got sick, I was constantly filled with a rage I didn’t know where to direct. This anger would often express itself in unfair and unhealthy ways.
The reason I bring this up is that I think we sometimes feel trapped in our secret vices. We are so afraid that other people would either judge us or wouldn’t understand. In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the main character, Binx, has a long conversation with his saintly brother Lonnie. While having a conversation, Lonnie talks about his deep struggles with envy. Binx cannot understand why this struggle is such a big deal for Lonnie. Perhaps we struggle with gambling but feel like no one would understand. Maybe we fall into the sin of pornography and are afraid of the judgmental stare of others.
And because of this, secret sins fester. I used the analogy of disease in my last article and it is an apt one. If we ignore the symptoms of illness, the problem will not go away. In fact, it will get worse and worse over time. There are generally two responses to persistent private sin. The first is that the person becomes consumed with guilt because they are acutely aware of their own inability to turn away from sin and live the way Christ wants us to. The second alternative is to avoid the guilt by suppressing the conscience. You can see this at large in society where things that have been considered sins for centuries are embraced as lifestyle choices.
So what is to be done?
This should be the number one answer to all of our problems in life. We can do nothing without the grace of God. Prayer is the great medicine to our spiritual ill. It invites the Great Physician into our lives to cure our sickness.
Some of you may be saying to yourself, “I’ve been praying about this sin for years, but nothing has changed.” First of all, change isn’t always something which is easily seen. Perhaps prayers has prevented you from falling into the sin even worse. Or perhaps you have grown but have trouble gauging your progress. Remember, God is the one who sees all ends. Maybe he has let you struggle with this sin so that you don’t fall into worse sins. CS Lewis always points out that the chief sin is pride. I have written before about how our struggles may be teaching us humility. I wrote in a previous article “Our failures teach us that we ARE failures without God.”
Second, prayer, while necessary, is not always sufficient. There are other things that we need to do to allow God’s grace to overcome the darkness in us.
Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas emphasize that what we do affects who we are. In life, we must acquire virtue, which is done through developing habits good to the soul. Vices come in through bad habits. These do not have to be outward actions but can also be inward choices. For example, maybe whenever your spouse comes home from shopping and forgets something you immediately react in your mind by thinking about how this shows how little they care about you or how thoughtless they are about your needs. If you always do this, it will become second nature and it will put strain on the love in this marriage.
What we have to do is change the way we do things. In the above example, if you feel the unpleasant thoughts surfacing, take an opportunity to focus on something more positive. By no means am I suggesting that you ignore or suppress your feelings. This could lead to greater problems down the road. Instead, I am suggesting that it might be better to turn your thoughts to charity. Perhaps think of a time that you forgot something on the grocery list and imagine how you would want forgiveness.
Sometimes the changes are not of things that are bad in and of themselves, but are things that lead to badness. I found that I was gossiping with my coworkers quite a bit at lunch. I don’t fault them as much as my own need to be the focus of conversation. So now I eat lunch alone. Perhaps one day I can rejoin them if this vice gets under control. Perhaps you struggle with envy when you watch one of the Real Housewives shows. Maybe cutting that program out of your life will help. Maybe watching the news fills you with anger or despair. Maybe take a break from the media and focus on God.
Receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation often is essential to overcoming sin. We must constantly throw ourselves into God’s mercy. However, to really receive the full benefit, we should find a spiritual director who can hold us accountable.
The private nature of secret sin means that we can ignore it, and as we mentioned already, this will cause it to take deeper root in our lives. The great wisdom of our Lord in setting up the sacrament is that we have to name our sins out loud. This makes them real and we cannot ignore them.
Sometimes someone other than a spiritual director can be an accountability partner. Be very careful about sharing this part of your soul with another. If the person shares your vice, you may be nurturing this sin with each other by discussing it in depth. CS Lewis discovered this when he spoke freely about his sexual proclivities with his best friend Arthur Greeves.
The second issue is that you have to be careful about who you trust. I had a former student who once shared a very embarrassing secret vice with his best friend. This friend later in a fit of intoxication shared this sin with several people. The third is that you have to be careful you are not hurting the person with whom you are sharing. I once listened to a speaker who said that husbands who struggle with pornography should not choose their wives to be their accountability partners because it causes too much emotional distress to the wives and thus makes the men more likely to keep the sin a secret.
A good spiritual director will be able to help keep the lines of communication open, be able to evaluate your progress (or lack thereof), and will encourage honesty and accountability.
The spiritual life is a great mystery and much of what is said here are only the preliminary steps. But with the grace of God, His Light will drive out all darkness.
Copyright 2019, WL Grayson