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Habitual Sin

October 20, 2012

In the last blog post, I noted, “When we give into the temptations of the devil repeatedly, those ways of reacting become ingrained habits and then no devil is necessary to continue to entice us, we entice ourselves.”  This is an important notion for each of us to ponder. There is a precious period of time before giving into sin when our will inclines either in the seemingly easy direction of the temptation or in the Gospel’s seemingly more arduous call to virtue. If we are not constantly struggling to root out sinful habits, if we are not watchful over our will, that period time decreases until the moment seems to vanish altogether. And when that moment is lost, our will is lost with it. There is no longer a need for the tempter to tempt, for temptation and act are no longer separated. They have become one within us and even more tragically with us. We do what the devil on his own does not have the power to do: we enslave ourselves by our own bad habits and our own proclivity toward habitual sin.  In order to root out such sin, we need to re-acquire that lost moment before sin, so that we can discern temptations as temptations and again exert our freedom of choice. Saint Neilus the Ascetic notes, “Habit leads to a set disposition, and this in turn becomes what may be called ‘second nature’; and it is hard to shift and alter nature.” How then can we return to that state of the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God?  According to the Saint, this can only be done “through prolonged effort” and by “retracing our steps, abandoning our bad habits, and returning to the state of virtue we possessed when we first made our renunciation” (PG 79.785).

“Retracing our steps” means looking back at all the factors surrounding our sin, both spacially and temporally, both inwardly and externally, and then seeing what we can change to alter that habitual sin. This may require radical steps: we may have to make hard decisions about our friendships, about our pastimes, about our career, and about other aspects of our lives in order to grow spiritually. By retracing our steps, we try to recover that moment of freedom in which the will can choose the good. Retracing our steps also enables us to be aware and watchful when the surroundings and circumstances are such that we can be tempted. This increased awareness and sensitivity, the very heart of watchfulness, will also help us to find that moment in which, even with our weakened will, we still have a spark of freedom that by a longing prayer from the heart and by the grace of God can be fanned into a burning flame of His love. This retracing our steps, however, is not something to be done once, but must be done again and again, for as the Saint notes, only through a prolonged effort can nature be altered and bad habits be abandoned. Finally, we need to return in our mind to our first renunciation, which for monks means their tonsure and for all other Christians their baptismal vows. This should be explicit. We should affirm in prayer, “Yes, I renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his angels, and all his service and all his pride” and “I spit on him.” “Yes, I unite myself to Christ and believe in Him as King and God.” We should affirm this in action by the mystery of confession; we should affirm this in thought by a life of watchfulness.

The good news that the fathers teach is that freedom lost, like paradise lost, can through union with Christ also be regained, albeit with much effort. To begin that process, we must be completely honest with ourselves and confess habitual sins for what they are-our own spiritual default setting to which we return whenever the circumstances of life warrant a return to what is all too familiar and what has come to feel comfortable.  Yet, in truth what is all too familiar and what has come to feel comfortable is nothing less than sin-it’s what keeps us from a true relationship with God.

Habitual sin is the result of thoughts that are present, but no longer perceived. By self-examination on a daily basis, however, sinful actions can be discerned and the initial thoughts brought to light. With work, those thoughts can be observed, but not acted upon. When one reaches that phase, the habitual sins becomes again just a temptation to sin, which by the grace of Christ can be overcome. With that victory, the Christian reacquires that pristine nature that reflects the image of God and comes to know the peace, calmness, gladness, and joy that only the habit of virtue can bestow.

  1. Wow…I love your blog in general, but this is an exceptionally useful writing. Thank you very much, as I’ve incorporated several sentences/concepts in my daily examination “checklist” of sorts. The daily examination guidelines are great for a contemplative time in a daily review, but I’m hoping to find something more simplified and abbreviated than a full daily review which can assist in on the spot discernment in “the precious time between giving into sin or the seemingly more arduous call to virtue”? Is there anything you can suggest?

    • Thank you for your kind words about the blog. Yes, the daily examination is really important for making progress. I think it is best to do a general, comprehensive review from time to time in order to uncover one’s main difficulty. Different people have different areas where their struggle is more intense. With some, the issue is anger. With others, it is being critical of others. With others still, it is lust. Saint John Chrysostom and other fathers advise locating the passion that is the chief stumbling block and then working primarily, though not exclusively, with that. In other words, once one knows where one’s main battle lies, one can do a more specific review focused on that passion. I hope this is of some help.

      Fr. Alexis

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