Have you ever had a sin you just couldn’t shake? A pet sin–trivial or serious–that seemed to follow you into the confessional, stalking you day and night without end.
A sin you were tired of confessing over and over again–something that made you wonder whether you would ever be free. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know that it’s hard to find hope. It’s hard to feel like anything other than a prisoner.
Fighting sin is exhausting. Trust me, I know. It makes us feel shackled sometimes, wanting to grow and move on but still held back by the part of us that isn’t quite ready, that part of us that would rather wander than rest in God. And we want to rest in God, sure, but we’re stuck. We’re not strong enough. Can we ever shake this?
If you’re feeling enslaved to sin, first thing’s first: Our God is a God of mercy. He can–and has–made beautiful things out of the darkest of hearts. You’re never too far gone.
Look at St. Augustine of Hippo. In his autobiography, Confessions, St. Augustine chronicles his wanderings and struggles with temptation and lust, looking back on God’s presence even in his darkest moments.
“The god I worshipped was my own delusion,” Augustine comments, “and if I tried to find in it a place to rest my burden, there was nothing there to uphold it… I was still my own unhappy prisoner, unable to live in such a state yet powerless to escape from it.”
As Augustine grew into young adulthood, God continued seeking him out. Little by little, Augustine’s heart changed and soon he pursued God wholeheartedly, realizing that He had been with him all along. Despite the change of heart, though, a battle was still waging inside Augustine’s soul. Habits of indulgence were so rooted in his life that he found it hard to break free, to follow God like he knew he should do. He wanted to be with God. He wanted to rest. But, as Jesus Himself noted, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
So how did Augustine win? How did he leave behind a life of lust and selfishness? How did a sinner become a saint? Well, it all came down to a decision.
God reached down to the depths of Augustine’s darkness and gave him an escape from his chains. “The weight I carried was the habit of the flesh. But Your memory remained with me and I had no doubt at all that You were the one to whom I should cling.” With that certainty fresh in his mind, Augustine decided.
He carried around this pull of the flesh, even after he knew God. But that didn’t mean he was a slave. That didn’t mean these sins defined him. He was still free to choose. And that’s exactly what he did.
Augustine chose to love God. Maybe some days it was easier than others, but it was still a daily act of the will. With a habitual seeking of God, Augustine’s habits no longer chained him, but rather freed him to strive for virtue daily. And the cool thing? We’re called to make that same daily decision. We’re called to be saints, too.
Holiness Down to Your Grey Matter
So once we’ve decided to follow Christ, how do we start fresh? How do we make good upon our commitment in the confessional to “sin no more”?
The answer is virtue. Virtue, like Augustine shows us, is a daily decision, a habitual action of choosing the good. When we’re trying to break free from sin, part of the battle is us taking a stand, saying, “I’m done!” But the fruit of this continual decision, the thing that brings us to the doorstep of victory, is virtue. Over time, saying no to sin and yes to God becomes easier!
Holiness must extend even down to our grey matter. Every neuron in our brain should fire for the good. If we have good habits, then choosing God becomes less of an inner catastrophe, and more of a natural tendency. Just as sin can rewire our brain and change the way we tend to react, virtue can rewire us for greatness.
So if we’ve made a stand and decided we’re done with wandering, it’s now up to us to act, to put into practice this decision daily.
You’re Not Strong Enough
These two steps are great, but they’re not enough. There’s still some big questions: What if I’m not strong enough? What if that’s not enough to shake this?
The truth is… it’s not. We are not strong enough. A decision and good habits can only get us so far. We’re not strong enough to beat this… but God is.
No amount of willpower and determination can save us if we lack Him. God is the key to any attempt to break free. He is the only One strong enough to rip our shackles to shreds and stand between us and Satan. He is the only one who has stared death in the eye and won. If we’re trying to escape this prison, we can’t do it without His help.
So rather than asking for the strength, let’s humble ourselves. Let’s realize that we’re not strong, and we never will be. We need God. We need others. We need help outside of ourselves, and sometimes that comes from priests, friends, parents, mentors, teachers, or a professional. And…that’s okay; we were not made to wage this war alone.
Let’s put this out of our hands, and into His. It’s only in a complete surrender that God can start to fight this battle for us. We can’t do this by ourselves. But God? He won this war long ago.
In the words of St. Augustine:
Do not let the din of your folly deafen the ears of your heart. For the Word himself calls you to return. In him is the place of peace that cannot be disturbed, and he will not withhold himself from your love unless you withhold your love from him…. All that is withered in you will be made to thrive again. All you sickness will be healed.