For some time now I have been feeling guilty because I still occasionally feel the desire to sin. I still sometimes feel pride or lust or the need for vengeance towards those who have hurt me in the past. And sometimes when things aren’t going my way, I sometimes feel like turning around from the path God asked me to walk. I wanted to say, ‘To hell with all this! You’re not real. None of this is real.’
It happens in a split-second, then I would remember that pride and lust and the desire for vengeance would undermine the progress I’ve made. So I would stop. When pride comes, I think of how horrible I used to be, and that if not for the grace of God I would be (un)merrily continuing down that path of glorifying the human ego. When lust comes, I imagine a future when I make cupcakes for my children who are created out of love not lust. When the desire for vengeance comes, I think of the Christian duty to love one’s neighbor.
Of course, I could give in to the chance to sin and just go to confession afterwards, but then I know I would feel doubly guilty after that because I know I can fight my tendency towards sin. I don’t mean this like the way we are told to pray to God to help us resist sin during times of temptation. I mean, when the chance to sin is before me, I can calmly choose to give in or not; like when a piece of fattening food is before me, I can make a decision whether I can afford (diet-wise) to consume this food or not.
Thus, you might say, in the words of Aristotle, I am continent, i.e. I can control myself but the desire is still there.
Like I said, I felt guilty about this. If we are supposed to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect, I thought this meant we are supposed to be virtuous in the way Aristotle defined perfect human virtue, i.e. not simply continent but also without the desire to do vicious acts. I thought I had to find a way to completely remove my tendency towards pride, lust and vengeance.
If only I was not born with the tendency towards these three sins, I could succeed. For instance, some people are not born with an angry nature or a tendency to gossip. I don’t have these tendencies so these are sins which I do not worry about.
I thought I had to find a way to change my nature. For a while I prayed to God to make me perfect. I thought I was succeeding, then the temptation to sin arrived so strongly that I gave in. I remember saying to God, ‘Just this once, please,’ then my mind shut Him out.
After sinning, I lay very still like a person defeated – but then I was actually defeated, wasn’t I? I wondered why that happened after I had struggled so hard to be perfect. It was like God said to the devil, ‘All right. I’ll sit far away. I’ll still cheer for her victory, but I’ll be away up in the cheap seats while you stand close to her and whisper that temptation to sin.’
I understand now that God allowed this to happen because He wanted me to understand that humans are weak. I cannot expect to be completely perfect, but in His mercy he gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation which led me towards this rather interesting side trip.
After that incident, I started to ask God to make me as perfect as a human being can be perfect. If I cannot be as perfect as God, then at least I would approximate God for didn’t Christ say we should be perfect like the Father?
Silly me. For a while I prayed to God to make me as perfect as possible, to be near-perfect. I thought that was what it meant to be perfect like the Father.
But there was a flaw in my thinking. I thought perfection is a permanent state, that once achieved you will never be imperfect again. This incorrect way of thinking led to my frustration because there will be a series of days when I felt great for I never once felt the temptation to sin. I would think that I had achieved perfection, then without warning the temptation would come. The desire to sin is still in me. I could fight it but what I wanted was to permanently shake it off. I did not know how to achieve this. I asked God, but He did not answer.
Then one day, after feeling so sad about my flawed state and how I constantly failed God, I realized that perfection cannot be a permanent state. I must always work at it. If I am by nature a sinner, then I must constantly work to overcome this temptation to sin. Like the ballerina who always attends company class, or the soldier who constantly trains. It doesn’t matter whether they have already exhibited perfection during their previous performances or deployment. As long as we are in this fallen world and in these weak human bodies we must constantly strive to be perfect.
It is possible to say at the same time that humans are imperfect but must become perfect as the Father is perfect. We start with the state of imperfection which is our natural tendency, but, unlike the animals which have no reason, we can jump over this imperfection to become perfect.
Thus, we will always struggle with the tendency towards sin, but within that split-second between temptation and action is a choice: to sin or not to sin.
This is how the seemingly inconsistent truths of the Catholic Church come together: our sinful human nature, the duty to be as perfect as the Father, and free will.
A tickle of pride or lust or vengeance knocks on my heart. Do I let it in or do I reject it? Human beings constantly hover between virtue and vice, between the Divine and the animal. We can jump up to virtue or allow ourselves to sink down to vice. It’s funny when you think about it. Jumping requires effort while sinking simply requires letting go. Either way, both decisions require a choice.
I do not have to feel sad about my flawed state because this is what it means to be human. I have not failed God simply because I still feel the desire to sin; rather, it’s what I choose to do that matters. I would have failed God if I chose to sin, but He would delight in me if I chose otherwise.
And to help us constantly make the right choice, God sends us help in the form of the Sacraments. Daily Mass, a habit I started because I didn’t want to go home to face my sadness, has become a source of comfort. I used to attend Mass and go through the motions, but all the while I would think of sinful thoughts. Now I go and listen to the words. My favorite part of the Mass is when the priest says, ‘Welcome them into the light of Your face.’
I had a taste of that light during the times when I rejected God and replaced Him with Ancient Greek philosophy. Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Human virtue and achievement. There was something in my disposition which made me want the spine-tingling experience of those things.
I am slowly moving away from the paganism of Plato and Aristotle. I loved those guys – still do – but God is using them as a stepping stone to lead me towards a greater truth.