Overcoming Habits of Sin

Homily, Advent Sunday 2C

Of all the sports I got involved with back when I was still in school, I would have to say that basketball was always my favorite to play, even though I probably wasn’t the best at it. And of all the sports I played, basketball was also one of the most demanding and most clearly disciplined. Every undesirable action had a clear consequence. Every missed free-throw, every missed layup, every stolen ball or intercepted pass corresponded to a certain number of laps at the end of practice. And if we weren’t hustling, running as fast as we could during practice, we would have more running to do at the end. Every undesirable action had a clear consequence that would be felt, in order to motivate greater effort, mental toughness, building skills and virtues.

I’ve been wondering lately whether we don’t make much progress in our spiritual lives because we don’t make use of any clear plan involving real consequences. Discipline, training, from which we get the word “discipleship” is a good thing in just a very basic sense, and if we think what it means to be an adult is to finally be without discipline, we’re really missing out on a lot of opportunity for continued growth. If discipline is just a tool for parents to train their children, or for coaches to train athletes, if we’ve lived a very undisciplined life just because we don’t have someone actively on our case or breathing down our necks, we’re likely to have lots of hills and valleys, winding roads that need to be straightened out in us.

Scripture often talks about the need to receive the discipline of Wisdom, the training that comes from the Word of God. Jesus Himself tells us to take His yoke upon us and to learn from Him, to be trained by Him. So when it comes to our sins and habits of sin, perhaps things that we’ve struggled with for years and years, do we have any real plan to work against them? To level those hills and fill in the valleys of our own words and actions? When we’re dealing with real disorder in our hearts, with strongholds of sin and evil spirits, we’re not gonna make any progress just playing patty cake, wishing away our bad habits. Moving hills, filling in valleys, and straightening roads doesn’t happen with just ‘positive thinking.’ It takes digging, dragging, working, and being held accountable. We need to allow ourselves to really feel the consequences of our sins so that we’ll learn to avoid them.

What does this look like? Let’s say there’s one sin in particular you want to really work on overcoming. Maybe it’s gossip and detraction or bullying, maybe it’s eating or drinking too much, maybe it’s pornography or using our time at work for things unrelated to our work, maybe it’s missing Mass on Sundays or days of obligation. Whatever it is, you decide not only that you’re going to go to Confession regularly—to be accountable to God and His Church, and to receive the grace and strength that come from God—but you also decide that you’re going to take on an additional penance whenever you fall into that sin. Something that you will actually feel, something that will make you uncomfortable, an actual inconvenience.

So maybe you give up your favorite food for the following three days. Or you don’t use the Internet on your phone for three days. Or you wake up early, or go to bed early for the next three days, or do a certain number of pushups or sit-ups, whenever you fall into the sin that you are trying to overcome. If we really stayed consistent with imposing these consequences on ourselves, do you think it might motivate a change in our behavior? Now to keep ourselves consistent and following through on our resolutions, it is extremely helpful, if not essential, to have someone else checking in with us, keeping us accountable. And they don’t necessarily need to know what behavior or sin we are trying to overcome, but just to hold us to the consequences that we’ve chosen.

Any progress in overcoming sin in our lives is made possible by the grace of Jesus Christ who offered everything on the Cross for our salvation. But grace is not magic. Grace does not do violence to our human nature. It calls for real cooperation at every level of our existence, including the fundamental benefits of discipline and training, imposing consequences that we actually experience as negative and difficult things, when we find ourselves continuing to choose what we should not choose. As we continue this Advent season, Jesus offers us His yoke to refresh us, His discipline and training to set us free. What are we really willing to do to prepare the way of the Lord, to truly repent and turn our backs on the sins that have enslaved us? Come, Lord Jesus. Come and set us free.

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