OVERCOMING HABITUAL SIN(S) - March 27, 2023by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher
Many people who come to Confession confess the same, or very similar, sins every time they confess; furthermore, as a preamble to the confession, the person will admit they are just confessing the same things over and over every time they come to Confession. What can a person do to break this cycle of repetitious sin, if they are truly repentant and want to change?
Consider these words from a true Orthodox spiritual guide.
“Some say that we fall into the same sins because we have been unable to correct our former sins through the inadequacy of our repentance. But it may be asked: Have all those who have not fallen into the same kind of sin really repented as they should? Some fall into the same sins either because they have sunk into a deep forgetfulness of their former sins, or because they imagine in their own pleasure-loving way that God is merciful, or they have lost all hope of their own salvation. I do not know whether anyone will blame me if I say that their trouble arises because they have not been strong enough to bind the foe who is dominating them through the tyranny of habit.” (St. John of the Ladder, 26.171; emphasis mine)
Those struggling with the same sins, who are truly trying to repent and turn from sins, do not excuse or justify their sins out of forgetfulness, or the notion of God’s cheap mercy, or despair of being beyond salvation. Persons who are repentant yet continually commit the same sins are bound by sins that have become habitual. Until we understand the causes and conditions of habitual sin, we will never be able to undo its grasp on us. First, St. John of the Ladder provides the conditions.
5.29: “Previous habit often tyrannizes even over him that mourns (for his sin). And no wonder! The account of the judgment of God and our falls is shrouded in darkness, and it is impossible to know which are the falls that come from carelessness, and which from providential abandonment, and which from God’s turning away from us.”
* Habitual sin flourishes in carelessness, in God testing our resolve amid life’s circumstances, and God’s punishment leaving us to our own devices.
5.30: “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly, the angel who guards you will honor your patience. While a wound is still fresh and warm, it is easy to heal; but old, neglected, and festering ones are hard to cure, and require for their care much treatment, cutting, plastering, and cauterization. Many from long neglect become incurable, but with God all things are possible.”
* Habitual sin must be patiently addressed every day as a doctor treats wounds; the longer left untreated, habitual sin eventually becomes almost uncurable.
5.31: “Before our fall, the demons say that God is a friend of man; but after the fall, that He is inexorable.”
* The demons encourage habitual sin by removing the need for repentance and correction, both by promising easy forgiveness before sin is committed, and by promising no forgiveness because the sin was committed again.
5.32: “After your fall, do not believe him who says to you of small shortcomings: ‘If only you had not done that great fault! But this is nothing in comparison.’ Often small gifts appease the great anger of the Judge.”
* Habitual sins oftentimes persist because we consider them minor, or inconsequential. Next, importantly, consider the causes of habitual sin, because in understanding the causes, a person can begin to undo the grasp of habitual sin. First, we must understand how sin develops.
“Assault is a conception, or an image of something encountered for the first time, which has entered the heart. Converse is conversation with what has presented itself, accompanied by passion or dispassion. And consent is the bending of the soul to what has been presented to it, accompanied by delight. But captivity is a forcible and involuntary rape of the heart, or a permanent association with what has been encountered which destroys the good order of our condition. Struggle is power equal to the attacking force, which is either victorious or else suffers defeat according to the soul’s desire. Passion is pre-eminently that which for a long time nestles with persistence in the soul, forming therein a habit, as it were, by the soul’s long-standing association with it, since the soul of its own free and proper choice clings to it…But passion is unequivocally condemned in every case, and demands either corresponding repentance or future punishment. Therefore, he who regards the first assault dispassionately cuts off at a single blow all the rest which follow.” (St. John of the Ladder, 15.74)
Another word for habitual sin is passion, the final stage in the process of developing sin. Sin begins with an assault, a suggestion, and proceeds by conversation with that suggestion either according or contrary to the nature of the thing encountered. If such conversation is contrary to nature, that is, contrary to God’s design, the soul may consent to such converse with pleasure leading to a disruption of the heart’s condition. If a person does not struggle to return to a condition of purity of heart, they give in to the condition of impure pleasure which becomes settled in the heart forming a passion, or habitual sin.
“We have turned the constituent qualities of nature into passions. For instance, nature gives us the seed for childbearing, but we have perverted this for fornication. Nature provides us with the means of showing anger against the serpent (i.e., the devil), but we have used this against our neighbor. Nature inspires us to be zealous for the virtues, but we are zealous in evil. It is natural for the soul to desire glory, but the glory on high. It is natural to be arrogant, but against the demons. Joy is also natural to us, but a joy on account of the Lord and the welfare of our neighbor. Nature has also given us resentment, but to be used against the enemies of the soul. We have received a desire for pleasure, but not for profligacy.” (St. John of the Ladder, 26.156)
Habitual sin is the persistent improper use, that is, misuse, of what we encounter in life. We do this from two primary motivations: self-will (vainglory and pride) and self-gratification (satisfying one’s own pleasures). Thus habitual sin consists of thoughts and actions normalized to express one’s own importance and to result in one’s own delight. The insidious nature of habitual sin is that the passions are oftentimes unrecognized and unconsciously done because they have become second nature to a person through long practice.
Of course, the remedy consists of the opposites: humility and obedience. Humility is a recognition of one’s inadequacy, ignorance, and need before God and others, and obedience is the desire to please God in the careful examination and keeping of His ways.
Here is how humility manifests itself. “The first and paramount property of this excellent and admirable trinity (i.e., repentance, pure mourning, and humility) is the acceptance of indignity with the greatest pleasure, when the soul receives it with outstretched hands and welcomes it as something that relieves and cauterizes diseases of the soul and great sins. The second property is the loss of all bad temper, and humility and its subsiding. The third and highest degree is a true distrust of one’s good qualities and a constant desire to learn.” (St. John of the Ladder, 25.7)
Here are the rudiments of obedience. “Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions. Or, conversely, obedience is the mortification of the limbs while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioning movement, voluntary death, a life free of curiosity, carefree danger, unprepared defense before God, fearlessness of death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s progress. Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility…There is only one erring path, and it is called self-rule. But he who has renounced this entirely, even in things that seem to be good and spiritual and pleasing to God, has reached the end before setting out on his journey. For obedience is distrust of oneself in everything, however good it may be, right to the end of one’s life.” (St. John of the Ladder, 4.3, 5)
To overcome habitual sin, are we willing to let go of our own notions and behavior’s of self-importance? To overcome habitual sin, are we willing to seek out and strive to keep God’s commandments in thought, word, and deed, even to the point of personal discomfort? In other words, to overcome habitual sin, are we willing to develop habits of virtues rather than habits of sin?
“The lessening of evil breeds abstinence from evil; and abstinence from evil is the beginning of repentance; and the beginning of repentance is the beginning of salvation; and the beginning of salvation is a good resolve; and a good resolve is the mother of labors. And the beginning of labors is the virtues; the beginning of the virtues is a flowering, and the flowering of virtue is the beginning of activity. And the offspring of virtue is perseverance; and the fruit and offspring of persevering practice is habit; and the child of habit is character. Good character is the mother of fear; and fear gives birth to the keeping of commandments in which I include both earthly and heavenly.” (St. John of the Ladder, 26.Summary65; emphasis mine)
Sin develops in a specific order of steps, and so does righteousness. Just as sin can become habitual by repeated practice, so its opposite, virtue, can become habitual by repetition. Just as cutting off sin at its first suggestion cuts off the passion which follows, so instilling godliness at the first suggestion of things encountered results in the eventual flowering of virtue in the thoughts and deeds which follow. St. John of the Ladder continues the progression to its ultimate goal.
26.Summary 65:“The keeping of the commandments is a sign of love; and the beginning of love is an abundance of humility; and an abundance of humility is the daughter of dispassion; and the acquisition of the latter is the fullness of love, that is to say, the perfect indwelling of God in those who through dispassion are pure in heart, for they shall see God. And to Him be the glory for all eternity. Amen.”