It was a miserable Minnesota April day as I trudged down the soggy street. At least it wasn’t snowing. As I walked, my heart felt like a lead anvil behind my ribs, a feeling that didn’t subside as I shook the water off my umbrella and cast myself before the tabernacle in the small brick chapel at the end of the block. How could I fail you again, Lord? Why do I keep messing up like this? The guilt, shame, and fear were overwhelming. I felt despicable and worthless.
Perhaps some people think that this is how God wants us to feel when we’ve made a mess of things, like we deserve to get spanked for screwing up. Maybe God wants us to feel horrible so that we’ll think twice before we sin again. And if we do sin again, the heavenly justice is swift and terrible: get thee to a confessional or else you’re headed straight for hell!
This is how I felt that horrible day, and it wasn’t the first time I had felt it. I had always been taught that it was my sins that crucified Jesus, so therefore I’d better not hurt Him anymore than I already had. Jesus was already ticked off at me, so I’d better behave. And if I did do something wrong and suffered the consequences, it served me right. But this mindset isn’t Biblical, or even logical. Too often, we think that God expects us to be perfect, and this drives many away from Christianity.
Think about it. Jesus himself said “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He also said “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Could it be any clearer that Jesus specifically wants to help those who are struggling, imperfect, and flawed? Another priest I know put it this way: “Jesus died for every stinking last one of us.” Not only that, but Jesus continues to understand that just because we are Christians, that doesn’t mean that we’ll suddenly stop sinning and become saints. The road to heaven is hard and narrow. But we shouldn’t despair, because Jesus understands our human condition—He himself is human. Most importantly, Jesus saves us from within our human condition, not in spite of it.
Jesus knows that we are only dust. He knows, and He said so Himself, that we can do nothing without Him. Why, therefore, would He expect us to be perfect? He doesn’t. That is why He instigated the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession to nourish us, encourage us, and most of all give us the graces we need to keep on fighting. It doesn’t matter how many times we fall in the battle; it only matters how many times we continue to get up and fight again.
I know many good people, including myself, who go to church often, frequent the sacraments, and pray every day, but still struggle with some very dark and vicious sins. Within my own life, I have often been tempted to despair over my continued losses in the battle of purity. It’s taken me many painful years to realize that each fall can be turned into a victory. How?
1. When we fall, it forces us to recognize our weakness. How often do we hit a high road in life when things are cruising along just fine and we haven’t had a bad thought in days, weeks, or maybe even months? We start to feel pretty good about ourselves, and temptations seem a million miles away. Worst of all, we think it’s all because of our strident adherence to virtue that we’re doing so well. “I’ll be a saint in no time at this rate!” we think. Then reality hits, and it’s a good thing that it does, because otherwise we’re just setting ourselves up for failure. We know deep down that we will fall many, many more times, but when we come to terms with that, Jesus can give us peace that will sustain us through it all.
2. When we fall, it gives us a chance to trust Jesus more. After every fall, we can say in our hearts “Jesus, I am sorry. You know I don’t want to live like this. You are all-powerful and all-knowing: take this bad thing I have done and bring good out of it.” This might seem like we are asking too much, but Jesus richly rewards us when we trust Him radically. He cured the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons. What’s more, He’s also God, and God can do anything.
The most interesting part about all of this is that God makes saints out of us even when it seems like we’re the furthest thing from it. He works very quietly and gently in our souls, leading us little by little up the stairway of perfection. That’s why some of the greatest saints had the greatest flaws, and why we shouldn’t despair if we just can’t seem to kick this vice or that bad habit. In fact, our deep-rooted sins can be the very instruments God uses make us into saints. That’s good news!
3. When we fall, it gives us a chance to learn. If our lives moved day to day without a hitch, how would we ever learn anything about ourselves: what challenges us, what moves us to tears, what makes us squirm with delight or clench our jaw in anger? Our existence would be so boring! Even if it it’s initially painful and humiliating, our falls can teach us many things, such as patience, self-esteem, and faith, to name a few. It can also be a wake-up call for us to finally take concrete steps to bust a bad habit or take care of a failing relationship. Basically, to sound a little bit cheesy, it’s an opportunity for growth.
If you’re struggling with a particular sin or vice, don’t despair. Keep fighting one day at a time, and when you do fall (and you will, many times!) don’t cash in all your chips and head for the hills. Realize that Jesus is all patience, all gentleness, and come to Him with confidence that He is making you into a saint, however slowly.
Your halo isn’t busted, it’s just a little tarnished.