First, we look for God’s grace. As sin tends to shame us into silence and then convince us to quit the spiritual struggle altogether, that you acknowledge discouragement and ask for help prove God is already subverting the cycle of sin you mention.
Second, it is vital we familiarize ourselves with our ascetic tradition. By closely reading the Scriptures and vigilantly observing the human person, the Church has developed means to accurately diagnose and interrupt the progress of temptation.
For example, early Christian ascetics identified five progressive stages of evil as well as possible remedies to halt their advancement. Memorizing both the stages and their remedies will assist us immensely when tempted. They are:
1. Suggestion: Our first contact with the image, fantasy, or urge to do evil always presents itself in a pleasing manner. We cannot rid ourselves of these fleeting thoughts, but we choose whether to let them pass by or to entertain them. Remedy: Ignore them. Busy yourself with something else and they will depart. “Keep your mind warm with holy thoughts,” counsels St. Ephraim. “If the soup is hot, the fly won’t land in it.”
2. Conversation: But we do not always ignore them. Instead, we converse with the suggestion as Eve did with the serpent. We let ourselves be provoked by it and then begin reflecting on it. All day long we may consider the person who wronged us that morning. If there is no decision, there is no sin. But much time and vital energy has been wasted on these inner dialogues. Remedy: Continue the dialogue but change partners; instead of talking to yourself, talk to Christ. Reveal the conversation to Him and see where the discussion goes.
3. Struggle: A suggestion grown through conversation has wormed its way into the heart and is now a struggle. It will not be easily dispelled, but with much exertion it can be done. Remedy: Hold firm and prayerfully repeat: “Jesus, you do not want this for me; neither do I. I freely decide the opposite.” Or “God come to my assistance; Lord, make hast to help me!”
4. Consent: If the will surrenders to the struggle and consents to the suggestion of evil, one sins. Remedy: Make an Act of Contrition. Go to confession if necessary. Let God love you in this moment of weakness.
5. Passion: The final and most tragic stage, passion indicates the continual consent to evil which weakens both the will and the character of the person. Sin becomes something like an addiction, and the sinner a slave to it. Remedy: The will needs to be re-awoken. Devote yourself to prayer, the sacramental life of the Church, and seek help if needed. Some passions can’t be overcome alone.
God desires our freedom from sin. Knowing the cycle of evil and patiently sabotaging it at every step will go a long way in living into that freedom.
Father Seth Brown is pastor of Mother of Dolors in Vandalia and St. Joseph in Ramsey. He is also chaplain of Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry, chaplain of the Vandalia Correctional Center, and research theologian for the Diocesan Curia