Ongoing conversion is necessary for spiritual vitality, and the Holy Spirit works in us to bring about this conversion. If we have received the Spirit through the sacraments, should we not, then, experience ongoing growth? What holds us back? Counter-dynamics!
A counter-dynamic (my term and not the Church’s) is anything that creates resistance to conversion. The most obvious counter-dynamic is sin, but what about those things that predispose us to sin or resist change? Today, and for the next five weeks, we’re going to look at six areas that can promote resistance to the Holy Spirit.
Counter-Dynamic Group #1: Sin
It’s no surprise that I would list sin as a counter-dynamic. All sin injures our relationship with God, and when we continue to tolerate even minor sin, we cultivate resistance to the Holy Spirit.
I believe three sins have a particularly deleterious effect on conversion: selfishness, pride, and complacency. Why these three? Because they directly oppose our responsiveness to the Spirit. Consider the following passage from the Gospel of Luke:
Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:27
Jesus succinctly tells us what it takes to follow him as his disciple: to deny oneself, to take up the cross (an instrument of torture and humiliation), and to follow him. What if, instead of denying ourselves, we act selfishly? Because of pride, we refuse the cross? Instead of following Jesus, we complacently refuse to change our behavior? These three sins keep us from surrendering to God.
We often think of selfish people as egotistical and obnoxious. Who wants to hang out with someone who only thinks of himself? Sadly, there are many people like this, but most selfishness is not this obvious.
The selfish person puts himself at the center of concern. In today’s secular culture, possessing high self-esteem and looking after one’s interest has been raised to the level of a virtue. After all, you’re only looking out for yourself when no one else will.
We see another deceptive variant of selfishness among religious folk. We can appear to have concern for others, but instead of acting without expectation of reward, we do good works because it makes us feel good. We might act to get something in return or win the admiration of others.
We move beyond selfishness when we act according to God’s will and his purposes and not our own. We must, as Jesus told us, deny ourselves.
Pride is one of the deadliest and most pervasive sins. It is a stealth sin because it can sneak up on anyone and at any time.
The stereotypical prideful person is openly boastful, full of himself, and arrogant. But consider the following:
- We quickly disregard someone else’s way of thinking because it doesn’t fit our viewpoint.
- We become angry when someone challenges us or identifies a problem with something we’ve done.
- We have trouble admitting we made a mistake.
On a deeper level, pride has to do with what we value and how we feel valued. We take correction as diminishing our sense of worth, especially as we compare ourselves to others. The healthy alternative to pride is humility, where we compare ourselves not to others, but to how God sees us.
An appropriate synonym for this sin is self-satisfaction. Some complacency exists primarily due to ignorance. Awareness of rising threats might arouse these people to action. Complacency becomes a sin when having been made aware of dangers we choose to disregard the warnings and remain satisfied with our present position. With no desire to change, we continue to ignore leadings from the Spirit meant to move us to action. The complacent choose to remain ignorant. Motivationally, they are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold.
Turning the tide
Christians know they are to reject sin, so isn’t the answer rather simple? Don’t sin and stop being selfish, prideful, and complacent! Anyone who has seriously tried to leave these behind knows how they just keep showing up. Every occasion of sin should lead to confession, and we look to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for healing. But what can we do to prevent these in the first place? Can we do more than just tell ourselves to do better the next time?
These sins are subtle in the way they work into our attitude and motivation. Their hidden nature may not raise a response from those around us, and when pride is active, we aren’t receptive to criticism from others, anyway. Drawing upon St. Francis de Sales’ advice, I propose four strategies we can use for prevention.
1) Resist temptation.
As long as we live in this world, we’ll never be free of temptation. God does not tempt us to sin, but he does allow us to experience temptation so he can display his power in us. Thus, awareness of the stirring to sin should not be a cause for discouragement. Rather, it gives us reason to show spiritual valor. God wills that we should have certain enemies who we must also resist. We may not immediately recognize the movements of these sins, but when the Spirit reveals them, we can follow a pre-determined response and act according to God’s will. If we fall, we don’t berate ourselves, but instead, get up off the floor, dust ourselves off (confess our sin), and then resume our daily walk with God.
2) Grow in virtue.
It’s very hard to change behavior by trying not to do something. A better way is to practice virtuous behaviors opposite to the ones we’re trying to avoid.
What virtues? Selfishness causes us to place our interests first before others, pride clouds our judgment, so we don’t see things rightly, and complacency keeps us from doing what is right. Therefore, we want to cultivate an approach where we consider the needs of others before we seek our own interests, try to judge things by God’s standards and with his merciful heart rather than relying on our opinion, and resolve to act for the good whenever given the opportunity.
Consider the following three-step process:
- Identify interior and exterior triggers for sin.
Example: You are prone to act selfishly when physically tired or under pressure
from others. Fatigue and external pressure become triggers.
2.Set up boundaries of thought and action that will keep you from sin.
Example: You recognize pride is at work whenever you start to obsess over
your injuries. You resolve no to dwell on wrongs done to you so
you are not tempted by pride.
3. Set a course of virtuous action that you can follow when tempted. Develop a
new, habitual way of behaving.
Example: You recognize a tendency to automatically say “no” when asked
by someone to participate in activities that challenge your
comfort zone. You resolve to give serious consideration to
every request, especially when you feel like you have to stretch.
To grow in virtue, we must pray daily, regularly reflect on our lives and examine our conscience.
3) Cultivate sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.
Even though these sins are often hidden, they are not undetectable. When we live in purity and pray often, even minor movements toward sin will disturb our spirit. Recognition of sin and its precursors is half the battle.
4) Develop indifference to everything except doing God’s will.
New disciples develop a distaste for sin and anything that gives God offense. As we mature, our inclination goes from just avoiding sin, to a desire to know and do God’s will. Then, as we advance even further, we relinquish our will and seek only to walk in God’s will. We become like a child who desires to be with her mother and feels her absence the moment they separate. So we also want only to walk in God’s will and become indifferent to everything else. Letting go of attachments is an important prerequisite for this process. The relinquishment of attachments will be the topic of next week’s article.
Counter-Dynamics: Obstacles to Spiritual Vitality and What You Can Do About Them is the first of a six-part series on obstacles to conversion.