My wife and I keep a vegetable garden and a small orchard with apple, peach, and pears trees. We enjoy eating and sharing fresh fruits and vegetables. We don’t enjoy as much, however, the weeding and measures to control insects and diseases. On the other hand, if we’re not diligent about controlling these pests, there won’t be much left to harvest.
We try to keep an eye out for trouble, practicing prevention and taking care of problems early. Even so, one day I came out to inspect my fruit trees and found the upper branches of a new apple tree nearly defoliated by Japanese beetles. It had only been three days since I last checked! Growing things can get into a mess, quick, and the same is true for our spiritual health and joy.
So what are the most common nasties we have to deal with in the spiritual life?
The first one should be no surprise: sin. Mortal sin, the grave offense we commit when we intentionally turn away from God, cuts us off from His sanctifying grace. Even less serious sin, when tolerated, whittles away at God’s life within us.
The second area is attachments. Anything that we prefer or put in place of God can be an attachment. We think of wealth or possessions as the usual suspects, and they often are. But here are some other ones to consider: social media, video games, our job, a girlfriend or boyfriend, our accomplishments, the opinion or acclaim of others, entertainment, food, a position we hold, power over others, our abilities and experiences — to name a few. The problem with attachments is that none of them are bad in themselves. Our trouble comes from the place we give attachments in our lives, and this makes them sneaky.
The third one is the devil. I’m not talking about spiritual possession and heads spinning around, but the common, everyday sort of thing Satan does to divert us from God and steal our joy. In The Devil You Don’t Know: Recognizing Evil in Everyday Life (Ave Maria Press, 2011), Louis J. Cameli identifies four tactics used against us: deceit, diversion, discouragement, and division.
The Five “Urr-ings”
As a family physician, I have seen my patients struggle with all manners of emotional and spiritual distress. Over time, I identified five common areas that contributed to joylessness among Christian believers. I called these The Five Urr-ings.
#1 Grrr-ing (Anger)
Nothing steals our joy faster than holding onto anger and resentment. That something angers us is only human. But to obsess over offenses or develop bitterness is destructive. Take the apostle Paul’s advice: “Do not let the sun set on your anger” (Eph 4:26). Forgive others and let go of your anger.
It’s natural for some situations to cause us anxiety. But dwelling on what might happen is useless. Learn to trust in the Lord and to give your concerns over to Him. Follow the advice found in the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Hurrying comes in two flavors. One group takes on too much and experiences overload. Somewhere along the way, we get the idea that we need to do all this stuff, creating a state that James Dobson called “routine panic.” The second group may not have overload, but they are caught up in concerns about the future and have trouble living in the present moment. God can give us peace and rest, even in the midst of chaos.
Luring is none other than the temptation to sin or attachments. Frequently, we are tempted to pursue possessions, power, pleasure, or popularity. As none of these can satisfy the longing of our hearts, pursuers find only fleeting happiness, which leads to dissatisfaction or emptiness.
“Blurring” means losing sight of God and His boundless love — of his purposes and plan. Most people substitute the secular for the godly and have some sense of fulfillment. Another group appears lost, without purpose or direction.
Keep Your Garden Healthy
I find the similarity between gardening and spiritual practices remarkable. Here are a few steps we can follow to keep us from losing our joy:
Monitor your progress.
Practice a daily Examen or an examination of conscience. Learn to listen for disquiet in your soul. The Spirit tries to get our attention, but we often ignore those small leadings. Eventually, we become insensitive to the Spirit’s quiet movements and gradually drift further and further away. Receiving the Sacrament of Confession regularly, even when we’re not in a state of mortal sin, helps us raise the spiritual bar and become more attentive to unhealthy patterns.
Plant growers prune to remove diseased material or growth that steals energy away from the more productive parts of the plant. Get rid of those things in your life that impair your spiritual progress.
Treat diseases immediately.
When you discover a problem, resolve to end it ASAP. Go to confession. Make yourself accountable to someone. Increase your time in prayer, and when facing a foe that seems beyond you, offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
Losing Joy is the third in a series of four articles on the spiritual fruit of joy.