The secular world has a low opinion of Christians. They view Christianity as a retrograde force that makes society worse by opposing sexual license and (in their view) slowing the progress of science.
They also believe Christians are all hypocrites—that we encourage a life of holiness but that in private we are worse than other people. As I write this, the progressives are rejoicing over a prominent American Christian who was allegedly a member of the internet adultery site Ashley Madison.
There is some truth to the secular critique. Christians have lost the idea that we are warriors for Christ. It has been replaced with the idea that God is some sort of cosmic Santa Claus that is going to admit everyone to heaven if they were “nice.” This view has affected how we lead our lives. We are not disciplined. We don’t lead lives of genuine holiness. If anything, we are only slightly better than our peers.
If we are going to change society, we are going to have to change ourselves. Part of this is reclaiming the idea of spiritual combat.
Not Against Flesh and Blood
St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Ephesians:
Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
Whatever problems our society currently faces, the solution is a spiritual one. Our natural tendency is to try to fix things through elections, through working harder, through trying to correct wrongs. All of these are good things, but we can’t ignore the fact that these are just external players in the real battle, which is spiritual.
But how do we engage in battle against these “spirits of wickedness in the high places”? Through participation in the liturgy and through our spiritual life. But it is impossible to have a fruitful spiritual life if we are not able to first avoid mortal sin.
Avoiding Mortal Sin
Dom Lorenzo Scupoli in his spiritual classic The Spiritual Combat provides many diverse methods for avoiding mortal sin. It’s a great book for anyone who is seeking to make progress in his spiritual life. But there are a couple of of his methods that I have found especially helpful in keeping on the straight and narrow path.
Remember that sin creates chaos here and now
Ideally, we avoid sin and do good purely out of love for God. The problem is that most of us are not at this level. If we are leading a sinful life, our focus is on earthly things.
Masters of the spiritual life remind us to think about the last things (death, hell, and judgment). If we meditate on the fact that our life may lead us to an eternity in hell, it is a great goad to avoiding evil. That may be helpful to some, but if you are not elderly, death seems very far away.
What has worked for me is to think about the fact that sin creates chaos in our lives here and now. I’ve never heard a homily about this but it is abundantly clear from the Bible.
- Adam’s sin results in spiritual death, but also in the expulsion from the garden and the arrival of suffering.
- Abraham’s decision to take matters into his own hands and sire a child by his wife’s handmaid results in trouble for his descendants—arguably to this day.
- The grumbling of the Hebrews in the desert leads to multiple punishments.
- David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband leads to his own children rebelling against him.
This is not solely an Old Testament doctrine. We can see it in the New Testament as well.
- In Corinthians, St. Paul relates how people have become sick and even died because they have received the Eucharist unworthily.
- In Revelation, Jesus exhorts the seven churches to repent or suffer the consequences.
These Bible stories teach us that the chaos that results from sin does not necessarily follow immediately upon the transgression of the law. There may be, as was the case with David, a delay between the wrongdoing and a reaping of the consequences.
Do you need more chaos in your life? I decided that I can’t afford to expose myself and my family to the chaos that results from sin. Also, our society is sick enough as it is. I don’t need to add to the sea of depravity.
Recognizing the chaos that accompanies sin was enough to get me to change my life.
Taking every thought captive
St. Paul tells us:
Take every thought captive to obey Christ.
Take this command literally. It especially applies to sins related to lust.
Many men, perhaps most men, now have an addiction to pornography and/or masturbation. Once men get into the habit of using pornography, it can become an addiction that is very difficult to break.
There are lots of reasons to avoid using porn that I am not going to rehash here. One of the best discussions of this is in the following excellent TEDx talk.
If you engage in lust even a little, it weakens your will so that it makes it likely that you will eventually fall. For example, if you tell yourself, “I will only look at women in bikinis” you have already set yourself on the road to failure.
The same applies to a fantasy life. Fantasizing inexorably leads to engaging in the behavior.
To conquer these habits, you have to ruthlessly reject every temptation that comes to you right at the very beginning. You can’t “enjoy” a little bit of the temptation.
This is not easy to do at the start, but once you make it a habit, it becomes quite easy.
The first few weeks of changing a habit will result in some white knuckle moments where you will feel as if you are about to sink. Don’t give in. Persevere and you will conquer. After that, it will be relatively smooth sailing. Of course, we can never entirely relax our guard.
This method of guarding our thoughts applies not just to sins related to lust. You can use it for any purpose, including purposes that are entirely secular. Controlling your thoughts is really self-mastery. Once you have achieved it, you will be able to accomplish anything you set your mind to.
While I have used Christian terminology in this post, these two methods will work for anyone who applies them in his life.
If you are a Christian man and you want to change your life and society for the better, this is the starting point.