Monday, February 29, 2016

Resisting Temptation - A Second Look

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

I'm in the middle of a Bible study at my local parish. The study topic is reconciliation, and we follow the study program called The Gift of Repentance: God's Call for a Change of Heart, authored by Kevin Perrotta. I was catching up on some homework for it last night, and this week's lesson regards Jesus' sermon on the mount teachings regarding the necessity of a change of heart, and a reinterpretation of the Law as pertaining primarily to inner obedience, over and above outer obedience.

I mention this because during my reading of it, I came across St. Augustine's reading of that passage, which I thought was very relevant to my discussion on resisting temptation. That made me happy, because I was super dissatisfied with my last take on the topic, and so in light of this, I'm going to have another go at it. Hopefully, this time will be a more scientific approach to the matter.

Spiritual Sin as Precursor to Bodily Sin

The teachings of Jesus in question, in particular, are those found in Matthew 5:[21]-30:

You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath any thing against thee; Leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother: and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift. Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing. You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart. And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell.

Augustine was investigating what it meant to "look on a woman with lust." He concluded that it couldn't simply be the passive pleasure one experiences by observing a beautiful woman. Rather, he said, "it is the full consent to the pleasure: the forbidden craving is not checked, but given the opportunity, it would gratify its desire." What this means is that, the man has fully consented to pleasing himself by making of the woman an object. The implication is that, given the opportunity, he would use her in this way.

In making this observation, Augustine discerned three basic steps to sin:

  1. A suggestion arises in our minds from something we observe or recall.
  2. It brings pleasure, in some manner, whether the suggestion itself is pleasurable, or it offers pleasure.
  3. We consent to it.

Please note, not all suggestions that arise in our minds are the sinful kind, nor are all pleasures that we enjoy to be thought of as sinful either. These are simply the steps involved in arriving at sin, not that these steps always lead, inevitably, to sin.

From this initial sin, the consent of the heart to some evil desire, we may or may not arrive at further sin, those that are found in action. And in this, there is also a threefold procession:

  1. Consent to the desire within the heart.
  2. Carrying out the sinful act itself.
  3. Forming a sinful habit (repeatedly carrying out the sinful act).

So how should we approach this?

I read an article a few years ago about how there was an interest in recruiting hackers to join research in how to fight disease and microorganisms. Their reasoning was that hackers possess a certain skillset, something that makes them great at hacking, but would make them great at other things as well (like attacking viruses), a skillset that they wanted to take advantage of. They said that hackers think differently than most people in that when they are looking at solving a problem (such as hacking into a secure website), unlike most people who think of one or two strategies, a hacker looks to identify as many points of operation within the system as they can, and attempts to break through the system by attacking each and every one of these points. It's systematic, and considers every identifiable part of a system as a potential weakness. The idea was they could harness this thought pattern to find new ways to combat disease.

So, I'd like to take a similar approach to this question of resisting temptation. Above, I've laid out 6 points of operation in the process of thought and action that leads to sin. Augustine perceives rightly that habit is the most difficult sin to break. Therefore, if we are to avoid sin, we must begin before such habits are formed. However, even if a habit is formed, I feel like the following strategies will help in breaking it. So let us begin with our first point of weakness in the process.

A Suggestion Arises in Our Minds

Notice that Augustine identifies two sources of this suggestion: observation and recall. Since recall occurs after an observation, the first point in the process is observation. If we want to combat temptation, we must first, therefore, stop sin before it even enters our minds.

What kinds of observations are we talking about here? I would suggest anything we can sense, that is, sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. A sixth could be an imagined observation (such as something we've read in a novel). If we want to stop such things, we need to think ahead about what kinds of things could lead to sin. For example, let us say that I'm about to go watch a new movie in theater. I look at the movie poster, and it promises to be a fast action, adventure. Do I just walk in and watch it, or do I research to see if there might be inappropriate things in it? Do I check the rating? What do reputable online reviewers say? Will there be nudity and sex? Will there be cussing? Will I see peoples' heads getting cut off? Should I walk into the movie blind, and allow these things to enter my mind because I haven't taken the time to see what's there, or do I find out what is in it first, and then make the decision to protect my mind?

Another example might be the radio station that you listen to on your way to work in the morning. Does this radio station play music that sings about free sex and slapping hoes? How can I protect my mind from such messages? Should I select a different station, or not listen to the radio at all?

If sin is easiest to avoid by stopping it before it has a chance to come onto the radar screen of my mind, am I taking seriously enough the protection of my mind from the influences of a sinful culture? That's a good question.

It Brings Pleasure

This is a toughie. Naturally, many things bring us pleasure, and usually it's not really something we have any control over. However, there is something different about the kind of pleasure we receive at the thought of something sinful or forbidden, than the kind of pleasure we receive from observing natural goods. I don't think Augustine was suggesting, by this second step, that any pleasure we receive from any suggestion will lead to sin. Rather, I think he was speaking instead about illicit pleasures, and illicit suggestions.

For example, if a married man is sitting on a park bench reading the newspaper, and he happens to glance up as a beautiful woman is walking by, and he notices and passively receives the natural pleasure one feels by seeing beauty, smiles, perhaps says hello and good day, then returns to his newspaper, nothing wrong has happened here.

However, if this same man, upon seeing this woman and recalling how pleasurable sex is, has the suggestion in his mind about what sex with such a beautiful woman would be like, then arises in his mind a notion of pleasure that is illicit (namely, to have sex with this woman who is not his wife). It is this illicit pleasure, which, if he consents to desiring it in his heart, perhaps fantasizing about it, leads to sin. And this, I think, we are able to combat.

I think we are able to combat these kinds of thoughts of illicit pleasure by first developing a strong notion of why good and wholesome pleasures and goods are worthy and right, and why wicked and indecent pleasures and evils are worth avoiding, and why they are wrong. Going back to the example of the man on the bench, if, when this suggestion of sex with this woman arises in his mind, he keeps firmly in his mind that doing such a thing would destroy his relationship with his wife, the woman he knows and truly loves, who he has given his word (if it should be worth anything) that he would love her and be true to her always, and that he might even make this other woman pregnant and how damaging that would be for both of them, and all the sorrow and ruin that such an action would bring to his life, then dispelling the thought of pleasure would come much more easily, than if such thoughts were absent from his mind.


We Consent to It.

We must remember that even if such thoughts arise in our minds, and even if such thoughts bring phantoms of pleasure with them, no sin is actually committed yet. The decisive moment is when we give consent of will to such thoughts and immerse ourselves into the pleasure of the notion. That is when we sin. So how to we defend against our own choices? Our own decision to enjoy the thought? How do we simply not give in, in the face of seduction?

It's essentially the question of the Ring of Gyges. If we found a ring, so the old philosophical question goes, that could make us completely invisible, in every way (sight, sound, smell, etc.), such that we could literally do whatever we wanted and there would be no consequences because nobody could observe what we do, would we continue to be moral men? It's an important question, because that's really what we're talking about it. It's the heart of Jesus' teaching. Nobody can see into our minds. Are we moral there too, or just on the outside? Do we give in to wicked lusts in our fantasies?

The answer has to be that we be moral even in our minds and hearts. We've already said why: all sin begins in the mind. If we are not moral inwardly, then we will be immoral outwardly. It would only be a matter of time before our inner ethic exposed itself in our actions. Why? Because we are not embodied spirits, and we're not mere animals. We're a body/spirit unity. Everything we do, we do both bodily and spiritually, as one. Hypocrisy is one of the universal evils that all societies make note of. If you are inwardly immoral, that has to manifest itself outwardly. And if you're outwardly holy, it will only ever be to those who would criticize you if you weren't, but in secret, in the dark, or in those places where you can find like-minded individuals, your real inner ethic comes out and the deep desires of your heart and mind come out.

So, what do we do about it? Well, protecting our minds, and forming our consciences to what is right and good and beautiful, these are the starting points to keep us from having to get to this point of decision. But if these defenses are bypassed, we must make a stand. Rather than giving up and giving in to the seduction of evil, we must stand firm and refuse. Guard your heart. Realize that once you've given into the desiring what is wicked, you've already sinned. You just haven't had the opportunity to carry out your desire yet.

Call out to God for help. Call out to a friend for help. Immediately fight to get the idea out of your head. Go for a walk. Go to the gym. Read a book. Start a conversation with your wife. Whatever it will help you to say no to the suggestion, to the seduction.

We Carry out the Sinful Act.

Once we've given our consent to the evil desire, however, it's really a matter of opportunity before we carry out the act. Does this make it inevitable, though? I answer no. If you've formed yourself properly, both in conscience and in habit, then you have a good likelihood of regretting the desire before you ever act on it. That's a really good thing, and you should do what you can to make amends to those you've offended by the thought. Namely, God. If the wicked desire was against another person, it may do you well to confess the desire, along with your regret over it, and your desire to make amends for it, however you are able. Confessing it in the Sacrament would be a good step, too, as well as praying to God for strength against such temptation in the future.

With this in mind, timing plays a role. If, as I've suggested above, you've been well formed, then the longer you go without having the opportunity to sin after giving in to the desire, the greater the likelihood you will overcome the temptation to act on it. If, however, the opportunity to sin immediately presents itself, there is a greater likelihood you will act on it, than not.

So, if we wanted to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we could give in to such desires (and I think it would be prudent to prepare for this), then there are certainly steps we could take to make acting on the desire more difficult, or inopportune. For one, we can keep a busy schedule. There is a reason for the old saying "idleness is the devil's playground." When we are idle, we have plenty of opportunity to get into trouble. When we're busy, not only do we have less time to entertain illicit ideas, but even if we did, we would be hard pressed to act on such ideas by the simply fact that we don't have the time.

Keeping good company is another strategy. If you keep yourself among people who are good and honest and honorable and virtuous, you're not going to nudge your buddy and say, "hey do you want to go out back and take a hit?" Actively placing yourself in situations that cause pressure to be virtuous and honest is a good thing to do. Let's do it.

The basic idea here is to make your situation non-conducive to actually carrying out sinful acts, so that when the time comes that you do give in to the sinful desire, it's very difficult for you to act on it. Yeah?

Forming a Sinful Habit.

This is absolutely the last bastion of defense. Once we develop a sinful habit, it's really very difficult to put an end to. So, we need to curb the sin now, before it goes further.

So, you've given in to the wicked desire, and you've actually acted on it now. You wanted to punch that guy's lights out, now you have. You wanted to watch pornographic videos, now you have. You wanted to dine and dash, now you have. What next? Do you do it again? Eventually, you're going to remember the pleasure you got out of it the first time, and you're going to want to do it again. What can you do to prevent yourself from forming a sinful habit?

Well, I would say the first thing to do is go back to the start, and reinforce all those good things you put in place to prevent you from sinning in the first place. Yeah, your defenses failed, but that just means you build them back up, make them stronger. The last thing it means is you give up altogether.

I think at this point, though, it's absolutely essential that you admit your wrongdoing. Confess to a priest. If you've made offenses against people, apologize. If you've stolen something, return it (or equivalent value). Making restitution for your wrongdoing is the responsible, honorable thing to do. Real men do this. Moreover, doing this will help you to recognize the consequences of your action, which will help in resisting future temptations. All of this is what we call repentance: turning away from sin and making your wrongdoings right. It is the restoration of justice.

Finally, I think it's also really important to recognize the seriousness of the sin, and that allowing our moral structure to crumble into wanton vice is absolutely unacceptable. We should not allow ourselves to be driven by guilt, or a picture of ourselves as worthless weaklings. Failure doesn't define us. We must strive always to pick ourselves up out of that failure and make things good and right. If we find ourselves to be weak, then we must strengthen ourselves, not wallow in weakness. We must exercise those virtues that will strengthen us against the sins we have a proclivity for.

I think we can do it. And if we can't, we can always fall back on the one who was strongest of all: Jesus Christ, who is willing to give us any strength against sin we ask Him for.

Thanks for reading. God bless!

No comments:

Post a Comment