To overcome sin we need to begin by talking to our conscience

Penitent receives absolution during Confession (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

A devout Catholic friend of mine went to the doctor because she was feeling physically run down. She mentioned that she could be maliciously catty about others and that it drained her of energy, but that she felt lighter after confession. This was her remedy for mental exhaustion caused by being dragged down by the weight of her sins. Probing a bit further, the doctor asked her if she believed temptation may be the work of bad angels. My friend answered “yes.”

The medic, seeing that my friend was calm and collected, said he respected her religious views and he believe in God but that he had to warn her that thoughts of bad angels inspiring people to do bad deeds was dangerous fantasy. Furthermore he thought that people were blame-shifting- they ascribed blame to imaginary spirits and not to themselves.

My friend told her doctor that he had A point – people could blame the sources of temptation – but not take responsibility for themselves. She clarified that God has given each human enough grace to withstand temptations – and that when she spoke badly of others to the point where her listeners thought badly of the people she maligned – that she had been to blame because she had not relied on God’s grace to help her overcome her destructive longing to backbite. Thus she was the one who went to Confession, and not the fallen angel.

Perhaps the difference between feeling tempted and acting on temptation is like the man who becomes violent after too much whisky. If he sees a flashy, provocative ad for hooch, and decides to get drunk, after which he beats his wife and kids, he may say the ad was to blame because it gave him the idea to pickle his brain in spirits.

When we only blame that which tempts us – we are not placing the emphasis on what would prevent us from falling in the first place – relying on God’s grace. My friend got it right when she said that she sinned because she had not sought God’s grace.

So few of us have such humility. We fall into sin often because we doubt God’s love for us – He loved each of us so much – that he has endowed each soul with enough grace to overcome the tailored set of temptations that each of us face.

There are as many temptations as there are sins, but I think there is one temptation that is particularly dodgy for anyone. It is when we use the sins of our past against ourselves. ‘I’m the person who did this and that, I am a hopeless case who may as well give up the fight to do better,’ is often our personal voice-over that accompanies flashbacks on our mind’s cinema of times when we’ve behaved badly.

Tim Stanley admirably tackled this problem of despairing on account of one’s sins when earlier in the week he appeared on Thought For The Day. Stanley shared how shortly after he converted to Catholicism, he went to confession and told the priest that he didn’t think he could make it because he was still sinning. The priest said to him, ‘by the very fact that you’ve come here to confess your sins, you’ve shown that you have changed.’

Stanley reflected that the priest had been right, ‘that I was prepared to go out on a cold evening and confess everything to a total stranger showed that I at least now worried about my faults and cared about putting them right. I had entered into a dialogue with my own conscience.’

Taking Stanley’s example to heart, I suggest opening a dialogue with one’s conscience and relying on God’s grace. Seeking God’s grace can seem so lofty, but in urgency we can offer arrow prayers (“God help me”) and say to our favourite saint, “please pray for me.”

Something that I am starting is praying the Litany of the Holy Spirit, so that I am enlightened as to what might be a temptation.