As we continue our journey of preparation for the coming of our Lord, we must take a closer look at the thing that keeps us separated from Him – sin – and how to avoid it.
Sin occurs when we act in a way that is contrary to our love for God or our love of neighbor, and is therefore an act of disobedience toward our Lord, which then damages our relationship with Him and others (CCC #1849-50). The Church distinguishes between two types of sin – venial and mortal – according to their gravity. Venial sins are the smaller sins we all do every day. These sins damage our relationship with God, but they do not cut us off completely from His grace (CCC #1855). In other words, cursing at the person who cut you off in traffic hurts God’s heart, but you won’t be condemned to Hell over it. Mortal sin, on the other hand, is sin of a much more serious nature and will completely sever your access to God’s sanctifying grace until you are repentant and confess it in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The result of continuing in a state of mortal sin without repentance is to spend eternity excluded from Christ’s kingdom (#1861). Three conditions must be present to constitute a mortal sin: 1) it must be of grave matter, 2) it is committed with the full knowledge that it is in opposition to God’s law, and 3) it is done deliberately despite having full knowledge that it is wrong (CCC #1857-1859). In order to understand the different types of sin and the effects they have on our souls, I recommend reading The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs #1854-1864.
Now that we have the ugly stuff out of the way, we can discuss what we can do about it so we can reap the abundance of mercy and love God has to offer to us. If you recall from the Lenten reflections from earlier this year, we discussed at length about how to root out sin by actively practicing the opposing virtues. Since we’re spending this Advent cleaning out our hearts to make room for Jesus, we need to make some time to take an honest inventory of where we struggle most with following God’s will for us and then actively pray for and seek out opportunities to practice the opposite behavior. This can be a scary thing to do, especially if you’ve been stuck in a certain pattern of sin for a very long time, so maybe you start with something small. Perhaps you’ve been working on rooting out a particular sin for a while, though, and now it’s time for you to take a bigger step. Wherever you are on your journey this Advent, practice a virtue that does not come easily to you.
Another way to look at the need to root out sin and practice virtue is to see it in the context of a relationship. Think about an important relationship in your life: a marriage, a friendship, a sibling relationship, etc. When you truly love someone, you don’t want to hurt that person, and your actions will reflect that. That’s certainly not to say that you don’t mess up occasionally, but you tend to be more careful with how you treat these particular people. You also put more effort into deepening and growing these important relationships. You look for opportunities to spend time with them, to listen to them, to talk with them, to do kind things for them, etc. A relationship without these elements dies. Our relationship with God has a very similar nature. The primary relationship of our entire life should be the one we have with God, and because of that, we should be putting even more effort toward building intimacy with Him than with anyone else. Then, as our closeness to God grows and we are more in tune with His deepest desires for our lives, our tendency to hurt Him through sin lessens as we strive to show Him how much we love Him.
One of the best ways to deepen your relationship with God is to immerse yourself in His Divine Word. This is how He speaks to us! While it is true that we hear Scripture every Sunday at Mass, that is only the bare minimum of the Scripture we should be soaking in. As we read and reflect on God’s Word, His will becomes clearer to us, enabling and empowering us to act accordingly. When you read Scripture every day, it starts to become part of you and it is imprinted in your heart and your mind, which will have an effect on your behavior. “I have laid up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11). Certainly, reading Scripture every day is the single most important reading you could ever do, but I will add that other religious reading is very beneficial for keeping you focused on Jesus. There is an abundance of great modern Catholic books available for spiritual growth and to help improve our understanding of the Catholic faith. In addition, our great Saints have left us excellent resources from which we can learn. St. Catherine of Siena, St. John of the Cross, St. Augustine, St. Faustina, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are just a few examples of Saints who left us beautiful writings which have blossomed out of their intimate relationships with Jesus. Make a goal for yourself this Advent to increase your religious reading, whether it be Scripture or other Catholic works. Reading a couple of verses a day, and one or two books a year, can have a big impact on your relationship with God.
Two other important elements to deepening your relationship with God and rooting out sin are through the reception of the Sacraments and prayer, however we will explore these together in greater detail over the coming weeks.
For now, the important thing for us is to not be discouraged by our sinful nature. Rather, we should feel hopeful and optimistic because there are things we can do to improve our relationship with God, and consequently, unlock the chains of our tendency toward sin. Yes, we all fall, and we all mess up. We always will. But God wants to offer us His love, mercy, and forgiveness. Those gifts enable us to get back up and try again. However, we need to cooperate with God’s grace and identify the specific actions we need to practice in order to grow our virtue and deepen our relationship with God so that our tendency to sin weakens. What practical steps can you take this Advent to prepare a clean home in your heart for Jesus where He can dwell in intimate relationship with you?
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