“I have a bad temper,” or “I drink too much”—“”I am always criticizing,” or “I am lazy” are familiar complaints from those who still believe that nobility of character is an important goal. They would not make such admissions if they did not have a strong desire to break the chain of evil habits. They can realize this desire—any bad habit can be broken. But getting free of it requires four things:
Introspection is necessary in order that we shall isolate the habit and see it clearly as a sin. The surprise we feel when others criticize some fault in us proves that we have not practiced introspection sufficiently to know ourselves. Some people are afraid ever to look into their consciences, for frear of what they might find; they are like the other cowards who dare not open telegrams because they dread bad news.
But introspection is to the soul what diagnosis is to the body—the first necessary step toward health. The prodigal son “entered into himself” before he was able to resolve to admit his mistakes to his father. Turning the search-light of attention upon ourselves shows us the vice or evil habit which requires correction; it makes us see ourselves not as we wish we were, bus as we really are.
Avoiding the occasions of sin is the easiest way of avoiding sin itself. The way to keep out of trouble is to keep out of the situations that lead up to trouble: the man who gets burned whenever he is near a fire had better eschew fires. The alcoholic must void the first sip of the first drink; the libertine must keep away from pretty women, the evil-minded must flee the company of those who degrade him.
Our Lord said, “He that loveth the danger will perish therein.” Temptation is hard to overcome at the last moment, when the sin is within our reach; it is easy to overcome if we act decisively to avoid a situation in which we might be tempted.
Environments can make sin repulsive or attractive to us, for our surroundings affect us all. But we can choose the environment we wish and can ruthlessly reject the ones that lead to trouble. Our Lord told us, “If thy right eye is the occasion of thy falling into sin, pluck it out and cast it away from thee.” This means that if the books we read, the homes we visit, the games we play cause us to stumble morally, then we should cut them out and cast them from us.
An act of the will is vital to any accomplishment. Doctors tell us that nothing is a greater help to the sick than a will to live. So, if we are to overcome our vices, we must bring a strong will to bear on them. We acquired the bad habits only because we gave ground to them by a consent of the will, until they became automatic and perhaps even unconscious.
To master them, we must reverse the process and use the will to break their automatic functioning. Our characters do not consist in what we know, but in what we choose, and choosing is done by the will. After the Prodigal had entered into himself and left the environment of sin, his next step was to brace himself with great resolve, “I will arise and go to my father.”
A right philosophy of life is needed to complete the work, for evil habits cannot be overcome by the will alone: love is required as well. No alcoholic is cured until he finds something to value more highly than the attractions of alcohol. No other evil is renounced until the sinner finds some positive good he prizes above his sin. Our Lord warned us of the house, swept and garnished, which was filled by seven devils worse than the first; this was the inevitable result when an evil was driven out but no good was sent to take its place. Even in the moral world, nature abhors a vacuum.
Evil habits are not driven out by our hate of them (for we do not always hate them properly). They are crowded out by our our love of something else. The new love that takes possession of us must be bigger than ourselves… for it is our selves which need amendment. It cannot safely be anything earthly that we use as a substitute love; the man who cure himself of dissipation through pride or ambition may be worse off, in his reform, than in his sin. No new, competing love is large enough except the love of God Himself, with all that that love makes us long to do. St. Augustine summarized its effects when he said, “Love God, and do what you will.” For if you love God truly, you will never wish to hurt hi, any more than you would wish to hurt a human friend.
Habits cannot be efficaciously fought unless we have a philosophy which makes our lives revolve around the God for Whom we are made, and without Whom we are miserably bound to the drab companionship of our own growing imperfections.