The good news is that even though we sin, God loves us and wants us to return to him. With God’s grace, bad habits can be unlearned.
Ecclesia semper reformanda: The Church forever in need of reform. Because we are the Church, we are the ones who are ever in need of reform. We struggle with this until our dying day because the end of the road is not at the grave. Each choice we make reflects an individual effort toward reform, or a lack of it, and will impact the Church—and ultimately our eternal destination. How often do we think of this? How often do we consider the impact of our choices? How often does prayer undergird the process by which we evaluate our choices?
Jesus said either we are for him or against him. He gives all people the freedom to choose and they do so every day. The consequences of people’s choices support or hinder them from moving toward God and growing as human beings. Choices also affect an individual’s internal milieu fostering deep peace to deep torment. Each choice has an outcome that affects people’s relationships with God, others, and themselves.
Good choices increase our ability to love God and others. Bad choices distance us from this love. However, they can also bring us back to God if they result in a lasting change, such as alcoholics or drug users who find God during their rehab process. It has been repeatedly shown that we can learn from our mistakes when those mistakes teach us to make positive decisions.
Prayer helps us notice choices that have become automatic; made without thinking. Repeated poor choices become bad habits. Listening to too much news consumes quality time and often provokes anxiety. Lying to a loved one causes trouble. Taking another drink before driving is never smart. Sharing harmful gossip instead of remaining silent hurts others. Routinely watching degrading TV shows dulls the mind and dehumanizes one’s outlook. Glossing over a problem that needs immediate attention is procrastination. To continue to eat empty calorie foods instead of fruits and vegetables has its effect on health. Much time and energy is wasted on being a victim, reliving past mistakes, dwelling on failures or insecurities, or self-defeating ruminations. Is this pleasing to God who made us? There are endless examples of poor choices. Francis de Sales wrote, “We have freedom to do good or evil, yet to make the choice of evil is not to use, but to abuse our freedom.”
Our thinking is sharpened by daily prayer. We recognize the many camouflages of evil. Evil is everywhere. Some people have an indifference to it, and others deny it. However, one doesn’t have to look far to see that evil is very real. Defective opinions, negative mindsets and habitual sins often hinder people from seeing the reality of God. Sins are sins, and God does not make an exception to, or give a special dispensation from, a favorite sin because a Christian does not think it is a sin. Subtle whispers from dark angels present favorite sins as alluring and pleasurable, and this may be so until divine truth sets in. There are many ways of thinking about sin but Jesus’ way is the only way that counts. To be stuck in the mire of habitual sins, many considered normal by society, prevents an individual from launching into a holy and deeper life with Jesus.
The good news is that even though we sin, God loves us and wants us to return to him. With God’s grace, bad habits can be unlearned. Christianity is not measured when we are comfortable in self-indulgence, but when we are challenged by holiness. Saints know they are sinners because the closer they move to Christ’s light, the better they see their sins. We fall, but we get back up, brush ourselves off, and, with patience, begin again. To change a life starts by changing little behavior patterns every day. Change degrading comments to uplifting ones. Give someone a smile instead of a scowl. Teach a child to read instead of playing video games. Rather than nagging loved ones, write one good trait, characteristic, or quality about them each day, and give them the list at the end of the month. Volunteer at a soup kitchen instead of going to the mall.
To Be Accountable
As we learn to make better choices, we become better people for those we love and for God. Prayerful decisions are based on what we believe and value. We express them by our actions and behavior. Remaining true to positive choices requires prayer, spiritual practices, and self-control. Adhering to positive choices limits other choices. A person chooses to marry, and therefore chooses to refrain from all associations that lead to adultery, pornography, or anything else that weakens the trust and respect of one’s spouse. A single person chooses not to engage in sexual activity until he or she is married, and therefore chooses to avoid tempting situations. Although scorned by an increasingly secular society, there is deep wisdom in this choice. If there is no compatibility between beliefs and behavior, there will be serious conflict. If an individual seeks God’s truth in love, he affirms what is best for him and others.
Love and hate can be strong motivators. We can hate injustice, ignorance, poverty, illness, terrorists, abortion, or anything that marginalizes humanity, but can respond in a positive way. A man earned a Ph.D. because when he was young his parents told him he would never amount to anything. He believed in himself and wanted to prove them wrong. A woman sought out a well-appointed lifestyle because she detested the poverty in which she was raised. A man became a police officer because he remembered the crime-infested neighborhood of his youth. Arguments can fill us with negative anger against that which is wrong and fuel dark forces within ourselves and humanity. Hatred has many negative ramifications that can be destructive. Violence can promote many forms of counterviolence. However, Jesus said, pray for those who persecute you, and love your enemies. With Jesus’ help, Christians strive toward choices for this higher good. Love, as a positive motivator, is more beneficial to humanity than any negative motivator. If we feel contempt for certain people, we should strive to look beyond the cause for contempt and into the depths of their hearts—that sacred space where the Triune God dwells (even if they do not realize this). This is a difficult but transforming feat that must be inspired by love and viewed by the heart’s clear eyes. If an individual prays for those who irritate her, she will be surprised at who is changed. If we were truly aware of how God’s radiance glows from within the deep center of each one of us, there would only be respectful love.
Love is optimistic, affirmative, and constructive. A Christian who prays often receives God’s love as grace and gives love to others as gift. Making life better for others in the name of Jesus is giving concrete expressions of his love. Service is love in action. We meet the needs, however small, of another and start with our families, coworkers, parish and community. Gifts of love are little nameless acts of kindness. A Japanese proverb states: “One kind word can warm three winter months.” Love takes a person beyond himself when it is the reason behind his choices and is apparent in kindness to, and respect for, others. Frederick Faber wrote: “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, and learning.” Love grows through self-discipline and forgiveness. We do what we can for the good of someone, no mater how we feel about him. Love for God is best revealed by love for the person liked the least.
God is the source of all good and desires only good for humanity. It is up to humanity to choose that which is good. A natural recourse to prayer makes these choices easier. There are many opportunities to choose good. Enjoy sweets in moderation, but avoid excess that leads to obesity. Exercise to stay healthy, doing neither too much nor too little. Participate in a church ministry as long as it does not interfere with family obligations. Replace excess talking on the phone with spiritual reading. Have fun at a party, but do not descend into stupid or immoral behavior. Say a few kind words to people instead of avoiding them. Choices indicate how a person loves or how he has failed to love. This love is beyond a warm feeling. Rather it is a decisive action for another that often takes the place of something we want to do for ourselves. When it comes down to, should I do this or should I do that, the resolution should be to do whatever is most loving. Love is inexhaustible. If we give it away, it comes back to us. John of the Cross said where there is no love, put love, and we will draw out love.
Prayer as Motivator
Prayer fuels loving service. When a person ponders deeply, she instinctively knows that prayer is most important for survival. Daily prayer will have its difficulties. Surface doubts assail one’s mind: Prayer is a waste of time, is not practical, doesn’t accomplish anything, pay the bills, or get the work done. Or so it seems. During prayer, a person can replay past conversations, imagine future conversations, take multiple mind trips, daydream, worry, and do other mental activities that are not prayer-related.
Yet, Christians could not live without praying and keep at it, no matter what. Jesus, teach us how to pray. Jesus, help us keep our focus on you. In spite of the difficulties, the fruits of prayer are myriad. Prayer nurtures a depth and integrity needed for holiness. It sparks the soul’s flame of love. It bestows grace to forgive those who have wronged us, strengthens us to do things we don’t want to do, and motivates us to give and receive greater love. It transforms us so that our simplicity and responsiveness heighten what is good and beautiful. True holiness motivates people to refrain from abusive or coarse language and inappropriate behavior, and encourages charity, kindness, and respect.
Prayer is the foundation of, and the prime motivator for, the work involved in reform. Reform begins by shaking a person into change, giving him the wisdom to know what is right and the courage and strength to act on it. This is a lifelong process. Holiness calls us toward our best life, which is our life in Christ. We are no longer content with the soft plush of our comfort zones. Striving to become better people of God keeps us on the move. Most of the time, moving toward God is made by small simple steps, rather than gigantic complex strides. To be on the spiritual cutting edge is to be not afraid of making a fool of oneself for Christ’s sake. There is no longer contentment in living in spiritual candy land. A Christian tries new things, takes risks for the love of God, and is not afraid of being vulnerable. Holiness is making small, or sometimes big, choices and sticking with them. A person can say a new prayer, do a new good work, or listen to soul development CDs while on the way to work. Learning about and practicing sound discipline strengthens holy habits and promotes a healthy respect for all. Gathering with people who have positive attitudes, opinions, and conversations and avoiding those who habitually complain, criticize, or dwell on the negative, keeps one moving forward. Having friends that encourage accountably and draw from that which is uplifting, complimentary, and positive keeps holiness alive. Taking personal responsibility for sins by honestly admitting and naming them without excuses and receiving the sacrament of reconciliation keeps grace flowing. A beautiful gesture is to express gratitude several times a day. Christians give without expecting anything in return and take responsibility for what they do or fail to do.
These are a few examples of how one’s prayer journey is a continual turning toward Christ. The Church will only realize its continual reform through our pursuit of individual reform. We are ever in need of turning toward Christ. As we move in this direction, we are encouraged by the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him.”