Monday, July 13, 2015

Struggling with besetting sins

Do you ever get angry? Sure, we all do and sometimes for good reason. How do you handle your anger? If you're like me, you become angry often, maybe not every, single, day, but several times a week and handle it poorly, letting circumstances control you instead of engaging them for your benefit and that of others.

I think that the vast majority of us experience what are sometimes called "besetting sins." A handy definition of besetting sin is, "one to which on account of your constitution, or circumstance or both, you are peculiarly exposed, and into which you most easily and most frequently fall." So, besetting sins probably arise from both nurture and nature. While all sins rob us of our freedom by causing us to live in a manner that is at odds with the end for which we are created and redeemed, besetting sins do so by enslaving us to patterns of destructive behavior, behavior we engage in without even thinking about it, like a reflex. After awhile we can't even begin to imagine how we might deal with these circumstances any differently. Besetting sins become ingrained patterns of behavior and so require grace and our fervent cooperation with God in overcoming them.

Where do we find and receive the grace we need to conquer besetting sins? The sacraments, especially Penance and the Eucharist, to which we have access by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation. Our reception of the grace given us in these sacraments does not work like magic. Could they work that way? Sure, if God wanted them to work like that they could. Sometimes, for reasons known to Him alone, God does will that they work automatically and immediately. We've all heard credible stories of lives immediately and permanently transformed by God's grace through the sacraments and by other means, we can find many such experiences in the lives of the saints. But typically God does not work that way. It is my belief He doesn't usually work like that because our lives matter; experience is the instrument for our truly human journey. God gives us grace to strengthen us and to encourage us. This does not make grace incidental to overcoming besetting sins, it remains vital, but overcoming these sins not a passive endeavor, it requires our full, active, and conscious participation. Penance is there so Christ can pick us up and dust us off as we walk our own via Delarosa.

As a result of committing to overcoming your besetting sin(s) you will suffer. You'll suffer spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes even physically. These sufferings are not God's punishment, but are the natural consequences of your sin. The natural consequences that follow from your sins constitute part of what we call temporal punishments due to sin. The temporal punishments due our sins, while including all natural consequences, are not limited to natural consequences. We need to keep in mind that in the Sacrament of Penance what is remitted is the eternal punishment due our sins merit, namely hell, but not the temporal punishments, which is why, as I have noted before, indulgences are an important spiritual tool, although one very little used today.

In my experience one of the most difficult aspects of grappling with my besetting sins is realizing how much damage I cause by giving myself over to them, how much my behavior damages my relationship with God and with others, especially those closest to me. The more I repent (i.e., turn from my sin) the more aware I am of how damaging they are and the more I suffer for them. This is spiritually painful and can easily become discouraging.

In an effort to be more physically calm, which I hope will help me be more kind, patient, gentle, and understanding, I am currently trying to eliminate caffeine from my diet, from my daily intake. Mind you, by current standards, I am not a big consumer of caffeine. Up until late last week I usually consumed 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning and drank a 12 oz. caffeinated soda maybe 2-3 times a month. I have never imbibed an energy drink. Yesterday was my first whole day with no caffeine. Friday I had one cup of coffee in the morning. Saturday I had half-a-cup of coffee. Rather than being calmer, by Saturday afternoon I was agitated and out of sorts. Sunday was a little better in the morning, but by the afternoon, exacerbated by the heat of a July day, I was physically beaten. I did not have a soda, a coffee, or anything else of the kind. I came home from a picnic, drank some water, took a shower, swallowed some ibuprofen and went to bed. This is called caffeine withdrawal and it's just as real and painful as quitting any other drug.

It was a rough night. As I lay there I did not blame what was happening on God (I rarely do) but accepted it as the price to rid myself of a substance that is not good for me. To best of my ability I united my headache and nausea (which I think was due to the heat and slight dehydration) to the suffering of Christ, pleading with God to accept this paltry offering as reparation for my sins of impatience and anger. I feel okay today. A little tired, but I am doing fine and recovering. By God's grace I weathered last night's storm. It was a storm, but one for which I am grateful.

Two things motivated me to do this. First, I read an article by Pastor Shane Idleman on the negative effects of caffeine. Second, last week, two days after I read Pastor Idleman's article, I noticed my boss was much calmer. I asked him why. He said, "This is my second week without caffeine."



In his post "Caffeine - Friend or Foe? What You Need to Know," Idleman, while acknowledging the benefits of moderation (he is not being absolutist or legalistic), noted:
Since caffeine runs along the same biochemical pathways in the brain as cocaine, opium, and amphetamines, quitting can be a nightmare. My suggestion is to back off day by day until intake is very minimal, and use organic green tea (light caffeine) whenever possible. You’ll be shocked by the results. Granted, the first week to 10-days may be torture, but it will be worth it. The withdrawal symptoms alone reveal the power of this drug
He then notes, without naming names (I am not so shy), that featured prominently on the Starbucks' logo is a siren. Of great interest to me was this:
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders now recognizes caffeine-related disorders such as caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, and caffeine-induced sleep disorder. These can begin with even minimal doses. Increase the amount to 500mg. of caffeine (the amount found in approximately 24 ounces of coffee) and these symptoms are dramatically increased. All this can lead to angry outbursts, panic attacks, severe depression, and extreme irritability. This begs the question, "How many are suffering mentally and physically simply because of poor health—continuing the addiction rather than removing the cause of the problem?" Not in all cases, but in most, depression, anxiety, irritability, and so on, could be severely curtailed if health (spiritual and physical) was a priority
I am certainly not demanding or insinuating that anyone, let alone everyone, should follow suit and quit caffeine altogether. But if you struggle with depression, anxiety, angry outbursts, or irritability it's worth considering. Of course, there are still the behavioral elements with which you need to deal, but at least you're helping yourself. Like the practice of all the spiritual disciplines, practicing some physical discipline is a way that we can fully, actively, and consciously cooperate with God's grace. It can never be pointed out too often, grace builds on nature. It's more than a tragedy that extended fasting and abstinence is no longer a regular part of Christian praxis among Roman Catholics and Protestants.

As we read in the magnificent Letter to the Hebrews, a book of Sacred Scripture too often ignored -
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (12:1-4)
Given my milieu, I feel compelled to offer this apologetic note: Latter-day Saints observe what they call "the Word of Wisdom, which is found in Section 89 of one of their extra-biblical books that they revere as scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants. The Doctrine and Covenants contains almost exclusively revelations that Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed to receive directly from God. As you will see if you read this section the "Word of Wisdom" was not originally given as a commandment. It was later accepted by the Latter-day Saints to be a binding commandment almost 20 years after Smith claimed to receive it.

While the Word of Wisdom prohibits drinking "hot drinks," which is interpreted to mean coffee and tea, but not cocoa, it does not prohibit consuming caffeine. As recently as 2012 the Church authorities clarified this in a news release that "Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and 'hot drinks' — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee."

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