Grace? No thanks.

December 3, 2007 | Daily Spirituality, Prayer | 16 comments

So I have an update to my new exercise of learning to control feelings of frustration and anger.

As expected, the hustle and bustle of the holiday season has provided me with some opportunities to work on this. The other day I found myself in a disagreement with someone, having a series of conversations about a small matter that had become a heated issue for no good reason. At some point early on I remembered that I was supposed to be working on this, so I prayed for grace. I did not receive it. To my disappointment, my prayer was not answered; I did not seem to receive any strength from God to practice meekness and humility.

Then I thought for a moment about the prayer I’d said, and it occurred to me: did I even want grace? Did I really want God’s help to be meek and humble? The prayer I actually said went something like:

Lord, I ask for your grace to help me act in meekness and humility.

What I was actually thinking, however, was more like:

Lord, I ask for your grace to help me act in meekness and humility…later. Because right now I am not even done making the points that I need to make. First I would like to point out to this person that they started it, not to mention their bad tone of voice. And I am not going to let this discussion end without noting that I have asked them on multiple occasions not to handle this this way, and that this person always blows me off when this comes up, and…

You get the idea. And, if I’m being totally honest, when I thought of humbling myself it sounded wholly unappealing unless I got to make some comment pointing out that I was the only one being humble.

I think this is what they call “attachment to sin.” In theory, I agree that indulging in anger and arguing for selfish purposes is wrong — the operative words there being “in theory.” After that prayer the other day I asked myself: if I could have God wave some sort of grace magic wand that would instantaneously force me to be 100% meek and humble, would I do it? Honestly, I wasn’t sure. It didn’t sound good. I had a white-knuckle grip on all these great points that I had yet to make that would show once and for all that I was RIGHT and the other person was WRONG, and I couldn’t let go. Or, more accurately, I didn’t want to let go.

One of the very first things I learned in the conversion process was that you can block out God if you want to. He doesn’t force us to seek him and love him. The same thing, I’ve realized, is true of grace: you can block it out if you want to. Despite the oh-so proper words that I recited in prayer, I really didn’t want God’s grace at all. Because if I got it it would mean that I’d be more inclined to be selfless, to see the other person’s best interest before my own, to act out of love first and foremost — in other words, to lose the argument. And, to be honest, I wanted to win the argument more than I wanted grace. I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but it’s true.

It even happens in the (more frequent) occasions where some uppity inanimate object foils my plans: I want to spend a lot of time dwelling on how horrible it was that my printer suddenly wouldn’t print; I want to make a grouchy comment to my husband under my breath when our house key gets stuck in the lock again, even though it certainly adds no joy to his day; I want to throw the hangers on the floor when they get all jumbled up because…well, sometimes you just have to teach them a lesson! If God had come down and personally offered me the grace to have peace and just forget about those situations, I probably would have said, “No thanks. I think I’ll just stew about this for a while.”

It’s funny, I never really intended to work on this area of my life until Abigail brought it up, but I think that this whole exercise has been a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge from the Holy Spirit to let me know that this is an area that I should focus on. In re-reading all St. Francis de Sales’ wisdom on the subject, I realized that I’m not even at the point that I can start to really live that advice, because the first step is to let go of my desire to act in anger and frustration. And God will help me with that…if I want him to.

I recently came across a great quote here about relinquishing all attachment to sin:

Unless our attachment to sin, our desire for what is sinful, is sundered to the last sinew, however tightly we bind it, it keeps us in turn captive. It is the proverbial wolf we hold by the ears, afraid to keep hold of it and afraid to let it go.

Relinquishing sin is a consciously total act. You cannot let go of sin, “a little”. If you have not slain the wolf, you cannot hold him by one ear.

The question is…how do you do that? How do you train yourself to loath a sin to which you have some sort of attachment? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s dealt with stuff like this in their own life, even if it isn’t to anger in particular.

16 Comments

  1. Will Duquette

    You can tell the people who have experience with this sort of thing—they’re the ones who wince when you tell them you’ve prayed for, let’s say, patience.

    Do you know what you get when you pray for patience? Lots of opportunity for practice. I’d imagine that when you pray for the grace to offer up these little irritations you get lots of opportunity to practice that, too.

  2. Kristen Laurence

    What thought-provoking material, Jen.

    I don’t have answers, but what Will says is right – the only way to attain a virtue one doesn’t possess is through trial in that particular area. Little opportunities, frequently presented allow us to grow in virtue. The more we seize these opportunities in virtue, the closer we are to God and the more we love Him over vice. The more we love God the more we will despise sin – the rejection of God.

    Many saints have said, and I believe it from my own experience, it takes years and sometimes decades to achieve the goal you are seeking.

    I witnessed a beautiful example of what you’re talking about – a woman I know who worked and worked at her vices. In the first few years the change was hardly noticeable. Now after ten years, she is almost an enitrely different woman. If someone were to ask me how she did it, I would say she didn’t – God extinguished her vices, though she was certainly a secondary cause. She didn’t tackle her vices head-on, but rather prayed regularly and frequented the sacraments as often as possible. I don’t attend daily mass myself, but having witnessed the graces she received every single day from her attendance, it’s really a shame that I don’t try harder to make it.

    Oh my. Now I know what I need to do this Advent. Thank you, Jen, for continuing to inspire your readers to better things.

  3. Lauren

    Hi. I stumbled on your blog a few weeks ago and read the entire thing. A lot of your posts got me thinking and inspired me to try a little harder. Thank you. 🙂 I see a lot of similarities in our stories. I’m also a convert (although I was too young for RCIA and ended up doing a sort of half-way thing).

    In answer to your question, I’ve done best by immediately rejecting the sin. One of my favorite verses is John 9:41: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” As soon as I realize I’m doing something God wouldn’t be happy with, I have to stop or I have trouble talking myself into stopping later. After all, I’ll have no better reason later, now that I’ve realized what I’m doing is wrong.

    And when you humble yourself in an argument there’s wounded pride, but there’s also this sorta good feeling that you sacrificed something for God. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t mean anything.

    Just my thoughts. 🙂

  4. Judy

    I agree…. it reminded me of the following (which I’ve seen many times but found a copy of it on another blog):

    I asked God for Strength that I may achieve,
    I was made weak, that I may learn to obey,
    I asked for Health that I may do greater things,
    I was given infirmities, that I might do better things,
    I asked for Riches that I may be happy,
    I was given poverty that I may be wise,
    I asked for Power that I may have the praise of man,
    I was given weakness that I may feel the need of God.
    I asked for all things that I may enjoy life,
    I was given life, that I might enjoy all things,
    I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
    My unspoken prayers were answered.
    I am among all men, most richly Blessed.

    (http://coolshadesblue.blog.co.uk/2007/06/21/i_asked_god_for_strength~2490743?comment_ID=3880486)

  5. foursure

    The tough thing about this lesson is that you have to practice it over and over and over on the SAME instance.

    For example… I’m up for the 3rd time in a given night with the baby and I want to kick my husband and make him go take care of the issue. I decide I need to practice being humble and loving my husband so I let him sleep. THEN I have to deny every fiber in my being that wants to make him AWARE of the fact that I was so generous. I don’t have to deny that urge once, but about a thousand times within the following 12 hours. I also have to deny the urge to tell all my friends how patient and generous I was to let him sleep… and I probably should deny the urge to post about it in someone’s blog. *sigh* I’m going to have to practice this one again, I know.

    I guess the urge to deny ourselves is, in itself, a good thing. We’ll probably still be practicing it on our way out of this world.

    God Bless!

  6. Tausign

    I patiently read your post with a smile and loved the image of ‘throwing the hangers on the floor’! Since ”’you asked”’ for advice: try reading a post called “Unhurriedness is one of God’s Charecteristics”. I think you might find it helpful. Here’s the link: http://tau-cross.blogspot.com/2007/09/unhurriedness-is-one-of-gods.html

  7. Julie D.

    When I really notice this is when I’m prepping for confession. I mentally am always adding in excuses to tell the priest. The challenge is simply to confess without a single reason of “why.” Tough!

  8. Anonymous

    I think the best prayer at this stage goes something like….

    Lord, I don’t want to act like this anymore..ok yeah I do want to act this way, but I love You more and I know You say this is wrong…so please help me not want to do this anymore. Thank you for loving me anyway.

    Other thoughts…sometimes a little focus first on the damge caused to you and those around you followed by focus on who you want to be/ who God wants you to be then finally, focus on Christ helps me.

    Samantha

  9. Abigail

    WOW! Fantastic post. That mental image of holding a wolf by the ear will stay with me. My new anti-anger mantra is going to have to be “release that wolf now, Abby!”

  10. John Parker

    I have been trying to leave behind my own attachments to favorite sins recently. What I have begun praying for is enough love for God to despise my sins for the hurt they cause Him and praying for enough will to desire to turn away from my sins. At the very least, I am viewing the temptations associated with these sins in a much more negative light, even though there is still some attraction and attachment.

  11. Abigail

    Inspiring words from my Advent bible study tonight on this issue. “Produce good fruit as the evidence of your repentance.” Matthew, 4: 8, the reading for this coming Sunday.

    “Consider that God wants to fill you up with honey, but if you are already full of vinegar where will you put the honey? What was in the vessel must be emptied out; the vessel itself must be washed out and made clean and scoured; hard work though it may be, so that if be made fit for something else, whatever it may be.” St. Augustine

    Pot scrubbing is one of my least favorite kitchen tasks. I’ll be scrubbing with more reflection this advent knowing that I’m also working on cleansing my heart of anger, arrogence, and selfishness- making my interior more receptive to the sweet honey of the Eucharist on Christmas Day.

  12. Anonymous

    I try to live in communion with Christ through the Blessed Mother, meaning my prayer is: “Dear Blessed Mother, you know how to love God…you know how to honor Him, adore Him, trust Him….etc. Please do this for me, with me, in me, as I am too weak to do this myself. Please live in me, with your humility.” I see her as a special instrument of God’s grace and I try to stay snuggled under her mantle and allow her to carry me to her Son.

    Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability in this blog…God has given me much to reflect on through reading your entries.

    +JM+
    Annette

  13. Red Cardigan

    This is a very thought-provoking post. I think the problem with attachment to sin is that part of it, deep down within us, is due to our fallen human nature. We can’t completely root it out on our own, and even the greatest saints may have had tiny bits of these attachments still clinging to them at the end of their lives.

    The desire to be rid of sin, though, to work to root out that attachment, is a good and holy desire. The reality that we make little progress on our own, without being open to grace, is probably an antidote to the pride we would feel if we *could* be good by a mere exercise of our own wills.

    On our own, we are trying to carve out the Grand Canyon with a toothpick when we try to eliminate sin and the attachment to sin. But with the help of the Holy Spirit what is impossible becomes possible, a tiny little bit at a time.

    Sometimes when we’re tempted to commit a particular habitual sin, a simple prayer like “Come, Holy Spirit,” combined with the honest invitation of our will to invite Him to be present and active in us can be a great help.

    But avoiding the occasions of sin is also important here. If temper or grouchiness are a result of a particular thing, such as stress or lack of sleep, we can probably work on improving this situation. (For me, at the present moment of my life, avoiding the near occasion of sin usually involves keeping the junk food less than immediately and randomly accessible, if you know what I mean.) Our wills can only take so much temptation, and if a particular person or situation is tempting us to anger it may be time to step back from the thing that’s provoking the anger and examine the situation.

  14. Little Scribe

    I found your blog today and plan to return again and again. Thank you for all that you have written and shared. I so identify with what you are saying here about anger. For years, I prayed for “a gentle and quiet spirit,” but continued to have angry outbursts, although there was some very slow progress.

    At some point in my life, without really realizing it, I had made a vow that no one would abuse or run over me ever again. So if someone tried, I came back hard and fast, leaving only a greasy spot of my poor aggressor. I understand such vows are hard to break.

    About two years ago, a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina (I live on the Mississippi coast in the area hardest hit), I had a small problem with a customer at work, about closing time on a Saturday afternoon. I reacted with much anger, accusing the man of being responsible for making me late for Saturday Mass. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was appalled at what I had said, ashamed and frightened about my behavior. Monday morning, I went to the doctor. She prescribed Lexapro, a treatment for depression and anxiety. The result was a more gentle and quiet spirit at the cost of gaining 15 pounds and having less feelings (both good and bad feelings).

    I do think when we pray for things such as gentleness or patience, God sends events and situations to give us practice. One of the most beautiful situations I have to give me practice is the care of six Maltese dogs. We purchased the first two. Of the remaining ones, two are fosters, and two others were adopted. Three of the six came from homes where they were abused and neglected. With them and all the fosters I have had (which have gone on to their forever homes), I have a gentle and quiet spirit as well as patience beyond belief. They are good teachers – so gentle, loving and forgiving – and I give thanks for them.

  15. Jennifer F.

    From Leila, who couldn’t get Blogger to post her comment:

    =========================

    So Providential, Jennifer! I have been dealing with just this same issue in the past four days! A friend and mother of eight had recommended a $3 CD to me that she (and then I) bought at our parish gift shop. It’s called Anger and Forgiveness and it’s by a wonderful man I had never heard of before (but “coincidentally” came across yesterday again), Deacon Dr. Bob McDonald. He is a permanent deacon and an M.D./psychotherapist. This CD taught me things on anger that I had never known. In fact, it completely debunked the notion that I had been “preaching” for years, that “the emotion of anger is morally neutral.” Wrong! Boy, was it a wake up call for both me and my husband!

    Anyway, after listening to his CD, I have not been angry in four days (no easy feat with seven children). I highly recommend this life-changing CD, and you can get it for only three bucks! Here is the link:

    http://www.saintjoe.com/search-result.php?CategoryID=24&GET=1

    Anyway, it’s always great to read your blog because I swear we must be the same person (except you are a decade younger, ha ha).

    God bless!
    Leila
    http://www.CatholicMomsMatchmaking.com

  16. Anna

    How do you train yourself to loath a sin to which you have some sort of attachment?

    You start by paying attention. Take a bit of time every day, maybe 15 minutes before bed if that’s all you have, and review what you did that day. (I recommend asking the Holy Spirit to guide you in this). Then think about what went on in your heart, which directions it was being pulled, and how you reacted, throughout the day. Did you sin? What was the effect of that sin? Did you do something right? What was the effect of that? If you had difficulties during the day, something that you struggled with, think not just about how you responded, but also about whether that difficulty may have been caused or added to by some earlier sin of yours.

    The more you can see the concrete, real, and horrible effects that sin has in your life, and the more time you spend repenting of your sin, the easier it will be to not want that sin the next time around. But if you aren’t careful to pay attention to what happens in your life and to reflect on it, then you will miss all that and your way will be much harder.

    I’ve been doing this for a few years now (this idea comes from the Examen, which format I highly recommend), and I still find it hard to make time for it every day. Like you, I’m a mother of three little ones, and I’m often exhausted by the time I think of doing the Examen. (And my mornings are filled with other prayers). But I’m learning to force myself to be regular with it anyhow, because it makes such a difference in my life.

    When I first began to do this, I found that I would discover the same sins every evening, but not remember them during the day when I was being tempted by them. As time went by, I ever so gradually started remembering things better during the day. And then it took even more time before I started to actually stop myself *before* I did a sin. But repenting every single day of whatever sins I had committed that day really did help that process, I believe, – maybe even was necessary for it – even if it wasn’t an instant ‘fix’.

    Also, for the record, I usually find that in order to resist sin, I have to relax. That may sound paradoxical, but when I realize that I’m probably about to sin, I have to force my interior self to relax that little tight bundle of resistance, to let go of all my objections to doing God’s will, and to realize that it is POSSIBLE for me to do the right thing (that the circumstances do not foreordain my reaction). This is true even when I’m forcing myself to get up and do the dishes instead of relaxing in front of the computer; that first I have to relax that interior resistance to doing the dishes, the voice inside which says doing dishes is too hard, I’m too tired, it’s just not going to happen, etc. I don’t have to force it into being quiet, I just have to let go of it.

    Anyhow, I hope these reflections are of use to you.

    God bless,
    Anna

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