We all have that one sin. That one sin that we feel drags us down, oppresses us, and particularly embarrasses us. It is the one sin that we find ourselves confessing time and time again, much to our shame. Often times we may believe that this sin and this sin alone stands between us and holiness. "If I could just get past this one sin, then I would truly be saintly," we tell ourselves. What the sin is exactly does not matter; it differs from person to person. For some it may be masturbation; for others, screaming at the children or talking down to the wife. Maybe it is using bad language at work or some similar accommodation with the mores of the world. Whatever the sin is, we have all had the experience. That one sin.
I myself had (or believed I had) "that one sin" for many years. No matter how well other things were going in my life, I always returned to this one sin, as a dog to vomit. It was profoundly embarrassing to have to keep coming back to confession every month and confessing the same thing; of course, the shame I felt was entirely in my head, a coming to terms with my own weakness rather than any condemnation laid upon me by the priest. This sin somehow became central in my life, in such a manner that I came to view it as the fundamental roadblock between myself and holiness, so that all the focus of my thoughts became on how bad this sin was and how hindered I was so long as I kept succumbing to it. Yet despite these observations, things did not get better. I seemed as stuck in the rut as ever.
Things did not really change until Fall of 2007. That is when the Lord gave me a striking realization about this arrangement. Of course, this one sin was bad. Of course, like all sin, it separates us from God and, if not repented of, can lead to eternal death. Of course it needed to be overcome. But even so, the preoccupation I had with this one sin and this sin alone was not helpful. In fact, my preoccupation with this sin had become a distraction. My excessive focus on my struggle with this particular sin was keeping me distracted from the very real problems I was having with other sins, to such a degree that a large part of my spiritual life was in the darkness. This happens when one's focus is too myopic.
It is easy to focus on sins that are particularly embarrassing or that we fall into frequently. But there are other sins that are easy to overlook because instead of being embarrassed by them, we want to justify them. Instead of feeling a sharp remorse after we commit them, we hardly notice we are perpetrating them because they come so natural to us. In my case, I noticed that my preoccupation with my one sin had caused me to remain in ignorance about a festering anger and resentment growing in my heart towards certain individuals, in addition to a terrible habit of gossip as well as laziness in several areas of my life.
In a sense, these sins remained unknown to my conscience because I was too focused on my other sin; in my mind, I was a sinner who suffered from one and only one defect. This, of course, is a prideful position to be in; as if one suffers from only one sin and that's all! But it is also extremely dangerous. Gossip, resentment and laziness can be difficult to discern because they feel so good. How pleasurable it is to remain in idleness rather than be industrious! After all, I've earned it, right? How easy it is to maintain resentment and anger against individuals whom we dislike. After all, if they weren't so contrary, stubborn, or irritating, I wouldn't have the problem. If I do have an aversion to them, it is their fault, right? How easy it is to stand around and gossip about people's affairs! I mean, I'm not speaking ill of them, I'm just keeping my friends informed about what's going on. And my motives are good. After all, I only mention all these things so you can remember to pray for them...
The excuses are manifold. But the point is that these sorts of sins are not sensational. They are not in the same category as, say, adultery or pornography or masturbation or out and out theft or violence, sins where you realize you have committed them immediately and can initially be moved to penitence by a strong sense of shame or remorse. These sins can fester for years because they are more deep seated and are easier to justify. In this sense, they can be even more dangerous. What long term damage do I do to my soul by living in anger towards a certain person for twenty years? How many graces does that resentment choke up? How much of a drag would it be? How dangerous is a long-term disposition to laziness, especially in spiritual matters? These kinds of sins can be deadly in the long run.
This is where we must realize the diabolical element. Not only is it easy to be distracted by one particular sin which preoccupies us, but this distraction is actually a diversion; it is a tactic of the evil one to keep our eyes fixed on immediate problems while distracting us from long term problems. The devils make a very loud and obnoxious attack on our front door so that we will not notice them simultaneously undermining our foundations.
What is the solution? How do we break out of the rut and stop ourselves from falling from this diversion? It is certainly not an acceptable solution to just start ignoring the one sin and focusing on the others. It is never a good idea to ignore any sin ultimately. We need to approach our spiritual life in a holistic way, fully understanding the way in which the parts relate to the whole and that the different compartments we divide our life up into are all related. The sins I commit at work are related to the problems I have at home and vice versa; the carnal sins of the flesh I fall into so easily are related to other sins of pride.
In my particular case, I noted that the evil one seemed to be using my one sin to keep me distracted from several other more subtle problems I had. Therefore I reversed the attack; I began to be much more introspective and active in my efforts to address the problems I had with anger, laziness and gossip; but (and this is key), not simply switching my preoccupation from one sin to another, but with the intention of knowing that if I progressed in these areas I would progress across the board and my other sin would be easier to deal with. I learned to examine my conscience more strictly, attempted certain virtues to counteract laziness, gossip, etc., and learned more about the way virtues and vices work, understanding that certain sins proceed from others.
I also decided that though my one sin was shameful, I was not going to let my spiritual life be defined by it. I would continue to work patiently against it, but I would also stop taking myself so seriously - stop fantasizing that I would be a saint without it, that is was my sole fault. In other words, I treated it like a sin, but like any other sin, neither attaching too much importance to it nor downplaying it.
Then, after a few months, I had a breakthrough: I realized that the one sin was very intimately connected with the problem with laziness, with lack of exertion. Laziness was the parent vice, and in working against the parent, I began to strike at the offspring. Soon, I noticed that I was committing my one sin much less. This got me excited, and I began to throw myself into the struggle with more resolve. The sloth evaporated, and with it the despair. I realized I was not doomed to commit this one sin forever, that there was an end. Prayer intensified, the will was strengthened, and before I knew it I had not only improved across the board, but I had gone months without the one sin. Then the month became a year. As of today, I have not relapsed into this one sin in five years, and I firmly believe, thanks to God's grace, that I will never commit this sin again.
There are other things to take into account as well; often times we do not over come a certain sin because of a fear of suffering, i.e. we are not willing to part with the occasion (person, place, thing) that prompts us to that sin and we take only half measures. For me, this was part of realizing how this sin was structured into my life. We also must learn to love the combat necessary to overcome sin, to see it as a working out of God's grace in our lives.
All sin must be dealt with, but it is very necessary for us to understand what I call the structures of sin and the tactics of the evil one. Sins and vices do not just spring up here and there with no relation to one another; individual sins result from vices, and vices, like virtues, have a certain structure - capital vices (the "deadly sins"), serving as roots from which branch other sins. It is a constant tactic of the enemy to keep us busy pruning the branches of the tree while leaving the roots intact. This happens whenever we get preoccupied with one particular sin to the exclusion of all others. Whatever your one sin is, it can be overcome, so long as you can get a realistic grasp on the situation by identifying what "parent" vice is causing the sin, and understand that your preoccupation with your one sin is probably a sign of spiritual imbalance. But there is hope. Ask God to show you the way.