The human soul cannot contain empty space. It has to be full at all times and it is entirely up to us what we fill it with: good or evil. There are those among us who are full of holiness, leading lives that are a delight to God. Unfortunately, these are few and far between. Most of us are full of sin.
The Holy Spirit cannot work in a soul that is full of sin; there is simply no space for Him to do anything. The only way that we can give Him a chance to begin working in our lives is by making some room for Him and this is through repentance.
Jesus began his ministry with a call to repentance. “Repent,” he said, “For the kingdom of heaven is near.” It was a call repeated right through Scripture, both by Jesus and his apostles, showing us how important repentance is in attaining salvation.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t quite understand what repentance truly means. Many believe that it consists of feeling sorry for our sins and following that up with an apology. This isn’t incorrect, but true repentance goes beyond merely being sorry. It involves abject remorse and heartfelt contrition for one’s sins against God and a strong desire not only to change direction, but to change mind and heart as well. Without this desire to change, the sorrow is meaningless.
Consider a man given to violence who beats up his wife whenever he gets drunk. When he sobers up the next morning he is filled with remorse, but his apology to his wife has no meaning unless he takes the measures necessary to stop the violence from repeating. Or, a woman in the middle of an adulterous affair who tells her husband that she is sorry for cheating on him. There is no meaning to her apology unless she puts an end to the affair, with the resolve to never engage in anything like it again.
I was an atheist most of my life, and like many people who don’t believe in God, I was utterly amoral. Right or wrong depended more on expediency than on any moral principles I had. Needless to say, most of what I did was very wrong in the sight of God, but I realized this only after my conversion when my eyes finally opened to the truth. I found myself horrified by the countless things I had done to hurt God, and in the absolution that I received after confession–my first in twenty five years–I truly understood the meaning of what Jesus had done for me by dying on the cross. The thought of doing anything more to hurt Him was so repugnant I determined never to do anything bad again.
I realized, however, that it wasn’t enough that I took the decision not to engage in sinful habits any more; I had to wipe away all the physical traces of sin that existed in my life. It didn’t do, for instance, to say I was not going to steal anymore when I had dozens of bootleg CD’s in my music collection! So I proceeded to systematically destroy my entire collection of pirated video cassettes, bootleg music, pornography, and everything else I felt was even remotely offensive. There was so much of junk that it took me four hours to finish this task, and right through it all was this voice in my head that whined, cajoled, shouted, pleaded, argued and reasoned with me not to do what I was doing. It was the voice of the enemy we all hear when we want to stop doing what is wrong: the voice of justification. By the time it was over I was exhausted like I had run a marathon twice over, but I was free in a manner that I cannot even begin to describe!
Any sense of saintliness that these actions might have brought upon, however, was quickly dispelled by discovering that the sins that I had gotten rid of were just the tip of the iceberg. There were sins hidden all about the place. Some were buried so deep in the shadows, I would never have dreamt of their existence much less discovered their presence had it not been for the light that the Spirit began to cast into these shadows. These were, largely, the black sins of the heart, far more grievous to God than almost anything else we can do to wrong Him. In our journey through the School of the Holy Spirit, we graduate only when we rid ourselves of these sins of the heart, but there is no way that we will reach that far unless we first get rid of the sins of word and deed.
As a preliminary step toward that, we need to eliminate the things that might prove to be stumbling blocks in our progress. Alcohol and drugs top this list. It is not a coincidence that the miracles which usually take place in popular retreat centers are the removal of mind-altering addictions. The reason is very simple. A high degree of alertness is essential for walking on the holy path because we have an enemy who just doesn’t give up. He is forever waiting for the opportunity to pounce on us. It is hard enough to resist his attacks when the barriers are up. When we are inebriated, our defenses automatically go down and we are easy game for the enemy. So quit! It is not difficult, because God is very generous in pouring out His grace on people in “primary school” and if He sees that we genuinely seek to grow in Christ, He will take our addictions away. All we need to do is ask!
This doesn’t mean that it will always be easy. There are occasions when eliminating sin from our lives can be extremely difficult, but we have only ourselves to blame for that. For years we gave into our lusts and our passions, unmindful of their effects or consequences, binding ourselves to bad habits with thick chains. To free ourselves, consequently, will take some effort, which is when our determination to do so is put to the test. I faced my hardest test with my temper.
I had a volatile temper, described several times in this book. When I got angry I lost all ability to reason. My tantrums rarely lasted beyond a few seconds but that was still long enough to cause immense damage. It took many painful months during which I prayed, fasted and engaged in every possible exercise to control my temper before I finally managed to rein it in–for a while. Six full months passed in relative calm before I suddenly exploded in a violent rage one evening. Just a few moments earlier I had spoken to a group of people on how one of the qualities of love was being slow to anger. The moment my anger was spent I felt the familiar sense of shame creep in, as well as a certain element of despair. Would I ever get my temper under control? There was no consolation in the knowledge that I had not lost it for half a year. I made a silent promise to myself that the next time I got violently angry, the penance would be severe.
It took another six months before that happened. I promptly isolated myself in my prayer room for an entire week, forsaking the TV, newspaper, telephone, friends, computer, Internet, and just about everything else with the exception of my Bible. When I left the room it was with another silent promise that if I were to ever get violent again, I would spend another week in isolation, only this time it wouldn’t be in the comfort of any room; it would be out in the desert. I have been able to keep my anger in check since then, and I believe God’s grace had a lot more to do with this than concern about how I would survive a week in the desert; I had spent a good deal of that week in prayer!
I do not share this story to boast, but to make the point that changing our nature is a painstaking process that requires a lot of effort and courage and we have to be prepared to exercise both. It doesn’t do, for instance, for the man with the drinking problem we had spoken about earlier to say that drinking is a weakness he has, and for him to leave it at that. He has to do whatever he can to put an end to his drinking: get himself admitted to a rehab center, cut off all his drinking buddies even if he has known them since grade school, dismantle his bar, smash his bottles, and/or do whatever else it takes!
God understands weaknesses, but he does not condone the sins they result in. He will help us overcome our weaknesses if he sees us making determined efforts to shake off all the chains binding us; chains that we have wrapped around ourselves over years of self indulgent behavior. But He won’t buy our attempts at justifying our actions by claiming “weakness”, which is what a lot of us tend to do. Nor will He buy the line that no effort on our part is required as change is possible only by His grace. He wants to see the desire in our hearts to change first, accompanied by the determination to succeed.
Once we have cleansed ourselves of “obvious” sins, the Holy Spirit takes us through the first level of purification. There are a couple of things that we would do well to remember at this point. One is that sin has no hold over us. Jesus, with his death and resurrection, freed us from slavery to the enemy and broke the chains that bound us to sin. Another is that whenever we toss out sin from our life, all the space that just got emptied is immediately replaced with the power of the Holy Spirit. The more sin we take out, the more we are filled with the Spirit. The more we are filled with the Spirit, the cleaner our soul becomes. And the cleaner our soul becomes, the greater our ability to repel evil! It is both these facts that will help us succeed in our journey through school so it’s a good idea to make sure we don’t forget them.
As with every other subject, there are no rigid divisions between levels, but on the primary level the Spirit usually leads us to deal with the sins of deed, or action. These are not always obvious. The human mind is an expert in justifying things that aren’t pleasing to God, so we often don’t recognize what we do as sins. Want a few examples? We flagrantly violate intellectual property rights, often for “religious” purposes, justifying said violations as being “for a good cause”. We pass off bribery as “commissions”. We gossip and bury it under the guise of “concerned enquiries”. We flirt shamelessly with other people’s spouses and pass it off as “harmless fun”. The Holy Spirit will reveal these sins to us, usually through something we read or through something somebody says. The mind instantly rebels, saying this is nonsense, but over the next few days it returns to the comment repeatedly, like a tongue that keeps returning to tease a loose tooth. We have to understand, through the rebellion, that the Holy Spirit might be revealing a sin in our life to us. We need to establish that it is and then get rid of it immediately, before the mind develops new justifications.
Sins of action are lower level sins, which are easy to give up when we compare them to the sins of the heart that we will be called upon to give up soon. If we cling to these lower level sins by justifying them, this is where our progress in this subject ends. The Holy Spirit will not take us further because He knows it will be a waste of time–the sins of the heart are that much harder to spot and that much easier to justify.
If we do obey, however, we move on to the next level of Purification which is putting an end to the sins of the word. This is normally nightmare territory. The tongue is a creature seemingly with a life of its own and it often runs ahead of the brain, saying things that are hurtful, spiteful, bitter, angry, abusive, caustic–we can add a hundred other adjectives here and they will all describe the miserable things the tongue is capable of. (This is another reason alcohol is detrimental to spiritual growth because whatever fragile control line exists between brain and tongue is simply snapped when one drinks.)
If we have reached this far guided by the Holy Spirit, however, He will lead us into making wise choices in speech. We are likely to make a lot of mistakes on the way as we try to rein in our tongues, but if we try hard enough to be conscious of everything we say, we will eventually succeed. One of the side effects of this success is that we might end up speaking very little, but I figure it is better to be a bad conversationalist than a sinner.
When we have conquered sins of action and sins of word, we come to sins of the heart and discover that we are in a vast new continent, largely unexplored. Pride, selfishness, jealousy, envy, bitterness, hypocrisy, deceit and even worry constitute sins of the heart. They are all sins that drill a hole into one’s soul the longer they’re allowed to live inside of a person, but can be masked so easily on the outside. If it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit this is where we’d dig our spiritual grave, but thanks to Him there is a good chance that we will pass this level too if we make sure that we are totally and brutally honest with ourselves at all times.
These are approximations of purification levels and, as stated earlier, should be used only as a rough indicator of progress.
Level 1–Basic purification:
We put an end to all the obvious sin in our life and destroy all “physical” manifestation of sin. There might be a few weaknesses that persist, but we are aware of them and are working with the Holy Spirit to conquer them. We also put an end to most sins of deed (action). Lapses might be frequent but we repent.
Level 2–Intermediate purification:
We exercise control over our tongues, not lying, gossiping, indulging in slander or other sin of word. There might continue to be major lapses for which we repent. We also purify our surroundings completely, ridding our immediate environment of everything “ungodly”.
Level 3–Advanced purification:
We conquer the sins of the heart like pride, envy, and jealousy. We have excellent control over our thoughts, repelling any sinful thoughts the moment they move from unconscious thought to conscious realization. There might be the occasional lapse for which we repent.
We need to beware of the danger of new sins here: self righteousness, spiritual pride, and spiritual jealousy.
We do not sin with conscious intent. On the very rare occasion that we do slip up, we repent instantly and without attempt at justification. We are ready to move to the University of the Holy Spirit where further education consists of developing virtues, rather than conquering vices.