“Ask a Priest: Why do humans feel the way they do even when it is sinful?”

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Q: I know people say sins are a choice, which I agree with to an extent. Sometimes I honestly believe people cannot help who they are. For example, I am more predisposed to anxiety, vanity, etc. Yes, I should stop. It is not always that easy. I understand how to stop doing sins in action, but feelings are difficult to control. Does the Bible ever explain this? I honestly feel I cannot help being envious of others at times. Someone in the same position may feel differently, but still that is how I feel. I know it is sinful to get very angry, envious, etc. Why do humans feel the way they do even when it is sinful? -Y.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your question touches on an age-old problem. St. Paul summed up the struggle he felt within himself when he wrote, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

The heart of the problem is original sin. One of the results of the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3) was that human nature was damaged, and just about all of us inherited original sin as a consequence. (The Blessed Virgin Mary by a special grace of God did not inherit it.)

Original sin isn’t what we call an actual sin — it is not something we commit. Rather, original sin is a defect in human nature (see the Catechism, No. 389). Original sin is taken away by baptism, but it leaves an aftereffect. This aftereffect is called concupiscence. It is a tendency to evil. Experience teaches that it is all around us. People more easily lean toward laziness and lying and envy and greed and lust than to hard work and honesty and humility and chastity. It isn’t easy to overcome vices.

In that sense it is understandable that you find yourself prone to anxiety and vanity and anger. You are human and therefore you have a fallen human nature like the rest of us.

Does this mean we should just throw up our hands and give up? No. What it means is that we need to be humble. We need to recognize that we are sinners and that we need God’s help.

And God calls all of us to be holy. Jesus exhorts us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus isn’t expecting us literally to be as perfect as God — only God can be as perfect as God. Rather, Jesus is urging us to strive for perfection as much as possible, counting on his help. “For God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

So where does this leave you? First, if you are aware of your tendency to sin, that is a good start — at least you recognize sin for what it is. What you need to do next is not be satisfied with staying in sin. You need to realize that God is calling you to holiness and that you need to start overcoming your bad habits. This isn’t easy, but God will help you.

Second, be patient! Real growth in virtue takes time, it is gradual. Our Lord hints at this in the Gospel. “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:26-28). Growth in the virtue follows a dual track: our effort (like the farmer) and God’s grace. For grace builds on nature.

Let me add a word about feelings. They are spontaneous, they come and go. And that is why they are a weak basis for anything solid. One goal in the spiritual life is to integrate our feelings and not to let them dictate our lives. We need to bring our will power to bear and to make decisions based on prayer and reflection rather than passing feelings. This takes time but it is doable if we remain humble and persevering in prayer and effort.

So work on your prayer life. Make time for prayer every day, preferably in the morning, at midday and at night, at least. Frequent the sacraments, especially confession.

And try to come up with a program of life. Just as a company has a business plan for the year, so it helps to have a plan for our spiritual life.

The first step is to try to identify our root sin. There are three major root sins: pride, vanity, and sensuality. With pride, we put ourselves first. With vanity, we put other people’s opinions first. With sensuality, we put pleasure first.

Most people have a combination of all three vices, but one usually sticks out. To help identify yours, see this post.

Once you identify your root sin, you want to fight it systematically by drawing up and following a program of life. For more reading click here.

Above all, don’t count yourself short. And don’t underestimate the power of God’s grace. Count on my prayers for you. God bless!

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