How can we avoid sin and grow in the spiritual life? Blessed James Alberione, Founder of the Pauline Family, offers helpful and practical strategies. He encourages us to avoid sin especially by replacing sinful attitudes and behaviors with the opposite virtue. His “take” on spiritual growth includes both dealing with the negative—vigilance in avoiding sin, and the positive—focusing on the virtue we most need to grow in.
Alberione’s integrated way to grow in the spiritual life helps us to acknowledge our sinfulness and do what we can to avoid sin in the future, while not allowing us to stay focused on the sin. Ironically, when we concentrate too hard on avoiding a particular sin, we can actually make it harder because it keeps our attention focused on ourselves and on our weakness. Blessed James encourages us to focus our gaze on Christ and how Christ lived the virtue that we need to acquire. This way, we keep our gaze on Christ, even when we are confronting our own sinfulness:
Our resolutions and real spiritual work should have a negative side and a positive side. For example: fight against pride to replace it with humility; fight against concupiscence of the flesh to replace it with mortification and chastity; fight against avarice and the spirit of ease to replace it with charity and poverty. It is a matter of taking off the old Adam in order to put on the new man, Jesus Christ (cf. Eph. 4:24)
So if we’re struggling with a particular sin that we give in to often, Blessed James offers us this practical strategy: begin to focus on the positive virtue we most need to grow in.
1) Whatever sin we are struggling the most against, we look for the opposite virtue.
2) We read through one of the Gospels and note down passages that show how Christ talked about and lived that particular virtue.
3) Over the next few weeks and months, we pray daily with one of those Gospel passages:
- We read through each passage, reflecting on how Jesus lived the virtue we want to grow in: how did Jesus speak and act? How does this Gospel passage challenge my thinking? Did anything surprise us about Jesus’ words or actions?
- In light of Jesus’ words and example, we examine our conscience daily, especially how we have lived this virtue in the past day: in our thoughts and attitudes, in our choices and actions, and in our desires. We look at both our successes and failures, thanking God for the graces and successes, asking God’s forgiveness for the ways we did not live this virtue.
- We conclude by praying for the grace to grow in this virtue, and in love. What might we need to change so that we can live this virtue as Jesus did? Remembering Christ’s love for us, we stir up our desire and fervor to live more closely united to Christ by growing in this virtue.
4) We can repeat this over time with each of the Gospels, and with the Letters of the New Testament.
We don’t have to wait to become sin-free to discern—or none of us ever would make a discernment!—but we want to be growing into an always fuller life in Christ, so that we can not only listen to God’s invitations, but freely and generously respond to God’s call. Keeping our gaze fixed on Christ is something we want to do at every stage of our discernment!