When we try to root out sin in our lives, it often leaves a vacuum. The reason is simple enough. We sin for a reason. Perhaps we are burdened with painful memories or high stress environments; whatever it may be there is something that is fueling our disordered desires which is not the Holy Spirit. When we simply try to get rid of the sins and the attachments to sin, temptations can seem to double in their intensity. Instead of leaving us, the sin seems to come back with greater intensity.
What we have to learn to do is address not only the sins in our life, but also the underlying causes which prevent us from true flourishing. We often get ourselves into trouble by thinking that growth in the spiritual life is a kind of raw exercise of the will. We think that if we are not drawing closer to our Lord, the problem is that we are not trying hard enough. The answer we come up with is to double our efforts, despite the lack of change we witness.
Instead of focusing exclusively on sin, we also must develop habits which fill the need that was being met. Thus growth in holiness is about learning new ways of thinking and living which are more in line with the will of the Father. I cannot prove this with certainty, but in my life I have found that growth is initiated by a new habit that the Lord inspires in prayer. As this habit begins to take root in my life, I then find the strength to address some disorder within my heart.
In this sense, I have discovered to focus less on trying to conquer a specific sin or attachment, but rather instead waiting for the Lord to inspire a new practice. The emphasis becomes less on sin and more on the promptings of the Spirit. Of course, we still must do a regular examination of conscience and go to confession regularly. In the early stages, we also should pay close attention to avoiding the near occasion of sin. However, as we begin to experience some freedom from sin, growth takes on a new trajectory.
We soon learn that we have to rely less on ourselves and more on the promptings of the Spirit. As strange as this seems, the Spirit, when authentically discerned, always takes us in ways that are consistent with authentic Christian practice. That being said, discernment is not simply about trying to apply as many good things into our life as possible. The Spirit does not lead us to invent new habits, but rather provides the inspiration by which we discover the right time for the right practice. So it is not so much of trying to discern what, but how and when.
So we must be patient and wait for the Spirit’s lead. Instead of trying to create our own roadmap for holiness, we have to learn to let God reveal his roadmap for our lives. In the end, our personal efforts will matter in and as much as they correspond to God’s will.