ASK FATHER: How to break the bondage of bad habits, vices?

From a priest:

QUAERITUR:

Father, you stated:

“Create a vacuum and something else will rush in to fill it. Think
of this in our human, lived experience. If you have a bad habit, you will more than likely never break it, unless you replace it with a good habit.” I have been contemplating this very thing for a long time now. In regards to Confession.

I admit my seminary training was lacking but guiding a penitent in this situation was never discussed in any specific detail in any of my classes (that I recall) and I have not seen anything written about this….how does an individual deeply rooted in habitual sin – who confesses regularly – break out of that bondage?

This is currently a huge problem with sexual sins in our country and maybe around the world and I feel at a loss when I tell penitents to “do this…” or “do that…” but those chains seems unbreakable. (This or that being Rosary, Scripture, Holy Hours, Fasting etc…).

I don’t know how well they do these things or if they do them at all ( they say they do).

Would you be able to recommend a source for how to guide a penitent with this kind of problem. I feel like I am not helping them because  they are not progressing in conquering these habitual sins.

Thanks, Father.

Look, I’m a simple guy and a sinner.  I don’t get real fancy when it comes to these things.  Sure, fasting… yeah.  All that stuff.   As Nelson said, “Damn the maneuvers! Go straight at ’em!”

It seems to me that keeping it simple is a good approach.

If you can get a penitent to start thinking about the patterns of behavior he has that leads to sin X, then you can suggest a concrete approach.  Make a plan.

“The next time I start thinking about doing sin X, instead – right away – I’m going to go outside and scrub an oil stain out of the driveway.”   “The next time, I’ll clean and defrost the refrigerator.” “I’ll [FILL IN SOME HUMBLE MANUAL TASK.]”

For example, when you find you are starting to think about doing sin X, kick the pre-determined and contemplated plan into action.  Do that instead of the sin.   Repeat when necessary.

For language, make a list of specific words you will use instead of words or phrases you shouldn’t use.  Then, consciously, start using them.  Get into the new vocabulary so that it, instead of the F-word pops out automatically, one of the List-Words pops out.

You have to make a plan and then implement it.  Do this often enough, and, when you also avoid occasions of sin, you can get hold of the bad habit and diminish it.

A concrete example: I use to misplace my keys all the time.  Eventually I got tier of looking for my keys like a dope.   I broke the bad habit by replacing it with a planned action.  I started putting my keys in the refrigerator.   That was such a weird place to put them, that I remembered where they were.  Eventually, I got over just putting them down anywhere, and regularly put them in a non-refrigerated place.  Problem solved.

Another example, I know a priest who determined that his word for sudden shock or pain would be “Carumba!”.   Indeed, that’s now the word that slips out when he grabs something too hot to handle and burns himself.

Also, say prayers often during the day to Mary, St. Joseph and your Angel.  I do mean often.  Establish the good habit of quiet and even rapid private prayer in moments during the day, along, of course with Angelus, etc.   That can put the breaks on sudden temptations.  Often.  Really fast prayers, even just a couple of words!  Often.

Moreover….

GO TO CONFESSION!

One of the effects of the Sacrament of Penance, along with forgiveness of sins, is strengthening against temptations and sins.   It makes you stronger.

Remember that grace builds on nature, it doesn’t replace nature.  We have to do our part with elbow grease so that the grace can build.

I tell people who are not in the habit of examining their consciences every day, to do so when they brush their teeth at night.  It’s an activity that you don’t omit – I hope – and it is such a mundane contrast that you remember to do it (see aforementioned refrigerator).

Don’t get all fancy and pious.  Just suggest commonsense and concrete things with a little pious thrown in for good graces.

Once progress is made and some victories are attained, then elaborate.

And… hammer this home.  To mix metaphors, don’t candy-coat it.

“Friend, you have a bad habit here.  It’s going to be hard to replace it and the Enemy and your own interior weakness from Original Sin are going to fight you.  When you say “No’ to yourself, you are going to begin to suffer.   If it’s a really rooted vice, you will suffer more and more.   Plan on it.   You have to be willing to suffer. Be aware ahead of time so that you will know what your PLAN is to face the suffering.  Maybe it will be a cold shower or more manual tasks.  Maybe gazing at a crucifix and kissing Jesus’ feet over and over.   You have to PLAN for the suffering and then plan NOT to come down from the Cross the Lord is sharing with you.  Be ready for it and it won’t surprise you, bad as it is.   Stay on that Cross.”

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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16 Responses to ASK FATHER: How to break the bondage of bad habits, vices?

  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    Suggested by a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, whose motto is “Begin Again”.

    From http://www.catholictradition.org/Joseph/litany9a.htm :

    Saint Joseph Litanies: Litany 1

    The Litany of Saint Joseph
    For public or private use.
    Lord, have mercy on us.
    Christ, have mercy on us.
    Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, hear us.
    Christ, graciously hear us.
    God the Father of Heaven,
    Have mercy on us.
    God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
    Have mercy on us.
    God the Holy Spirit,
    Have mercy on us.
    Holy Trinity, One God,
    Have mercy on us.
    Holy Mary, pray for us .
    Saint Joseph, pray for us.
    Illustrious son of David, etc.
    Light of the patriarchs,
    Spouse of the Mother of God,
    Chaste guardian of the Virgin,
    Foster-father of the Son of God,
    Watchful defender of Christ,
    Head of the Holy Family,
    Joseph most just,
    Joseph most chaste,
    Joseph most prudent,
    Joseph most valiant,
    Joseph most obedient,
    Joseph most faithful,
    Mirror of patience,
    Lover of poverty,
    Model of workmen ,
    Glory of domestic life,
    Guardian of virgins,
    Pillar of families,
    Solace of the afflicted,
    Hope of the sick,
    Patron of the dying,
    Terror of demons,
    Protector of Holy Church,
    Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
    Spare us, O Lord.
    Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
    Graciously hear us, O Lord.
    Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
    Have mercy on us.
    V. He made him the lord of His household,
    R. And prince over all His possessions.
    Let Us Pray.
    O God, Who in Thine ineffable providence didst choose Blessed Joseph to be the spouse of Thy most Holy Mother, grant that as we venerate him as our protector on earth, we may deserve to have him as our intercessor in Heaven, Thou Who livest and reignest forever and ever. R. Amen.

    See also http://www.ibreviary.com/m/preghiere.php?tipo=Preghiera&id=216

    FOR THE GRACE OF PURITY

    Saint Joseph, father and guardian of virgins, to whose faithful keeping Christ Jesus, innocence itself, and Mary, the virgin of virgins was entrusted, I pray and beseech you by that twofold and most precious charge, to save me from all uncleanness, to keep my mind untainted, my heart and body pure in my vocation; and to help me always to serve Jesus and Mary in perfect purity. Amen.

    ******

    There is a nine day Novena to St. Joseph, at:

    https://www.americaneedsfatima.org/The-Saints/nine-day-novena-to-st-joseph.html

    This Novena is intended to be prayed March 11-March 19, but can be prayed at any time.

    From https://www.omvusa.org/about-us/ :

    “Even if I should fall a thousand times a day, a thousand times I will get up again and say Nunc Cœpi–Now I begin.”
    Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri

    From https://www.amazon.com/Begin-Again-Spiritual-Legacy-Lanteri/dp/0824525795 :
    Begin Again: The Life and Spiritual Legacy of Bruno Lanteri, by Rev. Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.

    Bestselling author Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV, assembles a remarkable biography of Father Bruno Lanteri, who while living within a context of exciting historical significance—with the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the Bourbon Restoration reshaping France all around him—overcame great odds to become the foremost spiritual leader of the age, ultimately founding the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. Drawn from Lanteri’s own journals, letters, and correspondence, Gallagher offers a detailed spiritual portrait of a man once limited by his own impatience and lack of charity, who evolved into a man of fierce spiritual courage, religious reformer, defender of the Pope against Napoleon’s command, and a symbol of perseverance who coined the term “begin again”—the official motto of the Oblates. Complemented by a timeline of historical events, photographs, and maps, Gallagher’s richly researched volume brings to light the ministry and legacy of a remarkable leader as never before.

  2. JSzczuka says:

    Thank You! Just what I needed! I will post here in a few days with results. :)

  3. Ron Van Wegen says:

    I say, “Without You I Can’t, With You I Can”, and then believe it. Rinse and Repeat. It ain’t magic just trust. The reward is peace.

  4. UncleBlobb says:

    St. Augustine in his commentary on Psalm 54 recommends meditating on Our Lord Jesus Christ’s sufferings as a solution, and it seems to me as though it is a helpful solution in fighting temptations as well.

  5. Kennedy says:

    A few years back, when I confessed to swearing too much, Fr. Ernesto suggested praying St. Faustina’s prayer “Lord, for the sake of Thy Passion, have mercy on me” when the annoyance that made me explode in swear words came on. I tried it, and a couple of days later, my wife asked me why I’d stopped swearing. Just a bit of testimony to back up your suggestions. Now, if only I can try to persuade my wife to follow your suggestion over the keys, then a further cause of annoyance might be removed!

  6. AndyMo says:

    Thanks for this (both Fr. Z and the original comment). This is a struggle for so many men (and probably women, too, but I’m just speaking from my own experience).

    I’ve also found that avoiding the near occasion of sin is no joke. If your tablet causes you to sin, throw it out. For me, I found that I was weakest when I was very tired or stressed. It was as simple as getting to bed a little earlier. That probably doesn’t work for everyone, but if it helps even one other person out there, give it a try.

  7. CanukFrank says:

    Thank you, Fr.Z! I go to the gym. I love working out. Could I do it at home? Could I find an alternative? Certainly, but at the cheap price I pay for the services available? No question. Getting into my car, driving to the gym, changing, warming up and then spending 45 minutes in intense physical activity, pushing my comfort level, testing my personal limits? I couldn’t do that at my home because it’s too busy.

    However, at the gym people dress questionably, skimpily and revealingly. Solution? Baseball cap with brim pulled down. Real. Low. I’m not at the gym to chit-chat, gossip or waste my time. I am there to work out. I think ahead, I don’t give a second glance at what I see. I don’t DWELL on what I’ve seen. I work out and then get the heck out of there. Be proactive, plan ahead and have ‘controls’ in place to ensure you don’t get into either remote or immediate “occasions of sin”. Free will, gotta love it!

  8. Gab says:

    “You have to PLAN for the suffering and then plan NOT to come down from the Cross the Lord is sharing with you.”

    And plan to offer that suffering up to God or Our Lady who will use it for the glory of God, for our priests, for conversion of sinners, for the Grace of a holy death etc.

    God doesn’t need our suffering but the will to suffer for the love of Him can bring many Graces.

    (Just my 2 cents’ worth).

  9. scholastica says:

    Thank you for the sage, yet practical, advice.
    One of the few memories that I have of my mother, who died in my childhood, was her creative use of expletives. I never heard her say a bad word; instead, she used vegetables that she didn’t like. Brussell sprouts and succotash were evidently her least favorite and thus, vegetables I never ate. Rather than the frequently used side dish of today, in our home, “brussell sprouts” was considered a four-lettered word!

  10. Fr_Andrew says:

    In addition to everything you suggest I typically have a man with sexual sins, especially the frequent pornography and masturbation problem, realize that it all starts with thoughts. It all begins with internal sins, and those take hold when men do not have active things to fill the time with or distract themselves.

    The devil loves to distract us when we try to do well. Use that same weapon against him. When he proposes an impure thought (which we willfully accepted and entertained is already a grave sin), it’s time to give him a taste of his own medicine. Occupy the time and the mind.

    When the habit is very bad, and this does not work, the next step is to have the men consider the occasions of sin. If they have the problem, there is no reason to have a phone with WiFi or data, or a computer or anything with which they can fall into sin in any private location. Occasionally I’ve threatened a refusal of absolution unless they dump the smart phone and invest in a dumb phone. A few times I’ve bought it for them and left it in a place they could get it (without revealing their identity) and leave their smart phone so I could destroy it for them. I’ve developed several techniques of making “smart” phones brain dead, all quite enjoyable.

    For most, if the occasions are put far away, and they are reminded to fight at the first instance, and no matter what the devil proposes, if they keep up the fight they have no fallen into grave sin, will solve the problem enough to get some good habits built.

  11. Diana says:

    This is a great post! I love all the suggestions for alternative swear words, too! I do struggle with that–it’s one of my more persistent habitual sins–but I now feel a renewed vigor, and I have a plan, to combat that one, with HIS help, of course! @Scholastica, your post brought a huge smile to my face! I think I’m going to steal that idea from your mother!

  12. The original Mr. X says:

    Fr. Longenecker has some good ideas on using imagination to purify imagination:

    https://dwightlongenecker.com/using-prayer-to-purify-your-mind/

  13. jkarpilo says:

    For men, I *highly* recommend Exodus 90 (https://exodus90.com/). It was developed by Father Brian Doerr and seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and provides a concrete plan of action to break free from the slavery of our sins with 90 days of prayer, asceticism, and fraternity. I went through it with a group of men from our parish leading up to Easter (we timed it so that our Day 90 was on Holy Saturday) and for the first time since I was probably a teenager, I’m not going to confession for the same sins over and over (yes, now I have a bunch of new ones!)

  14. FrAnt says:

    When Cardinal Daneels died Michael Voris as the question, “Was it worth it?” Was it worth leading souls away from God? When tempted I ask myself, “Is it worth losing heaven and the glory of God for eternity?” It’s been working, others might give it a try.

  15. DebbieInCT says:

    Fr. Z. thank you for this post, it has been very helpful to me….and your last paragraph is superb – I’ve printed it out and put it in various places so I can be reminded of it multiple times… two places I put it specifically – this computer and the refrigerator :)

  16. Contra_Mundum says:

    A certain Franciscan priest recommends the following:

    1) Receive Holy Communion every day – only if you are in the state of grace.

    2) Practice devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary by:

    a) Consecrating yourself to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    b) Praying the Rosary daily for purity.

    c) Saying three Hail Mary’s daily, on your knees and with your hands under your knees, for purity.

    d) Wearing the Brown Scapular.

    e) Calling on Our Lady immediately when tempted, St. Alphonsus says that it is an infallible sign you will not fall.

    f) Praying that the Blessed Virgin Mary will grant you the efficacious grace of having a deep hatred for sins of impurity, and that you would rather die in the state of grace than ever commit a mortal sin.

    3) Pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary to find a steady, faithful confessor who can help, and go to him every week.

    4) Meditate on one of the Four Last Things every day: Death, Judgement, Heaven and hell.

    5) Practice the presence of God at all times. He knows every thought and deed you do, and can strike you dead in your sins.

    6) Avoid all occasions of sin. Avoiding everything that cuts us off from God’s friendship: television, internet pornography, bad company, etc.

    7) Exercise temperance in food and drink. Practice interior and exterior penance.

    8) Dress modestly.

    9) Avoid idleness.

    10) Practice custody of the eyes.

    https://www.catholicfamilynews.org/blog/2017/12/15/remedies-for-impurity

    It seems like a lot, but this battle is serious.