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, and I have learned enough about my fellowmen over the past few months to know that this is not an invalid generalization.
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. Like everything else in the Christian life, this is easier said than done, not least because sins have a habit of blending in the background, much like the dirt on the walls of an unpainted room, the familiarity rendering them invisible. It is only the Holy Spirit who can make them visible to you.
There are, however, certain sins that are clearly obvious, like huge blotches on the wall, and you don’t need the Holy Spirit to point these out to you. Getting rid of these sins is a way of freeing up some space for the Holy Spirit to begin doing His work. It is also a signal of good intent; a way of telling God that you mean business. So, pick all the obvious sins in your life and toss them right out the door. You will have to be ruthless in execution here and utterly determined, because the enemy will throw everything he can at you. And he can throw a lot!
I had decided to clean up my life shortly after I made my first confession in more than two decades. In the absolution that I received after confession, I truly understood the meaning of what Jesus had done for me by dying on the cross and the thought of doing anything more to hurt him was so repugnant I determined never to do anything bad again. It wasn’t enough that I took the decision not to engage in sinful habits; I had to wipe away the physical traces of my sin in my life. It doesn’t help, for instance, to say you are not going to steal anymore when you have dozens of bootleg CD’s in your music collection!
One hot day in July, I systematically smashed, broke, erased, or burned my entire collection of pirated video cassettes, bootleg CD’s, pornography, and everything else I felt was offensive to God. It took me four hours to finish this task. 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 in Purification 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 centres 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 you have an enemy who just doesn’t give up! He is forever waiting for the opportunity to pounce on you. It is hard enough to resist his attacks when the barriers are up. When you are inebriated, your defences automatically go down and you 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 you genuinely seek to grow in Christ, He will take your addictions away. Just ask.
Imagine your soul like this bowl of multi-colored jellybeans. The colored beans are representational of sin, the white ones of the Holy Spirit. Every time you get rid of one of the colored beans, a white bean takes its place. The more white beans in the bowl, the brighter your soul is going to get - and the more powerful. The more powerful your soul, the easier it will be to get rid of the colored beans. And the circle continues until, one day, there are only white beans in the bowl.
Once these hurdles have been eliminated and you have cleansed yourself of the “obvious” sins, the Holy Spirit takes you through the first level of purification. There are a couple of things that you would do well to remember at this point. One is that sin has no hold over you. 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 you succeed in your journey through school so make sure you 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 you, usually through something you read (like this book, perhaps), 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. Understand, through the rebellion, that the Holy Spirit might have been revealing a sin in your life to you. 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 you compare them to the sins of the heart that you will be called upon to give up soon. If you cling to these lower level sins by justifying them, this is where your progress in this subject ends. The Holy Spirit will not take you 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 you do obey, however, you 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 — you 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 you have reached this far guided by the Holy Spirit, however, He will lead you into making wise choices in speech. You are likely to make a lot of mistakes on the way as you try to rein in your tongue, but if you try hard enough to be conscious of everything you say, you will eventually succeed. One of the side effects of this success is that you might end up not speaking very much, but better a bad conversationalist than a sinner, right?
When you have conquered sins of action and sins of word, you come to sins of the heart and you discover that you 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 you’d dig your spiritual grave, but thanks to Him there is a good chance that you will pass this level too if you make sure that you are totally and brutally honest with yourself at all times.
May the Spirit be with you.
These are approximations of purification levels and, once again, are to be used only as a rough indicator of your progress.
Level 1 - Basic purification: You have put an end to all the obvious sin in your life and destroy all "physical" manifestation of sin. There might be a few weaknesses that persist, but you are aware of them and are working with the Holy Spirit to conquer them. You also put an end to most sins of deed (action). Lapses might be frequent. Repent.
Level 2 - Intermediate purification: You exercise control over your tongue, not lying, gossiping, indulging in slander or other sin of word. There might continue to be major lapses. Repent. You also purify your surroundings completely, ridding your immediate environment of everything "ungodly".
Level 3 - Advanced purification: You conquer the sins of the heart like pride, envy, and jealousy. You have excellent control over your thoughts, repelling any sinful thoughts the moment they move from unconscious thought to conscious realization. There might be the occasional lapse. Repent. (Beware the danger of new sins here: self righteousness, spiritual pride, spiritual jealousy.)
Graduate Level: You do not sin with conscious intent. On the very rare occasion that you do slip up, you repent instantly and without attempt at justification. You are ready to move to the University of the Holy Spirit where further education consists of developing virtues, rather than conquering vices. You can also see clearly to pick the splinter from your brothers eye though my advice to you is not to do so unless he asks you to.