Satan tempts us with true goods. In proper measure and fit proportion, in meet circumstance and due season, they would be really good for us.
Sinful acts are expressions of desires that are disordered either with respect to ends or to means, that if properly ordered would serve the Good, and would leave us satisfied in a way that sin cannot, even as they nourished the fullest flourish of our being that our circumstances permit.
For example, God provided us with desires for food and sex. These are true goods, even in the event that they are good adaptations to a fallen world, which we would never have felt were wanting but for the sin of Adam. But when they are perverted from their proper ends or unduly emphasized – whether too much or too little – then they frustrate our proper orientation even to this fallen world, and reduce the beauty it might otherwise produce.
So our desire for sins is due to the fact that they produce results for us that we are engineered to seek. Sex and food are natural and proper to men, and both lust and gluttony produce some of what we are organically designed to need of them. That’s why we engage in them. But perverted acts can’t quite provide to us all the goods that properly ordered acts would, or that we are therefore engineered to feel is sufficient. This is one of the reasons that sinful desires are insatiable. As a restless night of fitful sleep leaves us desperate for true rest, so perverted sex or a poor diet leave us weak, vaguely uncomfortable and desiring more.
We can’t sate our desires by sinning ever more egregiously. If your aim is bad, you can’t hit the target by increasing the force of your shot. But neither can we easily muscle ourselves away from sin altogether, for it does serve us, however ill. Few are strong enough to pass to fullness of life by the road of utter renunciation of all its sublunary foreshadows.
The power and form of sinful desires and their expressions in habit arise in the first place from a basic characterological deformation. We desire ill goods because we ourselves are basically ill. That is how sins get to be besetting – they get a grip on us because our characters are mistakenly formed ab initio, writhen at their roots. Men bewracked wreck all their works, and are to wreckage fit. If our deep characterological deformation is not repaired, our nisus toward our besetting sins will continue unabated, and the more we refrain from sin by an effort of will, the more will we cry out for even such meager satiation as it has furnished us. Such victories as we are able to achieve over sin by dint of our own poor will must then be but temporary, for sin decoheres the person, and puts his will at hopeless war with itself.
To be most efficacious, then, our prayers, and our ascesis, should be directed, not directly against the sinful desires, but toward characterological reformation – toward saintliness. E.g., we ought to pray, not to stop overeating, but simply to be as God wants us to be. We ought not to pray for an end to our sins, for that cannot seem to the sinner anything other than a prayer for an increase of deprivation, a species of evil. To the depraved character, a prayer for chastity is a prayer for a wholly negative, painful outcome. And who wants that? Who deeply desires to increase his discomfort? So before his metanoia, Augustine prayed, “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet.” He was focused, naturally enough, on the loss of the pleasures of sex, so far as he then understood them, rather than on the gain of the pleasures of sanctity, that would transcend the pleasures of sex – or, perhaps, intensify them – but in any case, optimize his overall situation.
Our prayer should be that God might help us order our whole selves properly from their very roots, so that we are holy. What is holiness, and how does one perform it? Who knows how, but the saint? We sinners cannot know just how to be holy, but we can know what holiness is: it is to fulfill the two Great Commandments, which God says are the basis of all law, all order, all wisdom and righteousness. We may aim our prayers aright if we ask simply that we be able to live up to the Summary of the Law. And we don’t need to know ahead of time what that will look like for us, in order to pray for it. We none of us innately know what it feels like to be saints. We none of us naturally know what it is like to love God with all our being. Who knows how to love God, that has not already loved him? Nor do we know what it means to love our neighbours as ourselves. All we know, when we begin, is sinfulness (even if, it being utterly natural to us, we have never understood it as such). Indeed, part of the reason Confession and Absolution are so critical to the spiritual life is that they allow us to let go of our own sins, so that we may stop thinking about them, and so about ourselves. Only when we understand ourselves as washed clean from sin can we even begin to love ourselves truly, let alone our neighbours. Only then, with minds emptied of worry in respect to our own fortunes, may we even begin to turn away from our sins and toward God, so as to love him.
Fortunately, God says that all we need to do is ask him for his grace, and he will provide it. If in prayer we do our best to love God with all our might, and to trust him to provide us with the discernment to see what he would have us do – what, in his omniscience, he sees is best for us, mutatis mutandis – and the courage to do it, then we may be sure that he will make our way clear and strait, and nerve our hearts to the journey ahead.
If we then indeed do what it has in prayer become apparent that we ought to do, and that, were we but sanctified, we would most deeply like to do, we shall reap the hedonic benefits of virtue, and our sinful desires will subside, the organic requirements of our being which they serve having been more completely satisfied by the fruits of righteous acts.
Not that it’s easy. It isn’t. But if we try to wrestle with the devil, we’ll have no time to wrestle with the Lord. We’ll never see our angels, or the ladder by which they descend to us, nor will we ever ourselves ascend it.
We may stop worrying about Satan, then, and all the ways he has dominion over us. We should turn our attention to God, who is after all far, far more dangerous.
It is only right that I should mention that the idea that sins are defective virtues is not mine, at all. It is straight out of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.