Deriving profit from our faults is one of the most important topics in the spiritual life. It is quite certain that, in the designs of God, the faults into which He permits us to fall ought to serve for our sanctification, and that it depends on us to draw this advantage from them.
Nevertheless, it happens, on the contrary, that our faults themselves do us less harm than does the bad use we make of them.
What I have to say on this subject has nothing to do with those cowardly souls who use reserve with God and who wish to belong to Him only up to a certain point. They commit deliberately and knowingly a thousand faults, from which it is impossible to draw any profit, on account of the bad dispositions in which they are. The persons for whom I write are those who have made up their minds never deliberately and with intention to commit a single fault, and who nevertheless do fall into many faults, in spite of their good resolutions, through inadvertence, or on the impulse of the moment, or through weakness.
Do not be surprised or discouraged by your falls
To these persons it generally happens that they are astonished at their faults, that they are troubled by them, that they are ashamed of them, and so are angry with themselves and fall into discouragement. These are just so many effects of self-love, effects far more pernicious than the faults themselves. We are astonished that we should have fallen; but we are quite wrong, and it is a sign that we know nothing whatever about ourselves. We ought, on the contrary, to be surprised that we do not fall much more often and into much more grievous faults, and we ought to give thanks to God for all the falls from which He preserves us. We are troubled every time we discover some fault in ourselves. We lose our interior peace; we are quite agitated, and we occupy ourselves about this fault for hours, or even for whole days.
Now, we ought never to be troubled; but when we see ourselves on the ground, we must raise ourselves up again quietly. At once we must turn to God with love and humility and ask His pardon; and then we must never think about the fault again, until the time comes to accuse ourselves of it in Confession. And even if in Confession we forget it, there is no occasion to be uneasy on that account.
Or again, we are so ashamed of our faults that we hardly dare to tell them to our confessor. “What will he think of me, after so many promises, after so many good resolutions I have made in his presence?” If you declare your faults to him simply and humbly, he will only think the better of you; if you tell them to him with difficulty and reserve, he cannot help taxing you with pride in his own mind. His confidence in you will diminish as he sees that you are not sufficiently open with him.
But the worst of all is this: we are vexed with ourselves; we are angry, as St. Francis de Sales says, at having been angry; we are impatient at having been impatient. What misery! Ought we not to see that this is pride pure and simple; that we are humiliated at finding ourselves, when put to the proof, less strong and less holy than we thought we were; and that we aspire to be exempt from faults and imperfections only so that we may take credit for it and so that we may be able to congratulate ourselves on having passed a day or a week without having anything to reproach ourselves with?
Finally, we grow discouraged. We give up all our practices of piety, one after the other. We give up prayer; we regard perfection as impossible, and we despair of ever attaining it. What is the use, we ask, of restraining ourselves, of watching continually over ourselves, of giving ourselves up to recollection and mortification, when we grow no better, when we correct nothing and are always falling afresh?
Now, this is one of the most subtle snares of the Devil. And do you wish to be preserved from it? Then you must never be discouraged, no matter into how many faults you fall; but you must say to yourself, “If I should fall twenty times, a hundred times, a day, I will get up again every time, and I will go on my way.” What will it matter, after all, how many times you have fallen on the way if you reach your journey’s end safely at last? God will not reproach you.
Often our very falls come from the rapidity of our course and because the ardor that impels us scarcely gives us time to take certain precautions.
Those timid and overly cautious souls who always wish to see where they are putting their feet, who are always turning out of the way to avoid making a false step, and who are dreadfully afraid of contracting the least stain will not advance half so fast as the other, more generous souls, and death often overtakes them before their course is run. It is not those who commit the fewest faults who are the holiest, but those who have the most courage, the most generosity, and the most love, who make the greatest efforts, and who are not afraid of stumbling a little, or even of falling and staining themselves a little, provided they can always advance.
Our faults can lead us closer to God
St. Paul says that “all things work together for good to them that love God.” Yes, everything is for their good, even their faults, and sometimes even their grave faults. God permits those very faults to cure us of vain presumption, to teach us what we really are and of what we are really capable. David confessed that the adultery and murder of which he was guilty had served to keep him in a continual distrust of himself. “It is good for me,” he said to God, “that Thou hast humbled me; I have been more faithful in keeping Thy commandments.”
The fall of St. Peter was for him the most useful of lessons, and the humility with which it inspired him disposed him to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to become the Head of the Church, and they preserved him from the dangers of so eminent a position. St. Paul, in the great success of his apostolate, preserved himself from pride and vainglory by remembering how he had once been a blasphemer and a persecutor of the Church of God. And more than this, a humiliating temptation, from which God would not deliver him, served as a balance to the sublimity of the revelations granted to him.
If God was able to draw such an advantage from even the greatest sins, who can doubt that He will make our daily faults serve for our sanctification? Many masters of the spiritual life have remarked that God often leaves in the most holy souls certain defects, from which, notwithstanding all their efforts, they cannot free themselves entirely, to make them feel their own weakness and what they would be without His grace, to hinder them from being proud of the favors He grants them, and to dispose them to receive these favors with more humility — in short, to nourish in them a certain disgust with themselves, and so to protect them against all the snares of self-love; to animate their fervor and keep them in a constant state of watchfulness, of trust in God and perseverance in prayer. The child who falls when he has gone a little way from his mother and wishes to walk alone, returns to her with more affection, to be cured of the hurt he has given himself, and he learns by that fall to leave her no more. The experience of his own weakness, and of the tenderness with which his mother received him, makes him love her more than ever.
Faults can be occasions for practicing virtue
The faults that happen to us often give us occasion for great acts of virtue, which we certainly would not have had the opportunity of practicing without them; and God allows these faults with that intention. For instance, He permits a flash of ill-natured sarcasm, an act of rudeness, or a lively impatience so that we may at once make an act of humility that abundantly satisfies for our fault and the scandal it may have given.
The fault was committed on the impulse of the moment, but the act of reparation is made with reflection, with an effort over ourselves, with a full and deliberate will. This is an act that pleases God much more than the fault displeased Him.
God also makes use of our faults and apparent imperfections to conceal our sanctity from the eyes of others and to procure for us humiliations from them.
God is a great and wise Master. Let Him do as He likes; He will not fail in His work. Let us make up our minds carefully to avoid everything that can displease Him the least in the world. But if we should fall into any fault, let us be sorry on His account and not on our own. Let us love the humiliation into which this fault throws us; let us beg of God to draw from our humiliation His glory. He will do this and, by this means, will advance us far more than by a life apparently more regular and holy, but which would destroy our self-love less efficaciously.
When God asks of us to do certain things, let us never draw back on the pretense of fearing the faults we may commit in executing His wishes. It is better to do good, even with imperfection, than to omit it. Sometimes we do not administer a necessary correction because we are afraid of doing it with too much severity, or we avoid associating with certain persons because their faults try us so much and make us feel so impatient and irritable. But how shall we acquire virtue if we fly from the occasions of practicing it? Is not such a flight a greater fault than the faults we fear to fall into?
Let us take care only to have a good intention; then let us go wherever duty calls us, and let us be sure that God is kind enough and indulgent enough to pardon us all the faults to which His faithful service and the desire of pleasing Him may expose us.
image: San Clemente mosaic, Rome/ Shutterstock
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Fr. Grou’s The Spiritual Life, available from Sophia Institute Press.