What is WRONG with you? (Lent 2020 and the Predominant Fault)

To spare you wasting your time I’ll disclaim right off the bat: this sermon is long and didactic and really only applies to people who have something really wrong with them. I mean character-wise. So if that’s not you, feel free to tune out.

But maybe don’t do that too fast. I heard a famous psychologist say from clinical experience that pretty much everybody has some character flaw that’s darn near fatal, something that would quickly wreck their lives if they let it. He wasn’t speaking in a religious context but I related what he said to what I’d been reading in the Catholic tradition, especially books about spiritual direction. It’s about trying to identify and work on your predominant fault.

That term “predominant fault” might sound fancy but it’s a very simple idea: that most of us really have one fault that’s our main problem, that would be really good to diagnose and focus on. Experience as a priest, I’d say, would tend to agree. Even people who are doing really well and have their stuff impressively together, it’s generally still true that there’s something in their character that could ruin their lives very fast if they let it. They aren’t letting it, and that’s why they’re thriving.

So if this is true, it will be bad news to anyone who thinks they’re pretty close to perfect — this brazen suggestion that there might be something really wrong with you. But if you’re like me, it’s a very hopeful and relieving thought. I’d love to think that there’s one big flaw I could really focus on, instead of two or three or thirty.

I think it could also help some of us feel less alone. They look inside and they see that ugly thing, and they look at others who seem to be so much more pure and to have flaws that are so much less ugly. If that’s you, I hope with all my heart that you’ll somehow believe this: the presence of some deep and ugly fault that you’re always having to fight… you aren’t specially twisted. You aren’t an imposter or a hypocrite. And when you know others in whom you don’t see any such ugliness, don’t be discouraged — take heart! They aren’t proving that your flaws are uniquely awful; they’re proving that our flaws can be dealt with and conquered. And I’ll bet you’re handling yours better than you give yourself credit for. There are Christians who think they are bad people because in their struggle to be good they are having to constantly overcome some ugly monster. You beautiful, beautiful child of God… that’s the very definition of a good person.

This predominant fault idea will make more sense with a few concrete examples. These are hypothetical, this is not a public confession! But let’s say I’m examining my conscience, and I go to confession with four things. Let’s say I confess first that I’ve been vain and obsessing too much over my appearance. Second, I can think of some times I lashed out with inappropriate anger. Third, I lied to someone. And fourth, I gossiped, sharing something unflattering about someone else without a compelling reason.

So I’ve confessed four different faults: vanity, dishonesty, anger, and gossip.

Is there an obvious common thread between vanity, dishonesty, anger and gossip? Not really. But this idea of a predominant fault is to look for a deeper problem behind most of them, or maybe even all of them. So I start looking deeper. Why do I obsess over my appearance? Maybe I decide the reason I obsess over appearance is that I’m trying to make people like me. What about the dishonesty, where did that come from? Maybe I think back to why I lied, and it was to make myself look better to others… oh, that’s kind of the same thing. Anger, then… when did I get angry? I realize that what really got to me was the feeling that I was being disrespected or belittled… which is never good, but I took it really hard. Since the pattern is getting pretty clear now, I’ll naturally ask if my gossiping is related. Maybe I realize that, yes, the reason I wanted to blab was that I wanted to be the person with the juicy news, and that too was about wanting to impress and be liked.

So the super clear pattern that’s emerging is that these four faults, which on the surface are so different — vanity, dishonesty, anger, gossip — in this example, they all tend to stem from insecurity about how other people see me. It’s fine to want to be liked, we all want to be liked, but I’ve discovered that my insecurity is wreaking havoc in my life. It’s my predominant fault!

An example with a different confession: Let’s say I got into some unchaste internet trouble, and I’ve been watching too much tv, and eating too much, and having too much to drink.

Is there an obvious common thread between those four? Yes, this time. The predominant fault here might be simple lack of self-control. I can’t say no to whatever urge comes along. My life is being run, and wrecked, by whatever appetite happens to show up at that moment.

On the other hand, I might find that all of those things are coming less from impulsiveness than from boredom. I’ve got nothing filling my life with mission and purpose, and nothing but time on my hands. The old saying about the devil loving idle hands is the story of my life. So I might discern that the root problem is laziness; I get into trouble because I have way too much idleness because I’m lazy.

Just for kicks here’s a third possibility from that same confession: I may realize that I don’t have too much idle time, it’s more that I can’t cope with any amount of it. I’m suffering from that very modern problem of being actually afraid of silence and stillness because I’ve lost the ability to think and pray, and my predominant fault is fear of silence and need for constant distraction.

So there are a few examples; we could multiply them all day. But getting an idea of a predominant fault starts with prayer and examination of conscience. Looking behind your sins like these examples is really helpful. Another clue can be what most preoccupies you, what drives your mood, what most makes you happy and sad?

Here’s a very powerful clue: what criticism are you most sensitive to? Often, your predominant fault is the one thing you absolutely can’t stand being called out on. And while you’re at it, ask your family and closest friends. If you dare. If you’re married, and if you haven’t given much thought to your predominant fault, I guarantee your spouse has.

Now, just to be careful: this isn’t some kind of unbreakable law or Church doctrine. If you decide you really think you have a couple of different root faults and no predominant one, you might be right. And for sure, we don’t want to force everything into this clever little scheme. If I’ve learned that my predominant fault is insecurity, that doesn’t mean that every sin I ever commit has to somehow be traced to that. My examples are very neat and tidy because I made them up that way. In reality we aren’t that simple.

But taken in the right spirit, it’s a powerful idea and I’m offering this “predominant fault” thing as an invitation for a good Lenten focus. Approach it prayerfully and courageously: “Jesus, help me know myself and show me what’s holding me back.” In spiritual life, just as much as in medicine, a correct diagnosis is critical! And in spiritual health as in physical health, it’s a positive revolution to move from merely managing symptoms to healing an underlying disease. This idea could be that same revolution in your soul.

You can do that once you have a good idea of a predominant fault; you can find some good concrete ways to address it. Like for my examples: if my root problem is insecurity, I might start praying the Litany of Humility first thing every morning and focus on letting someone I trust really see my struggles and flaws. If it’s self-control, I can embrace penances and mortifications to practice denying myself and strengthen those self-control muscles. If it’s laziness, I might start an exercise discipline, or find a volunteer opportunity, or a learning project. If it’s that I can’t cope with silence and stillness, my prescription might be to take thirty minutes each evening, half to read the Bible, and the rest to sit in silence. You’ll know you’re getting it right when it seems way harder than it ought to be.

Lent is a perfect time to embrace those kinds of things, and it isn't too soon to start prayerfully planning any projects or penances or disciplines... we’re that close, a week and a half! I hope praying and thinking about this great idea from the Catholic tradition might help you become closer to Christ. Because that’s what this is all about. It’s not about self-helping ourselves to Heaven because that doesn’t work. It’s about you and Jesus working together on your conversion, and working together to overcome any obstacles between you and Him.

Comments

  1. I am working with Jesus and know that I will work harder.

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