Connoisseurs of early 90s sitcoms can easily identify the nasal refrain of Steve Urkel. For those who aren’t as familiar, Urkel was an awkward but lovable boy who got into frequent laugh-track-inducing mischief, to which he frequently responded with the famous phrase, “Did I do that?” (Here’s a two-minute refresher of every such moment.)
Often enough, the moment of comic destruction was preceded by a fit of confidence from Urkel, or a lack of awareness concerning his surroundings, or else a lack of foresight with regard to consequences. Sometimes it was just clumsiness.
In the Christian life, progressing from virtue to virtue, height to ever-ascending height is important and necessary.
As important as this aspect of growth in the spiritual life is, though, it’s worth recalling a couple other things as well: first, all the good we do is rooted in God’s grace, not our natural abilities; second, if you do fall, don’t panic.
It’s important to know God will never force us to fall. St. Paul writes, “God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13). Nevertheless, he does sometimes allow us to go out on our own to see that we are not strong enough to avoid falling.
When we have spiritual pride, we begin to take our success in the life of grace and virtue as an indication of our own spiritual power. However, the only power we have is weakness (see 2 Cor 12:9), and our boasting should only be in the Cross of our Savior, who picked up mankind after he had fallen.
When the serious Christian falls, he can say to himself, “Did I do that?” He thought he was strong, he thought that he was making progress. Then, all of a sudden, “Wham!” he takes a serious fall. This can be especially difficult for the one who had been converted from strong habits of sin. The “sobriety” can last a long time—several years even—but then the demon comes back and trips up the overconfident Christian.
This fall will lead to some self-examination, perhaps even doubt. “Maybe it was all fake. Who was I fooling? I guess this was a waste of time. I better go back to my old ways.”
For one who is less acclimated to sin, it’s tempting to think, “Am I the kind of person who does this? I am so embarrassed. No one can know about this. I am dirty.”
At this point, the examples of the Apostles Peter and Judas come in to help us. After they both failed the Lord at his Passion, they most likely asked themselves a version of Urkel’s poignant self-examination, “Did I, Jesus’s trusted follower, just do that, that wicked thing I hate?”
As we all know, the Judas-answer to Urkel’s question is to identify himself with his sin. To keep it private. To panic.
The Peter-answer is to remain close to the Church, to run and look for Jesus, to be found by him and confess love for him repeatedly.
So how does a Christian avoid falling victim to spiritual pride?
Be aware of surroundings
A wise Dominican priest once said, “You think you are strong? You are not strong.” Do not think that progress in virtue has made you invincible. If you used to struggle with cheesecake gluttony in the past, stay away from certains stores or websites that can trigger temptations.
Be aware of the consequences of certain actions. When Urkel got behind the wheel of a car for the first time, he lost control. When his adult neighbor Carl Winslow in the passenger seat tells him to calm down, Urkel responds: “I’m behind the wheel of my very own car! I can’t calm down, I’m too excited. I’m in Urkel overdrive!”
Don’t get in Urkel overdrive! It’s humbling to accept our own limits, but critically important. For some, playing sports is such a near occasion for rage and violence that they should just remain on the sidelines. For others, sitting in a coffee shop or friend’s living room during the day leads invariably to gossip. It’s not easy to avoid these situations, but know thyself!
No one can handle every situation. That’s okay. Know your limits. Often our vicious habits have triggers that lead down the wrong path. Less triggers, less falls. Simple.
Get a friend
Nothing can replace a true friend to help you with your limits, give you good advice when necessary, be there for you if you fall. “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter” (Sirach 6:14). Even more important than having great friends who are fellow travellers is accepting God’s call to be his friend. He doesn’t need you, but he’s not too cool for you either. Just ask him to be there in times good and bad.
Let yourself be helped after a fall
Finally, after a fall, don’t hide like Adam, Eve, and Judas. Be like Peter and respond to Jesus’s offer of reconciliation and companionship. Don’t let the legitimate shame and regret that accompany sin become bigger than they need to be. A little bitter taste is alright, so is legitimate sorrow. Nevertheless, God wants us to be happy forever with him, and that always begins now. Thank him daily for the gift of the sacrament of penance, by which we are healed and know that we are healed.
So after a fall, say, “Yes, I did that. And I am sorry. But may God still receive me.” (Applause)
Image: Rembrandt, The Denial Of Peter (detail)