Letting Go of Affection for Sin

By Ralph Martin 

Ralph Martin is president of Renewal Ministries in Ann Arbor, Michigan and director of graduate programs in the new evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. He is the author of the best-selling The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints. 


I loved studying the teachings of the greatest doctors of the church in the area of spirituality. It took me a long time from starting with John of the Cross and working through all six of the doctors I present in The Fulfillment of All Desire but I can’t tell you how helpful their wisdom has been for my own life and what a valuable resource this book has been for tens of thousands of its readers (and listeners!). I think God gave me the grace to be able to present their teachings in a clear, understandable, orderly way, providing an amazing road map for all of us as we continue on the spiritual journey. Let me, in this short blog, share just one of the many amazing and helpful insights that have meant a lot to many people, including myself. Francis de Sales provides important insight into something he calls “affection for sin.”                     

One of Francis’ most helpful insights is his teaching on the affection for sin. He points out that oftentimes we might turn away from serious sins in our life and try hard not to commit them, but still nurture affection for such sin, which greatly slows down our spiritual progress and disposes us to future falls.

He points out that although the Israelites left Egypt in effect, many did not leave it in affection. They complained to Moses that that greatly missed the leeks, garlic, and melons they had back in Egypt. They had physically left Egypt but the affection for Egypt was still in their hearts and slowed them down greatly on their journey to the Promised Land. The same can be true for many of us. We leave sin in effect, but reluctantly, and look back at it fondly, as did Lot’s wife when she looked back on the doomed city of Sodom.

Francis gives an amusing but telling example of how a doctor, for the purpose of health, might forbid a patient to eat melons lest he die. The patient therefore abstains from eating them, but “they begrudge giving them up, talk about them, would eat them if they could, want to smell them at least, and envy those who can eat them. In such a way weak, lazy penitents abstain regretfully for a while from sin. They would like very much to commit sins if they could do so without being damned. They speak about sin with a certain petulance and with liking for it and think those who commit sins are at peace with themselves.”1

Francis says this is like the person who would like to take revenge on someone “if only he could” or a woman who doesn’t intend to commit adultery but still wishes to flirt. Such souls are in danger. Besides the real danger of falling into serious sin again, having such a “divided heart” makes the spiritual life wearisome and the “devout” life of prompt, diligent, and frequent response to God’s will and inspirations virtually impossible.

What does Francis propose as the remedy for such remaining attachment to the affection for sin? A recovery of the biblical worldview!

Francis himself leads the reader of the Introduction to the Devout Life through ten such meditations on these basic truths, focusing on all we have been given by God and the debt of gratitude we owe Him, the ugliness and horror of sin, the reality of judgment and hell, the great mercy and goodness of Jesus’ work of redemption, the shortness of life, and the great beauty and glory of heaven. Francis believes that there truly is power in the Word of God, and that meditating on the truth can progressively free us from remaining affection for sin.

The saints have a wonderful way of bringing the insight of Scripture into contact with the circumstances of our lives. Teresa of Avila puts it this way:

A great aid to going against your will is to bear in mind continually how all is vanity and how quickly everything comes to an end. This helps to remove our attachment to trivia and center it on what will never end. Even though this practice seems to be a weak means, it will strengthen the soul greatly and the soul will be most careful in very little things. When we begin to become attached to something, we should strive to turn our thoughts from it and bring them back to God—and His majesty helps.2

Francis knows that as long as we’re alive in this body the wounds of original sin and our past actual sins will cause affection for sin to spring up again and again. But it’s our response to this bent of our nature towards sin that is determinative of the progress we make on the spiritual journey. We need to grow in our hatred for sin so we can resist it when it makes its appeals. Catherine of Siena talks of the two-edged sword with which we fight the spiritual battle: one side is hatred for sin; the other is love for virtue.

The vigorous effort that the saints urge us to make in the struggle against sin is firmly grounded in the Scriptures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. (Jas 4:7–10)

May we do so, every time the affection for sin raises its ugly head!

[1] Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life,  Pt. I, Chapter 7.

[2] Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chapter 10, no. 2.

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Ralph Martin's modern classic The Fulfillment of All Desire is a perennial best-seller. Drawing upon the teaching of seven acknowledged Spiritual Doctors of the Church, he presents an in-depth study of the journey to God.